The Guardian • Issue #2094

An Australian Pacific Battalion: mutual defence or imperialist domination?

Australian Defence Force Signaller during Talisman Sabre 2011 at Shoalwater Bay.

Australian Defence Force Signaller during Talisman Sabre 2011 at Shoalwater Bay. Photo: Public Domain

A report, Regional security and Pacific partnerships, has just been published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). One of this right-wing think tank’s major roles is to advise and report to the Australian government. The subtitle of the report is significant, as it its ‘advice.’ It reads, recruiting Pacific islanders into the Australian Defence Force.

Regardless of how such an idea may be spun, the fact is that we are looking at a dangerous development and one aimed at tightening Australia’s grip on the region. It also presupposes that Australia and the Pacific-Island Countries (PICS) have a real need to engage in a program of escalating militarism. This is clearly false.

The report’s authors, Bec Shrimpton and Zach Lambert acknowledge that the demand for additional troops for the Australian military cannot be easily met, and so put forward three arguments for drawing Pacific islander recruits into the Australian military.

The options include: direct recruitment from the Pacific region, closer integration between Australian and Pacific-island forces; or a move to US-style ‘compacts of free association.’

The three ‘options’ are not merely flawed, but represent an Australian push to further increase its power in the Pacific. The Australian ruling class is deeply concerned about China’s involvement in the Pacific, and the benefits that are to be derived for the Pacific Island economies. China, of course, has been designated the enemy. Logically, therefore, Australia as a partner in the US attempts to diminish China, must play an increasing role. In this case that means a direct military role, one that keeps the ‘Pacific family’ well and truly in its place.

The first proposal involves the direct recruitment of troops from Pacific Island states. This might be able to be sold as a way of filling the recruitment gap from among an Australian working class that is unwilling to put on a uniform and act as cannon fodder. The problem is that it can easily be seen for the appalling notion that it is. Australia would be creating a mercenary force willing to fight for the dominant imperialist nation. It would be akin to a 21st century ‘blackbirding’ operation.

The second idea is to “integrate” the military forces of the countries in the region. This is presented as establishing a ‘Pacific Battalion.’ While option one is blatantly neo-colonialist and dominated by Australian imperialism, option two is really no better. It would be a very poor bet to suggest that this battalion would not be controlled by Australia.

The third possibility is the even more openly imperialist ‘compacts of free association’ idea. This would closely resemble the model employed by the USA. This approach has reduced the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia to the status of vassal states and their populations robbed of anything remotely resembling autonomy.

The authors’ and ASPI’s preferred option is the creation of a ‘Pacific Battalion.’ This promotes the fiction that Australia would not be the dominating, imperial player. The report admits that direct recruitment into the Australian military smacks of neo-colonialist power. Such an admission is designed to give the preferred option an aura of independence, but it’s an aura that’s very easy to see through.

Several Pacific states do not currently have formal standing armies. Any ‘integration’ of armies, becomes an obvious exercise in manipulation and control.

The report is the work of the warmongers of ASPI, but has been instigated by the Australian government. The report’s authors claim that they are responding to significant issues arising from the Government’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review. The Review states that the Australian military must grow by 30 per cent by 2040. That’s a big ask. Australian working-class youth are showing no particular inclination to join the army.

To compound this obvious problem is the call to effectively militarise key sectors of Australian industry. To find the skilled workforce needed to build and maintain the AUKUS madness is all but impossible to imagine.

The Defence Strategic Review calls for the biggest shift in military policy since the end of WW2. In line with American anti-China thinking, the Review calls for an “impactful projection” of force across the Indo-Pacific region.

Projection of force comes at a cost. Pro-war governments can always find the dollars but getting feet into boots is another matter. Matt Keogh, Minister for Defence Personnel, remarked in early 2024 that, “we are certainly looking at all opportunities that we need to look at in terms of how we can grow our Defence Force and that includes looking at how we might be able to grow it from friendly forces.”

Keogh’s concerns are littered with dangerous contradictions. He is “looking” for ways to grow an army that can project force in an “impactful” manner across the region. This has nothing to do with defence, but is entirely offensive in character. He is also keen to see this offensive capacity bolstered by “friendly” forces within the region. These same friendly forces would be co-opted into a military whose national interests they do not share. It is quite a task to sell such an idea.

Enter ASPI. The report presents an unworkable plan that the Minister and the rest of Cabinet believe they can sell to the public as best serving the national interests of Australia.

What is particularly disturbing in all this is the fact that these characters seem to believe that militarising the region is somehow in Australia’s national interest. The ‘con’ can only work if the public first buy the lie that there is a China threat. If this works, then a military buildup can be considered. If a buildup idea can be sold, then a 21st century imperialist ‘blackbirding’ operation can be established. This can only be done if imperialist Australia can convince people in Australia and in the Pacific that it is acting in the best interests of the Pacific ‘family.’

All of this, it must be remembered, needs a compliant Pacific Island community who are happy to place their people and their independence in very real jeopardy. Many Pacific Island leaders have already said that they neither have, nor want enemies. The Australian government seems hell bent on forcing these states to take sides and to make enemies.

What is ASPI?

Tim Logow

If you consume news in any form, you will hear the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI (not to be confused with the Asia Society Policy Institute) cited as though it is official, impartial, and objective. Is it?

ASPI calls itself “an independent, non-partisan think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders.”

ASPI was established by the Howard Liberal/National government in 2001. It gets funding from the Department of Defence, as well as from ‘corporate members.’ These include Serco, and arms companies such as Thales, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.

Executive Director Justin Bassi was chief of staff for Liberal Marise Payne when she was Foreign Affairs Minister. Bassi was moved into the job of executive director over the preferred candidate as a “captain’s call” by Peter Dutton when he was Defence Minister.

ASPI has collaborated with far-right Israeli think-tank, the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, some of whose leading lights have called for ISIS to be left in power so it could fight with other Islamists, as well as promoting the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy of periodic attacks on the West Bank.

Closer to home, a collection of ASPI ‘experts’ collaborated on a Nine newspapers call to war in 2023. Over three days and nine pages, the special feature argued for compulsory military service and for placing nuclear missiles on Australian soil (providing the US didn’t mind).

When it comes to increased arms funding and Sinophobia, ASPI is bi-partisan. They don’t mind who’s in power here as long as it’s a party that supports militarisation, the arms industry, and Sinophobia, and funds ASPI’s lobbying from our taxes.

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