Column: Dispatches From The Edge: Australia and the Pacific Wall

By Conn Hallinan
Friday July 06, 2007

Some 230 miles north of Perth, at Geraldton on Australia’s west coast, the Bush administration is building a base. When completed, it will control two geostationary satellites that feed intelligence to U.S. military forces in Asia and the Middle East. 

Most Americans know nothing about Geraldton or the U.S. submarine communications base at North Cape and the U.S. missile-tracking center at Pine Gap. But there is growing concern Down Under that Prime Minster John Howard’s conservative government is weaving a network of alliances and U.S. bases that may one day put Australians in harm’s way. As Australian Defense Force Academy Visiting Fellow told the Sydney Morning Herald, once the Geraldton base is up and running, it will be “almost impossible for Australia to be fully neutral or stand back from any war in which the United States was involved.” 

Indeed, that may already be the case. Australia, along with Japan, India, the Philippines and South Korea, signed on to the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (ABM), which China fears is aimed at neutralizing its modest fleet of 21 intercontinental ballistic missiles.  

On Mar. 12 Australia signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (JDSC) with Japan, that according to Richard Tanter, a senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute who writes widely on Japanese Security policy, is an “anti-China U.S.-dominated multilateral alliance system” that “confirms the already accelerating tendencies for both Japan and Australia to militarize their foreign policies.”  

Certainly both nations have been flexing their muscles of late. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has put a strong nationalist spin on Tokyo’s foreign policy that has raised hackles from Seoul to Beijing. Japan has also sent troops to Iraq and recently declared it intends to repeal Article 9 of its post-war constitution. Article 9 renounces war and rejects “force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japan has the fifth largest navy in the world and spends over $40 billion a year on defense.  

Australia, whose defense budget is slightly more than half of Japan’s, also has troops in Iraq, as well as the Solomon Islands, East Timor, and Tonga.  

Last August, Howard told the Parliament that Australia needs to prepare for an even greater role in monitoring and assisting troubled nations in the Pacific region. The Prime Minister has also adopted some of the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, calling for “preemptive” strikes against “terrorist groups” in regional neighbors. 

Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, have moved forcefully to assert their authority in the myriad island nations that make up much of the South Pacific. Using a combination of troops, aid and control over transportation, the three countries dominate the politics of places like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon’s, Fiji and Samoa.  

Many of these island nations are almost totally dependent on either international aid or money earned from renting out their land for military bases. Some 60 percent of the Marshall Islands’ GDP comes from U.S. aid and the 50-year “Pact of Free Association” that allows the United States to use Kwajalein Atoll for missile tests. The United States only got the pact by engineering a change in the Marshall Island’s constitution that allows a simple majority of legislators to okay the Association. Before this change, Marshallese voters had rejected the pact eight different times.  

When Solomon Island Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare accused Australia’s High Commissioner of “unwarranted interventionism” in the Republic’s affairs, Howard’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer warned ominously “the last thing the Solomon Island government can afford is to get into arguments with major donors who are helping keep their country afloat.”  

In an interview with political analyst and Pacific expert Andre Vltchek, UNESCO cultural expert Mail Voi said the “big three” use devices like transit visas for “effectively isolating small and poor countries of the Pacific from each other, as well as from the rest of the world. It is almost impossible for the citizens of most Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Indonesia, to visit their neighbors in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.”  

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is elbowing its way into the region as well. In talking about Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last November, “We all face the same threats and it is in their interests, as well as our own, that we come closer together.”  

U.S. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns was blunter: “We seek a partnership with them so that we can train more intensively, from a military point of view.”  

But if there is a push to dominate and militarize the region, there are countervailing winds as well. 

On the one hand, Australia is part of an ABM system that China sees as a threat. On the other, China is Canberra’s third largest trading partner with an insatiable appetite for Australia’s coal, uranium, gas and oil.  

In 2006, energy exports earned Australia $33.9 billion, a figure that is certain to rise steeply over the next decade. “With the right policies,” says Howard, “ we have the makings of an energy superpower.”  

Japan finds itself in a similar position. While there is continuing tension between Tokyo and Beijing over Taiwan, and oil and gas fields in the South China Seas, China will become Japan’s number one trading partner by the end of 2007. Trade between the two countries topped $200 billion last year.  

The trade potential has made Japan and the Australia careful about tying themselves too closely to some of the bombast about “Chinese militarism” coming out of Washington.  

This past April, Japan and China pledged “closer cooperation,” and when Beijing made it clear it was unhappy about Australia’s hosting part of the U.S. ABM program, Australian Foreign Minister Downer was quick to state, “We are opposed to a policy of containment of China. We believe the best way forward is working constructively with China.” 

Australia and Japan are caught between “wanting to ride the Chinese economic gravy train,” says Tanter, while at the same time trying to “beat the drum about supposed [Chinese] military expansionism.” 

The Howard government’s muscular foreign policy has touched off a debate about what role Australia should play in the region and how closely Canberra should be tied to U.S. designs in Asia and the Middle East. Foreign policy, particularly the Iraq War, has become a major issue for the upcoming general elections in October, particularly the Iraq War. 

Polls indicate that two-thirds of Australians want to withdraw from Iraq, and 70 percent think Australia should be more independent from U.S. foreign policy. The Aussies were evenly split between what constitutes a greater danger to the world: the U.S. or Islamic fundamentalism.  

For now, Washington is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay much attention to the Pacific, but given the importance of the region to the United States, that it’s not likely to last. Will the United States eventually move to confront China, its rival in Asia? That may well depend on where other nations in the region conclude their interests lie, and whether most of them decide that butter and trade trump guns and walls. 

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