by By Joseph Camilleri* – Pearls and Irritations, Australian platform, Othernews
Much has been made of the creation of AUKUS and the agreement to provide Australia with eight nuclear powered submarines. Many have rightly decried Australia’s loss of independence. AUKUS, however, is part of a bigger story, a multi-layered US-led “Indo-Pacific strategy” whose clear aim is to contain China and preserve US regional and global dominance. AUKUS is itself the latest in a long line of steps that have led Australia to be ever more deeply entangled in US strategic priorities and preparations for war.
The United States has gained access to a wide array of high-technology bases and facilities that stretch from North West Cape in Western Australia to the port and air base of Darwin, and the Tindal air base outside Katherine. To this must be added the periodically upgraded Pine Gap installation, which is designed to play a key role in any US conventional and nuclear operations from Africa to the Pacific.
The last few years have also seen the steady expansion of joint US-Australian military exercises, notably Talisman Sabre and Exercise Pacific Vanguard, and increasingly high levels of interoperability between US and Australian military forces and intelligence agencies. These developments are not confined to Australia. They are part of an ambitious strategy that covers well over two thirds of the world’s oceans stretching from America’s western coastline to the Indian Ocean.
The intent is clear: the containment policy pursued by the United States during the Cold War years is back with a vengeance, but with important differences. Washington’s current efforts to contain China’s rise are euphemistically described as “strategic competition” and “integrated deterrence”. But use of such slippery language cannot conceal far-reaching changes in the geopolitical and economic landscape.
China today is an immeasurably more potent force than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, in military terms certainly, but even more so economically and diplomatically. By some measures China has already overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy and could be on a path to match the United States in the development of many advanced technologies.
By contrast, the US is a diminished power. As recently as 2000, it accounted for 24 per cent of the world’s total GDP. This declined to just over 20 per cent in 2010. By 2018, it was a little over 15 per cent. The steady decline of US hegemonic power is equally evident when it comes to the projection of military power. Taken at face value the US military arsenal radiates power, but that power has often proved illusory.
Technological sophistication, high levels of military spending culminating in a record military budget of $877billion in FY2022, and the flexing of military muscle on a global scale have not translated into military victory on the ground or enabled the United States to impose its will. The costly war on terror, the disastrous war in Iraq, the protracted and punishing conflict in Afghanistan, and the unholy mess in Libya and Syria all point to the fragility of US power. The upshot of all this is obvious enough. The United States can no longer afford the high cost of mounting single-handedly a long-term containment policy that holds any prospect of stemming China’s rise. To bridge the deficit, it must turn to allies, old and new.
The United States is presently intent on constructing an overwhelming military presence in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. AUKUS is but one prong in this strategy. It involves the modernisation and expansion of America’s military alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia, upgraded security arrangements with Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, and Pakistan, and renewed efforts to cultivate closer ties with India.
South Korea is a case in point. Some 28,500 US troops are presently based in the country. In 2022, South Korea boosted its contribution to alliance costs by 13.9%, bringing its contribution to $9.7 billion – around 94% of total costs. South Korean payments have enabled the construction of new facilities, including at Camp Humphries, the largest overseas US base, which now serves as the headquarters for US Forces Korea, UN Command and the Combined Forces Command. In January, the United States announced plans to increase its deployment of advanced weapons to the Korean Peninsula, including fighter jets and bombers, in tandem with enhanced joint training and operational planning with South Korean forces.
We see the same trends in US-Japan alliance arrangements. While continuing to deploy some 55,000 troops and several bases and facilities in Japan, the United States is moving rapidly to bolster alliance roles, missions, and capabilities. This will include expanding Japan’s missile strike capabilities, including the sale of hundreds of US Tomahawk cruise missiles, and making the US Marine unit in that country better adapted for combat operations.
These announcements coincide with the release of Japan’s new national security strategy which will see Japan’s military budget rise from $40 billion in 2022 to $67 billion in 2027. In a joint statement issued in January, Japan and the United States described China as posing an “unprecedented” threat to international order and pledged to position their alliance to “prevail in a new era of strategic competition”.
The same logic is driving US efforts to expand its military footprint in the Philippines some thirty years after that country moved to end the permanent US military presence on its soil. The agreement announced earlier this year gives the United States access to four more military bases in addition to the current five. US forces will thus have better access to the South China Sea, and an enhanced capacity to engage in multiple theatres in Southeast as well as Northeast Asia.
These are but the more obvious in a long list of agreements that have enmeshed more than twenty countries, including several Pacific Island nations, into a web of joint military exercises as well as expanding programs in maritime surveillance, cybersecurity, construction of new military facilities, and arms transfers.
Three other developments lay bare the intent of America’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”. In the Asia-Pacific region, the US-led security architecture lacks the centralisation and elaborate infrastructure of the NATO alliance. However, bilateral alliances and partnerships, though they remain the primary conduit, are increasingly supplemented and reinforced by multilateral mechanisms.
A few of these are worth noting: the trilateral security dialogue (US, Japan, Australia) launched in 2001; the US-Japan-India trilateral launched in 2011; the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) Mark II in 2017; the AUKUS partnership (US, UK Australia) announced in 2021; and the emerging trilateral dialogues (US, Japan, South Korea).
To this must be added an increasingly overt connection with NATO itself, especially the developing partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Last year, the four partners attended for the first time the NATO summit in Madrid. Next year NATO is to establish its first Asian liaison office in Tokyo. All of which signals the dangerous prospect of an Asia-Pacific NATO.
America’s frenetic attempts to encircle China are inexorably driving the militarisation of the Asia-Pacific. In 2022, the region’s military spending rose to $575 billion. During 2018-2022, Asia and Oceania accounted for 41 per cent of global arms imports. The largest exporter by far was the United States and the largest importers were US allies. Arms imports by East Asian states increased by 21 per cent between 2013–17 and 2018–22, with US allies recording the largest increases: South Korea (+61%) Japan (+171%), and Australia (+23%).
The profit imperative is proving to be one of the most powerful drivers of the globalisation of NATO. US-based weapon manufacturers have recorded a massive increase in sales, from $103.4 billion in 2021 to $153.7 billion in 2022. For them the Ukraine war and rising Sino-US tensions have been a godsend. Unsurprisingly, the main beneficiaries are the weapons manufacturers. Not far behind are armed private security contractors, a wide array of logistics, construction, consultancy and lobbying firms, and the mainstream media and policy think tanks which help shape public opinion and policy discourse.
Simply put, we are seeing the emergence of a global military strategy designed to preserve a fraying US-led neo-liberal order. The risk is that, unless wiser heads prevail, the entire Asia-Pacific region may soon be engulfed in the cauldron of conflict fed by mischief making, mistrust and miscalculation. Jul 4, 2023
* Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, and President of Conversation at the Crossroads.
On the cover photo: Aukus security alliance pact, flags of Australia, USA and UK with global map, vector illustration © Fabrizio Annovi/Shutterstock.com