Australia’s Asian Pivot Towards War

Back in 2010, Barack Obama was striding about his new administration’s decision to turn his attention to doings in the Far East, described by pundits and media talking heads as ‘the Asian Pivot.’ Coincidentally, this is the same year that Obama, hamming it up at the annual WH Correspondents dinner, threatened the pop rock band, Jonas Brothers, with droning if they laid eye-hands on his daughters. Much laughter. It was the same year, Hillary Clinton was said to have remarked that Julian Assange should be “droned,” which seemed discreditable, until it was recently revealed that the ACLU was going to go to court to pursue the CIA and Mike Pompeo for threatening to have Assange killed. Less laughter. America has gone from boots-on-the-ground to heavy air strikes to drone warfare.

Australia has for decades been a supporting “trench” warrior for US wars in foreign lands in the post-9/11 era. Pine Gap, a joint Aussie-American intelligence-gathering and satellite-targeting base has been crucial in the provision of GPS coordination of the wars in the middle east and Afghanistan.  Back in 2011, not long after he had American citizen Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki droned in Yemen in “an extrajudicial execution” (and his 16-year old son a year later), Obama came to Australia and said to the Aussie Parliament:

“From the trenches of the first world war to the mountains of Afghanistan Aussies and Americans have stood together, fought together and given their lives together in every single major conflict of the past hundred years. Every single one,” he said. (Guardian, 11/16/2011)

It’s taken another 10 years — Trump disrupted — but the Asia Pivot is again gathering momentum and the Australian government is slowly gearing up for a fight with China. In January this year the announcement came from the Australian government that its fleet of Taipan helicopters would be retired early and the $3.7b acquisition of US-made Black Hawk helicopters would be completed.  In a January 2022 piece in The National Interest, Marcus Hellyer, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), wrote of the Black Hawk sale:

So, what’s changed? At some level it’s about China, just as everything in defense and strategic policy today is about China, but not in the way you might expect. Neither the MRH-90 nor the Black Hawk will have a deterrent effect in the way nuclear-powered submarines or long-range strike missiles will.

Australia is also buying nuclear subs and building an industry around them. They are being urged by the ASPI to buy offensive B-21 bombers from the US. And they are building long-range hypersonic missiles to counter China’s current alleged advantage, according to Hellyer.

In addition, back in 2017, the Australian Liberal government under Scott Morrison, closed down the controversial refugee camp on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and moved the occupants to Port Moresby in order to make way for the refurbishment of Lombrum naval base, in a joint US-Australian rebuild, specifically ramped up to counter Chinese “expansion” in the region. In 2018 proceedings of the US Naval Institute, “The Strategic Significance of Manus Island for the U.S. Navy,” the island’s future is suggested in a reference to important strategic past:

The joint Manus naval base initiative will be a key item for Asia-Pacific defense analysts to watch. Manus served as a major Allied fleet base during World War II and was the springboard for the campaign to retake the Philippines from the Japanese. In late 1944, the island could host more than 260 warships, and its facilities rivaled Pearl Harbor’s.

Mike Pence, at an Asian Pacific Economic Conference in 2018 declared that the base at Lombrum could prove deceive in slowing China’s extension of its Belt and Road Initiative into the southern Pacific.  I wrote about the PNAC versus BRICs competition a year ago.

The US military has already been amping up its needful cooperation with the Aussies, who would be crucial to any campaign — containment or actual war — against the Chinese.  In 2011, the USS Carl Vinson ported at Fremantle, on the west coast, for some much-deserved R-and-R not long after Osama bin Laden’s corpse was said to have been dumped from the aircraft carrier into the North Arabian Sea. More such US naval “visits” are now called for — see “US navy warships should be based in Western Australia to combat China.”

In Australia’s Northern Territory, US troops have been rotating for years, engaging in joint exercises with Aussie “diggers.”  And now, 2200 more Marines are scheduled to arrive and “prepare.” In a more hyperbolic report on the troop build up, The Daily Mail, describes the training of arriving US troops:

Thousands of American soldiers trained to use surface-to-air missile systems, High Mobility Artillery Rockets and unmanned aircraft are bound for Australia as tensions grow with China.

The 11-day “Exercise Cartwheel” in Fiji, involving troops from Australia, the UK, and the US (AUKUS), plus New Zealand — four of the so-called Five Eyes global surveillance apparatus.

And finally, Australia is home to Pine Gap, the CIA listening post and center for GPS coordination of cruise missile targeting in the middle east — and now in Ukraine. The recent success of the Ukrainians in their counteroffensive against half-motivated Russian troops could well be the result of such coordination. And Pine Gap definitely makes Australia a prime target for the Chinese (and Russian) military in the event of a war with either. (This recalls my reading of former war planner Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, in which he describes the Pentagon’s strategy of taking out China with the Russians in the case of a war with the latter, whether they were belligerents or not. Presumably, we’d take out the Russians, too, in the event of war with China. In math, the commutative law.) And a recent report tells us that Australia is supplying the Ukrainians with military grade “kamikaze” drones.

Both the Americans and Australians see the Chinese economic threat in the region as real. China is everywhere in the region chopping trees down, piping out oil and gas, and extracting minerals.  A Guardian piece from May 2021, “The $3bn bargain: how China dominates Pacific mining, logging and fishing,” tells us that “China takes more of these resources than the next 10 countries combined.”  Australia is a military target, but also an economic target, as it supplies “60%” of the world’s lithium supplies. (China is amping up its electric car industry and that lithium could come in handy. At the moment, Elon Musk’s Tesla operation is the main competitor for that lithium.) There’s also lots of gold and coal here.

And the US appears to be giving into the temptation to think the unthinkable, re: China.  Recently, former NATO commander James Stravridis released 2034, a novel that is essentially a rip-off of the classic book, Fail Safe.  Trouble in 2034 begins in a saber-rattling exercise gone wrong, the US going through the Taiwan Straits, when a muscular Chinese vessel arrives and nukes a US convoy. The US “does” Shanghai. Then New York bye-bye.  The good news is, Stavridis has two follow-on books readied that say we last until 2074, “when climate change comes home to roost.” So there’s room for optimism. (Rolls eyes)

The unthinkable has been in play in unkempt military minds for decades. Back in 2005, The Atlantic ran a piece about the coming conflict with China, “How We Would Fight China,” that lays out strategies for pushing back at the Chinese. Author Robert D. Kaplan tells us,

The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.

Sobering, isn’t it?

The question is still open: What is the nature of this Asian Pivot to be.  Containment? Conflict?  The Chinese are hoping that the Americans do what the Brits did with Honk Kong and let Taiwan go. But the US deep state still sees a play on world hegemony.  Conflict seems inevitable. The Aussies will be dragged into the trenches with the Yanks, making them a hostile nation (vis-a-vis China) where they have long been an important commercial partner but never a direct military threat — until now.

Even if nothing comes of this build-up (Inshallah), such weapons cost a lot of tax money to build.  The nuke subs will have to be maintained. The cost for US manufacture of such subs is worth considering:

The United States with its extensive nuclear-shipbuilding capability spends more than $2 billion per new submarine, just on construction. Arming, crewing, maintaining and operating the boats costs extra.

$2 billion a pop is about $3AUD. But these subs, being nukes, also represent ecological problems at a time when the world is attempting to focus on the coming ravages of Climate Change.  When nuclear subs came up for non-discussion in the Morrison government, Friends of the Earth urged the PM to reject the plan:

Friends of the Earth’s Dr Jim Green said, “The federal government has secretly decided that Australia will acquire nuclear submarines and any consultation will likely be tokenistic. This is the DAD ‒ Decide, Announce, Defend ‒ approach which is the antithesis of good government.”

This is a dangerous move by the government that could have serious regional repercussions.

No consultation on such taxpayer expenditure. It will almost certainly impact on the social safety net here that includes a reasonable  “socialist” safety net that includes near open access to tertiary education, an enviable medical care system (compared to the US), and sensible welfare payments to keep people afloat as they look for new work.

Former PM Kevin Rudd has also weighed in on the Pivot and is not a happy camper. He sees it as an unnecessary provocation. The Mandarin-speaking Rudd told the Aussie ABC network that “China wins,” if Australia invites ‘chaos’:

“In most of the war gaming which has been done so far — and these are desktop exercises by and large — if you look at what various US officials have said off the record and partly reported in the American media, the Chinese at this stage win most of the time,” he told 7.30.

More long sober nights for the Navy. If The Last Detail is any indication, swabbies don’t want to be ‘on the wagon’ too long.

For a while now, our elderly and legendary “public philosopher,” Noam Chomsky has been concerned with the response to the critical crises of our time, which sees as Climate Change , Nuclear War, and the end of Democracy.  In a Truthout interview today, Chomsky worried about the American influence on Australian foreign policy. Referencing the recent US legislative initiative known as the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, Chomsy warned that it flouted international law and would draw Australia into a political double bind that could prove disastrous. He said:

Former Australian defense official Mike Scrafton observes that “The Chinese cannot but regard this as a provocative de facto recognition of Taiwan’s independence.” Under international law, which regards Taiwan as part of China, it is “a patent infringement of China’s sovereignty and a fundamental weakening of the one-China policy.” Once again, the U.S. “rules-based order,” in defiance of international law, is seen to be nothing other “than preservation of US hegemony.” If passed, “The Act would be a game-changer and reflects the American preparedness to engage in a war that would be disastrous for the region and the world.” It should lead Australia to rethink its commitment to the U.S.-dominated regional system.

Australians should be asking themselves, as the tension builds and the unfamiliar war machine starts up, what the real price will be for accommodating the desperate-seeming US hegemonic hunger that seems almost terrified of the economic competition that China represents.

As Chomsky says at the close of his interview, “Time is short.” His and ours.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.