A report in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) has raised several issues affecting Australia’s defence and foreign policies, in particular as those policies relate to China, our largest trading partner by a significant margin.
The newspaper report follows an address to the Lowy Institute by Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command. In the course of his address, Admiral Harris revealed that he had signed an agreement with Australia for the hoisting of US “military assets” including the F22 Raptor fighter, whose presence “will send a strong signal about the US military presence in the region.”
Australia’s role, apart from having marines and other “military assets” which bolster the alliance, was “akin to a stationary aircraft carrier.” Admiral Harris said that the US and Australia faced “significant challenges…….posed by a revanchist Russia and an increasingly assertive China.”
The following day’s edition of the SMH quoted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who along with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had met with the Admiral the preceding Wednesday as accusing China of “creating an environment of tension and mistrust” after satellite imagery appeared to indicate that China had placed anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on artificial islands created in the South China Sea.
Unnamed ‘strategic analysts’ saw Northern Australia as vital territory because “it is mostly out of range of China’s ballistic missiles, and is at the fulcrum of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”
In neither article was there any questioning of either the factual claims or the assumptions underlying the strategic policies. Australia was assumed in effect to continue its long-standing role as the US poodle in south-east Asia regardless of any consideration as to whether that role was actually in Australia’s national interests. A further implicit assumption was that this role was risk free.
Those assumptions and policies are overdue for a critical examination, although it would be unwise to assume that any such appraisal will appear in the mainstream media. I will leave to one side the curious fact that a military officer can sign such an agreement that the Admiral referred to, and that such significant agreements can be entered into by Australia without any public or parliamentary debate being considered necessary.
We are told that the presence of the Raptor fighters and other ‘military assets’ will “show strength and deter aggression in the region.”
Quite who is likely to be aggressive in the region is not specified, although the remarks read as a whole and Bishop’s subsequent comments clearly imply that China is the subject matter to be “deterred”. The Australian mainstream media are never going to mention the fact that the “aggressor in the region” over the past 70 years has been the United States.
That aggression in the region includes, but is not limited to, the Korean War (still with no peace treaty signed with North Korea); the Vietnam War that killed at least three million Vietnamese and devastated not only Vietnam but also neighbouring Laos and Cambodia and left environmental disasters that remain to this day; and a coup in Indonesia that killed more than half a million, mostly ethnic Chinese, courtesy of a CIA supplied kill list.
According to Julie Bishop, China’s stationing of anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on man-made islands in the South China Sea “creates an environment of tension and mistrust.” That these systems have a clearly defensive role can never be mentioned.
If one is being ‘defensive’ then the obvious question, again never asked, is defensive against whom? The only realistic answer to that question is the US.
Quite apart form the not so implicit threats in Admiral Harris’s reported remarks, it is the US that has a massive ring of military bases established on China’s periphery. According to some estimates there are as many as 400 such bases (John Pilger On the Coming War with China, New Internationalist December 2016). Even if that number includes an elastic definition of ‘bases’ it is not disputed that there are significant US military bases in Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam, South Korea, Afghanistan and Australia among other places.
All of these bases have the intent of encircling and ‘containing’ China. Such containment is the major objective of the Obama/Clinton inspired ‘pivot to Asia’ announced in 2011. Australia is clearly intended to play a central role in that containment policy.
The world’s self-perceived sole superpower, exercising what their own documents describe as “full spectrum dominance” (Department of Defence Vision 2020, 2002) does not tolerate the emergence of competing centres of power and influence. A similar policy has been pursued by the US with regards to Russia with US military bases now on Russia’s land borders.
To Australia, the justification for being included in this policy is a “revanchist Russia” and an “increasingly assertive” China. The OED defines ‘revanchist’ as ‘a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory.’ The Australian media does not question Harris’s claim with respect to Russia. The complete absence of any evidence to actually support such a claim is apparently not a bar to policy formulation.
Crimea is not an exception. Russia did not ‘seek to recover’ Crimea. The citizens of that peninsula voted overwhelmingly (90+%) to rejoin the Russian Federation of which it had been a part for centuries until 1954 when Khrushchev ‘gifted’ it to Ukraine without consultation with the Crimeans. The Crimeans desire to rejoin the Russian Federation followed an American organized and financed coup d’état against the legitimate Ukrainian government in February 2014. But again such analysis is not permitted in the Australian mainstream media.
The same OED defines ‘assertive’ as ‘tending to assert oneself, forthright, positive.’ That is certainly true of China but quite how that poses a threat to Australia’s vital security interests remains unclear.
The re-emergence of China as a leading world power is something to be welcomed. In the nearly 70 years since the revolution it has lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty, established universal education and health care, and on a parity purchasing power basis is now the world’s leading economy.
At present China relies heavily on maritime trade and none more so than the oil and gas that traverses the Malacca Straits. Freedom of navigation is of more importance to China than any other nation in the region.
Yet the provocative air and naval maneuvers conducted by the US and its allies, in the South China Sea are purportedly in the name of freedom of navigation. Again, western strategic planners are unable to point to a single instance of China interfering in the freedom of navigation of civilian shipping.
Conversely the US, together with Australia, conducts an annual naval exercise, Operation Talisman Sabre that practices blockading the Straits of Malacca. How can that be construed as other than a threat to China? But again, such issues cannot be discussed in the Australian mainstream media because, we are told, that ‘aggression, assertiveness’ and ‘provocation’ is solely the conduct of the designated enemy du jour.
The final observation is in respect of the wholly false claim that is made by the unnamed ‘strategic analysts’ who see Australia as “vital territory because it is moistly out of range of China’s ballistic missiles”.
If that is the hope and the prayer upon which Australia’s defence policies lie then it is sadly misplaced, not to mention dangerously delusional.
Among its already formidable arsenal the Chinese have the Dong Feng 41 ICBM. It travels at 30,000kmh and has a range of 15,000km. It carries 8-10 independently targetable warheads.
As the distance from Beijing to Canberra is 9000km there is not a single square centimeter of Australian territory that is not within its range. The obvious targets apart from the capital cities would be North West Cape and the American run Pine Gap.
All of these targets would be eliminated with a single ICBM within 30 minutes of an actual shooting war with China breaking out. Australia has no anti-missile defence system capable of stopping the Dong Feng 41. Reliance upon the Americans, another misplaced tenet of strategic faith, would be pointless as they would be destroyed in the same manner in approximately the same time frame.
Instead of delusional strategic thinking of the kind exemplified by Harris’s visit, the reporting thereof, and the unthinking acceptance of its assumptions by the Australian political class, a policy more directed to Australia’s actual national interest would surely divest itself of such a ‘dangerous ally’ (Fraser 2014).
An alternative strategy is possible. It would include participation in the enormous and peaceful revolution in Eurasia exemplified in the New Silk Roads and their associated financial developments. That would be a national strategic policy significantly less likely to get us all killed.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.