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’.
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.