Australia and New Zealand — losing an empire, who will protect us now? Part 4. Australia: Managing a dilemma

4. Australia: Managing a dilemma

The economic, geographic and geopolitical considerations for Australia are quite different to New Zealand’s. Where New Zealand is a remote, moderately small island nation with a relatively small population, Australia is a wealthy if massive sparsely occupied country with its main population centres concentrated on the eastern and southern coasts, it is rich in resources and poised on the southern periphery of Asia. With a GDP of USD1,432.2 billion its economy is nearly five times that of New Zealand’s and its population of 25.1 million is more than five times as large.

According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2018, Australia’s wealth per adult was USD411,060, this being the second-highest in the world after Switzerland and in terms of median wealth it has edged above Switzerland into first place. Australia has the eighth-highest total estimated value of natural resources which was valued at USD19.9 trillion in 2016. Of Australia’s top five trading partners, China accounts for 29.2% of its total exports (USD74 billion) with Japan coming in behind at 10.3% (USD26.2 billion), South Korea at 5.4% (USD13.6 billion), India at 4% (USD10.1 billion) and the USA at 3.6% (USD9.2 billion). Australia’s annual defence spending is expected to increase by over 80 percent over the next decade—from AUD32.4 billion in fiscal year 2016-17 to AUD58.7 billion in 2025-26. As at June 2017, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had 80,350 permanent and active reserve personnel.

In geographic terms, Australia sits at the southern boundary of South East Asia, its northern-most mainland point is only 150 km from Papua New Guinea by sea and while the distance from the Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta to Darwin (Australia’s northern-most city) is 2,724 km, the Indonesian archipelago extends to within 700 km. Following the World War II threat that Japan posed to Australia, the government and defence force are acutely conscious that its sparsely populated northern territories are extremely vulnerable to invasion and significant resources have been dedicated to positioning air and maritime resources at Darwin and a string of forward operating bases across the North. As well as extensive air and naval maritime patrols which also help to identify and intercept refugee boats heading from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, the Australian Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs) employ a large number of Indigenous soldiers, many of whom are employed from local communities on a part-time (Reserve) basis or through the Regional Force Surveillance List. As well as a regular program of military exchanges, ship visits and exercises, in 2018, the Australian and US governments agreed to station a contingent of 1,500 US marines at Darwin and in June 2019 it was reported that secret planning was underway to construct a new port facility for US Marine Forces in the Glyde Point area, roughly 40 km north-east of Darwin’s existing port.

“Strategic experts believe a new deep-water port would be ideally suited for the more than 2,000 US Marines and their equipment during regular rotations through the Top End. ‘The Americans are clearly not withdrawing from the Indo-Pacific, whether it’s because of their strategic competition with China or more generally,’ said Rory Medcalf from the Australian National University. ‘It’s clear the Americans intend to stay in the region to reinforce their presence, to reinforce the alliance, and so a facility like this would be quite a logical development I think.'”

Source: Secret plans for new port outside Darwin to accommodate visiting US Marines , ABC News 23 June 2019

As a large nation bordering the Pacific region, Australia shares a role with New Zealand in assuring the security of its Pacific Island neighbours. In real terms, this means ensuring that no other major power—specifically, China or Russia—is able to gain a dominant footing in the Pacific region. As pointed out in a 2018 report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “such a development could pose challenges to U.S. defense interests and those of Australia and New Zealand, key U.S. partners in the region”. The US government is clearly keen to ensure it maintains dominance for a number of economic and defence reasons:

“Beijing’s increasing influence in the Pacific Islands region has led some analysts to raise concerns that China could erode U.S. influence in the Compact countries and CNMI, which would have implications for U.S. military access in the region. According to Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, ‘If Beijing established a political foothold [in the region over the long term] it could persuade these states not to extend access to the U.S., as well as arrange for Chinese access.’ Dr. Cheng notes this Chinese access may not be bases but rather surveillance and reconnaissance sites to monitor nearby U.S. military facilities and testing sites.”

Source: China’s Engagement in the Pacific Islands: Implications for the United States, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 14 June 2018

Australia’s influence in the Pacific is mainly based on its role as the region’s foremost foreign aid donor, which in 2019-20 is budgeted at AUD336.4 million through its Pacific Regional Program. Notably, this represents a significant increase on past years, with $278.6 million being budgeted for 2018-19. However, in 2013, one of the first acts of the incoming conservative Liberal-National Party coalition government was to slash the country’s total foreign aid budget by 40 percent while boosting its counter-terrorism spending. Further aid cuts were also applied in subsequent years:

The Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull recently met with US President Donald Trump and many are wondering if Trump’s ideas of slashing foreign aid have not washed off onto Australia, as the government announced massive cuts in aid across the South Pacific region. The Australian government has announced it will cut overseas aid by $223 million USD, with international aid agencies warning it means the country is becoming more ‘insular and isolated.’ The Liberal-National Coalition announced its fourth consecutive reduction in the country’s international aid contribution as part of the Budget 2017-18, adding to a total of $8.1 billion USD in cuts over the next few years.”

Source: Australians slash foreign aid to needy, 10 May 2017

Meanwhile, China’s increasing aid to the Pacific has seen it move from fourth largest donor on 2014 to second in 2017, when it reportedly committed four times what Australia had. While there is some argument over whether China’s actual spend matches its commitments, there is obviously also a Chinese focus on using loans to build infrastructure—such as roads in Papua New Guinea and a USD80 million wharf in Vanuatu— rather than the broader range of social and trade development programs that Australia and New Zealand tend to promote.

“‘We are essentially the superpower in the Pacific and it’s very important that we play our role,’ then-Australian Justice Minister Michael Keenan said in 2017, when the mission ended. Pacific Islands Private Sector Organization’s Lyon said that while it was true that neither country was entirely altruistic, Australia had long term partnerships in the region. ‘China has a very specific geostrategic focus in the region,’ he said. When asked whether Australia needed to be concerned about China’s increased role, and why Australia was stepping up efforts in the region, an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said it was in the country’s national interests to promote stability, security and prosperity in the Pacific.”

Source: Why China is challenging Australia for influence over the Pacific Islands, by Julia Hollingsworth, CNN, 22 July 2019

Inevitably, as reflected above, the Chinese government’s motivation for making these investments is often cast in negative terms, so that the wharf in Vanuatu is held out to be a potential Chinese military base and its loans are portrayed as ways to exert power over the recipient nations. In this light, the recent increase in Australia’s budget seems to reflect a reactive knee-jerk awakening to what it interprets as a rising challenge in its own backyard.

Geopolitically, Australia is without question fully aligned with and committed to having the USA as its key protector and ally. Since the Korean War, Australia has committed troops and resources to nearly every major US military endeavour across Asia, including its wars and actions in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Philippines. As a member of the Five Eyes Alliance, Australia is host to a major spy base at Pine Gap and has recently taken a lead role in the US’s actions against China—like the banning of Huawei 5G equipment and the active support for the propaganda war on China through the accusations of genocide in China’s Muslim integration and deradicalisation efforts in Xinjiang. Notably, ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating called out this anti-China activity during the lead in to the March 2019 general election:

“On Sunday afternoon, after the Labor Party’s formal election launch in Brisbane, former Prime Minister Paul Keating approached the media to declare that Australia’s intelligence chiefs were ‘nutters’ who had gone ‘berko’ in their approach to Beijing. Keating said that the intelligence agencies had ‘lost their bearings’ and called upon Labor leader Bill Shorten to ‘clean them out’ if he forms government after the election. Indicating the concerns animating his statements, Keating declared that China had ‘always been a great state and now has the second-largest economy.’ He then added: ‘If we have a foreign policy that does not take that into account, we are fools.'”

Source: Former Australian PM denounces anti-China witch-hunt of intelligence agencies, WSWS, 8 May 2019

However, in spite of Australia’s overwhelming reliance on China as an export customer and China’s track record of not invading or conquering any other countries the last 200 years at least (granted some minor border skirmishes with Russia, Vietnam and India), Australia’s defence intelligentsia continue to view China as an existential threat, as is evidenced in recent comments from the ASPI, a leading government defence think tank:

“A leading Australian defence think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has called for a radical overhaul of Canberra’s military posture and a move towards forward defence in depth. The report argues that the traditional emphasis on controlling the air-sea gap to the country’s north is outmoded and vulnerable to a forward Chinese military presence expanding through the Southeast Asian archipelago from military bases in the South China Sea and potentially into the South Pacific between Australia and the US. ‘Far from being a strategic backwater, Australia is very much now a state in the frontline, geographically, strategically and politically,’ said Dr Malcolm Davis, author of the report.”

Source: ASPI report calls for overhaul of Australia’s military posture, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 12 June 2019

This antagonistic—and arguably paranoid—stance has seen Australia actively supporting the USA’s provocative actions in the South China Sea, with the BBC reporting in December 2015 that the Australian Airforce was conducting “freedom of navigation” flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea and US President Trump saying in February 2018 that he “would love” to see Australia join the US Navy in the South China Sea, which was soon followed the following incident:

“China’s military issued ‘robust’ challenges to three Australian warships as they travelled through the South China Sea to Vietnam earlier this month, the ABC reports. Defence sources said the confrontations between HMAS Anzac, HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Success and the People’s Liberation Army occurred ahead of the Australian vessels’ arrival for a three-day goodwill visit in Ho Chi Minh City… The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, would not reveal what happened in the exchange with the Chinese military when questioned about it on the sidelines of the Chogm meeting in London on Thursday, local time. ‘All I can say to you is Australia asserts and practises its right of freedom of navigation throughout the world’s oceans, including of course the South China Sea,’ Turnbull said. ‘As is our perfect right in accordance with international law.'”

Source: Australian warships ‘challenged’ by Chinese navy in South China Sea, The Guardian, 19 April 2018

But, as we have seen, the Australian intelligence and defence establishment have become so heavily infiltrated by and co-opted to the US security state that they hardly seem to function as tools of the Australian people any longer.

“The US military and industrial complex and its associates have a vested interest in America being at war and our defence establishment, Department of Defence, ADF, Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the ‘Intelligence’ community are locked-in American loyalists. As Geoff Raby in this blog has argued, our security and intelligence agencies like ASIO and ASIS have led and bullied the Australian Government into hysteria over China. The collectors of intelligence have become the propagandists and policy makers. Paul Keating calls them ‘nutters’. DFAT has been sidelined. With our intelligence agencies out of control it is not surprising to see the travesty of the prosecution of Bernard Collaery and Witness K. The wrong people are being charged.”

Source: JOHN MENADUE. Tugging our forelock again and again to our dangerous ally. An update, 9 August 2019

As pointed out by Alexey Muraviev (associate professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University), Australia’s main vulnerability in the South China Sea is likely due to its critical reliance on refined petroleum fuels that are sourced from South Korea and Japan and which must therefore pass through this key trade route. Obviously, if China and the US alliance were to fall further into conflict this could lead to trade embargoes and potentially even a shipping blockade. Such actions would necessarily impact Australia’s trade with not just China but also with the other key trading nations in the region, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

However, notwithstanding these concerns, Australia’s overall relationship with China seems to exhibit the sort of schizophrenic mindset that comes of trying but failing to reconcile two apparently opposing objectives. This is typified in that, in spite of its export reliance of China’s success, Australia has steadfastly sidestepped participation in the BRI, which is perhaps the most significant project undertaken by China yet. This massive infrastructure project is aimed at linking dozens of nations by investing hundreds of billions of dollars to create a trade network spanning not just Europe and Asia and into Africa, but potentially into the Americas as well via a proposed high-speed rail tunnel below the Bering Strait. Yet instead of embracing this truly amazing project and getting on board to be a part of it, the Australian government has chosen to see it in terms of a malevolent Chinese strategy for world domination.

“Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong has urged the Turnbull government, “to display much greater confidence in harnessing the opportunities of the Belt and Road Initiative”. Instead, the government has so far avoided any proactive measures by distancing itself from the BRI, which some have posited is China’s grand strategy for political and economic domination of the region.”

Source: Australia’s Belt and Road Story: Managing a Better Narrative, by Hannah Bretherton, 16 May 2017

Continued in Part 5. — coming soon

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