AUKUS, PNG & the build-up against China
27 September 2021
NOOSA – The Australian mass media and opposition Labor Party have “missed the point” of the AUKUS pact which saw the Morrison government dump a huge submarine contract, says Mike Scrafton, former senior adviser to Australia’s defence minister.
Writing for Pearls and Irritations, Scrafton forecasts that, under Australia’s new strategic arrangements with the United States and the United Kingdom, there will be a major step-up in the US militarisation in Australia.
Scrafton doesn’t say so, but it’s also fair to conclude that Papua New Guinea will also be part of the measures which, despite the strange games politicians play, is squarely aimed at containing China.
Scrafton writes that US fighter and bomber aircraft will be based near Darwin in northern Australia and the US submarines will make Perth, capital of Western Australia, their home port.
Darwin is just 1,400 km from Daru and the renewal of the joint US-Australia naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island is about to get underway. US naval engineers are also involved in this project.
In June, Australian defence minister Peter Dutton revealed that the US and Australia are discussing expanded military cooperation, including a joint US Marines - Australian Defence Force training brigade in Darwin.
Currently 1,700 US military personnel, mainly marines, are based in Darwin, a number to be increased in the short term to 2,500. Darwin is also the location of a proposed $2 billion US naval base.
Responding to an announcement of the $175 million "redevelopment and rehabilitation” of Manus, PNG Army chief, Major General Gilbert Toropo, said China's growing presence in the region presented "a challenge" for PNG.
His truthful view was quickly rebutted by PNG prime minister James Marape. General Toropo had mentioned the word ‘China’.
A joint US-Australia naval base on Manus is one of the more obvious strategic moves to squeeze out China and provide an additional operating base for friendly forces.
The commanding position of Manus north of PNG would put a cork in any notion China had of challenging for control of sea lanes to eastern Australia and New Zealand and also provide a strategically significant land base closer to the countries of interest to China in the south-west Pacific.
It’s against this more complex background that Scrafton writes that the nuclear submarines issue has “disproportionately obsessed the media and the opposition”. The real issue being the significant shift towards an American military presence in Australia and, even though he doesn’t mention it, PNG.
Even as the three national leaders announced AUKUS - having deceived and alienated France, a major ally with a Pacific presence - a joint Australia-US ministerial meeting was agreeing to also increase the number of US military aircraft and vessels rotated through Australia.
Scrafton writes this will involve establishing “a combined logistics, sustainment and maintenance enterprise to support high end warfighting and combined military operations in the region”.
He finds it worrying that Australia’s media and political elite seem not to have realised this is “the largest shift in Australia’s strategic circumstances since World War II”, adding it is happening now, “not at some vague point in 30 years” when the submarines are supposed to arrive.
“The paucity of the strategic conversation among political elites and media commentators and their lack of engagement with the public on issues bearing on the long-term fate of [Australia] is all too evident,” he writes.
Of course, over the last 12-18 months the prospect of a ‘hot’ conflict between the US and China has been loudly talked up, mainly by right wing politicians, think tanks and media in the US and Australia.
And the Morrison government has continued to stoke up its verbal and occasionally material campaign against China and Chinese companies.
China has retaliated with trade sanctions against many Australian products (a slack which has largely been accommodated by our allies, especially the United States, as economist Saul Eslake graphs here).
We Australians are real mugs sometimes, as we may find to our enormous cost if our economy, presently propped up by exports of iron ore to China, suddenly finds President Xi doesn’t want it any longer.
It has a gun pointed at Australia's head and our leaders seem to think it's a water pistol.
The bar room warriors all agree that a conflict could be triggered by China pursuing the forcible reabsorption of Taiwan or clashing with American forces in the South China Sea or perhaps in East Asian waters between China and Japan.
They rarely admit that there may be no conflict at all, which would seem the most likely outcome but not one that provides revenue streams to arms manufacturers and right wing think tanks.
“During any conflict between China and the US over the next decades, Australia’s military capability won’t have changed greatly, particularly Australia’s reach into the South China Sea,” Scrafton writes.
“Therefore, in the coming critical decades, the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines will be irrelevant for either deterrence or operations.”
Scrafton concludes by stating the Australian public deserves better.
“It deserves an opposition that recognises and addresses vital national interests and is not deterred from raising the hard issues for fear of being accused of lacking bipartisanship.
“[And] it deserves an expert and professional media that informs and holds both government and opposition to account. Currently they have neither.”
To which I should give a rousing “hear, hear!” but knowing that the long-suffering Australian people rarely get what they deserve, I can only add, “there, there” and reach for the pacifier.
Well Phil, I did also say: 'This is a known factor in human nature and has been used many times in human history.'
Have you seen the film 'Vice'?
Posted by: Paul Oates | 28 September 2021 at 06:44 PM
"The real problem of any authoritarian regime is to keep the common people on side and controlled. One way of achieving this has always been to denigrate a foreign and/or domestic enemy.
"It allows any action to be predicated on the need to defend the motherland/fatherland and for the people to make sacrifices in the name of nationalism and loyalty."
You shouldn't talk about the Americans that way Paul, they're now our 'forever' friends.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 28 September 2021 at 02:41 PM
There's much in what you say, Chris, however it has been argued that the restriction of trade in oil to the Japanese just prior to World War II helped them feel like they needed to capture their own supplies.
The real problem of any authoritarian regime is to keep the common people on side and controlled. One way of achieving this has always been to denigrate a foreign and/or domestic enemy. It allows any action to be predicated on the need to defend the motherland/fatherland and for the people to make sacrifices in the name of nationalism and loyalty.
This is a known factor in human nature and has been used many times in human history.
The problem in our region is that it's very easy to point the finger at the foreigner when your look differently. We do have a history of doing just that. What we don't have in modern history however in the twentieth century at least, is a history of attacking and capturing other lands and people and enslaving them.
Nations like Malaysia should think about how we defended them in the past, when their new nation was under attack.
Sure, we've made mistakes but we hopefully have learnt from them. The biggest mistake we seem to continually make is not to be able to understand how to communicate our thoughts and intentions to those nations nearby without seeming to be lecturing.
Nothing is more offensive in the Asian mind, especially if these mistakes are then made public by a rapacious media who couldn't care less about the public interest if it results in increased circulation and viewing time. They can just say as usual: 'They public had a right to know!'
Ha! It has been suggested that the reason the newspapers are so thin these days is because they don't print two sides to every story.
The media can also easily shrink back into the background if the situation gets out of hand and deny their involvement. They after all, don't have to compete in election campaigns and suffer political consequences.
There is also an old adage: 'If you want peace, prepare for war.'
Posted by: Paul Oates | 28 September 2021 at 09:11 AM
While I agree with Phil's observation that the USA has indeed involved both itself and us in a series of mostly disastrous wars, it does not necessarily follow that this is inevitable in the case of rising tensions with China.
I say this for several reasons but will mention only one, which is China's very serious vulnerability to a trade embargo.
Trade embargoes have been a potent weapon in international affairs for a very long time. Generally speaking, the more reliant an actual or potential combatant is upon trade the more an embargo will undermine its ability to fight and win a war.
So, for example, the underlying strategy of the Union forces in the American Civil War was the so-called Anaconda Strategy. Basically, the Union Navy blockaded the Confederacy's ports and stifled trade, notably in cotton.
Although imperfect, the blockade slowly and remorselessly deprived the Confederacy of the funds it needed to fight the war. Ultimately, this weakened its ability to maintain armies in the field and materially contributed to its defeat.
Similarly, during World War 1, the British Navy successfully blockaded the German ports and seriously damaged its capacity to sustain a protracted war effort. It was civil disorder in Germany, as well as serious defeats on the Western Front, that drove the German government to seek an armistice in November 1918.
In World War 2, the Battle of the Atlantic saw Britain very nearly driven onto its knees as the German U Boat fleet imposed what amounted to a blockade on Britain's ability to both sustain its military effort and feed its population.
Only the timely involvement of the USA in the war, combined with some extremely important technical innovations including ship and air borne radar, asdic submarine detection and improved depth charge systems allowed Britain and its allies to win the battle and achieve eventual victory.
In a modern context, China is the world's largest manufacturer and exporter of tradeable goods , with its main markets being in the USA, Europe and South East Asia. Any disruption to its massive trading system would generate very serious problems for the Chinese government.
It is for this reason (amongst others) that I think that China is highly unlikely to precipitate a serious conflict with the USA and its Pacific and South East Asian allies. Basically, the likely economic cost of, for example, invading Taiwan, would be very severe.
This is the case even if such a chancy endeavour could actually be achieved by the completely untried People's Liberation Army, Navy and Airforce.
War is by no means inevitable and I very much doubt that any military planners think that it is but they must assume the worst and plan accordingly, hence Australia's decision to build or buy nuclear submarines, new missile frigates, long range cruise missiles, 5th generation fighter jets and so forth.
Of course, as I have often observed, history is not a perfect guide to the future and the human factor always complicates and sometimes confounds both plans and expectations about how events may develop.
Consequently, we must all collectively hope that those who lead our various nations have both the knowledge and wisdom necessary to avoid blundering into a war that no-one wants and which will undoubtedly not unfold in accordance with even the best laid plans.
An old military axiom is that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. This is something that all of our leaders ought to bear in mind.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 27 September 2021 at 08:43 PM
Oh arise ye armchair warriors, enlighten us, mere mortals. Slainte.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 27 September 2021 at 10:38 AM
What also hasn't been considered is the USA's propensity to fight its wars in other people's backyards.
It is fairly clear that their next adventure is being set up to occur in the Indo-Pacific (with an emphasis on Pacific).
Whether this evolves into a fighting war or a shouting war is yet to be determined but it's pretty clear who's going to cop the collateral flack, Australia.
How can we be so dumb as to go along with yet another American disaster?
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 27 September 2021 at 08:50 AM