Remember US Defence Department Assistant Secretary David Shear’s testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May last year? During this hearing Assistant Secretary Shear said that the Pentagon would be “placing additional air force assets in Australia” including “B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft”.
Remember former PM Tony Abbott’s assertion immediately following Shear’s congressional appearance? Abbott claimed that the “US government has contacted us to advise that the official misspoke” and that the US had no plans to place long-range bombers and surveillance aircraft in Australia to deter Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
At the time, Marrickville Peace Group warned that Assistant Secretary Shear had disclosed the US administration’s real intentions and that the stationing of B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft would be back on the agenda in future defence talks between Canberra and Washington.
As predicted, at high-level discussions currently underway in Canberra, the US has said that it wants to regularly rotate long-range, nuclear capable, heavy bombers through Australia in response to China’s growing presence and activities in the South China Sea.
Commander of US Pacific Air Forces, General Lori Robinson, has been reported as saying that US and Australian officials are “in the process of talking about rotational forces, bombers and tankers out of Australia (Tindal and Darwin)”.
Support for US “freedom of navigation operations”
General Robinson is the latest US official to publicly call on Australia to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. “We would encourage all nations in the region to do just that, just as the United States is doing”, General Robinson said.
To date, Australia has enthusiastically supported America’s so-called “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea.
In response to the highly-publicised U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) near Subi Reef in late October last year, former PM Abbott expressed strong support for the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight. During a speech in Tokyo on February 25 this year, Abbott revealed that “(o)ver the past 18 months, Australia has quietly increased our own air and naval patrols in the South China Sea.”
However at a Senate Estimates hearing on February 10, Air Chief Marshal Binskin denied that the ADF had conducted deliberate freedom of navigation and overflight activities as part of Operation GATEWAY in the South China Sea.
Keen to demonstrate his loyalty to the US alliance, Senator Stephen Conroy, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence, has criticised the Turnbull government for “resorting to ambiguous word games” and has urged it to “consider authorising a freedom of navigation operation – a FONOP – in the South China Sea as a demonstration of Australia’s commitment to upholding the rules-based international order”, which is code for supporting US domination in this region, as elsewhere.1
While Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Defence, was non-committal with respect to the stationing of B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft in the Northern Territory, she did confirm that the US Air Force would have a larger presence in the country. She stressed that “Australia remains strongly supportive of the US re-balance to our near region, and we work together closely in support of our common regional interests.” While it’s true that both the Liberal-National Party Coalition and the Labor Party are strongly supportive of the US re-balance, the term “our common regional interests” was not clearly defined.
An alternative view
Lacking all credibility are the assertions that (1) the US ‘pivot to Asia’ and (2) provocative freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the South China Sea are in Australia’s interests.
The potential for military conflict between the US and China in this region should not be underestimated. The prospect of having B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft stationed in the Northern Territory only adds to this potential.
The build-up of Chinese assets in the region needs to be put into context.
First, it is worth emphasising that the conflict is taking place off the coast of China. It is not taking place in waters near California or in the Caribbean close to Florida. Such a conflict is inconceivable and reveals a lot about the current imbalance of power between the US and China.
The conflict in the Asia-Pacific region is a consequence of the imperial period when the US emerged as the global hegemon. It is also a consequence of Japanese imperialism which resulted in Japan taking over vast areas of the Pacific, parts of which still remain in Japanese hands today. As a rising power, China is challenging many of these territorial arrangements in the seas adjacent to its coast through which the bulk of its maritime trade passes.
Second, this power shift has not only led to conflict between China and the US, it has also led to conflict between China and many of the region’s nations such as Vietnam which is also engaged in reclamation activities in the South China Sea, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Third, China is encircled by hostile military bases and surveillance networks. It is estimated that the US has at least 800 military bases around the world, many of them surrounding China including those in Japan, South Korea and Australia. These bases in the Asia-Pacific region are hostile bases designed to contain China.
Fourth, claims that the US is a force for stability and security in the region and is dedicated to upholding international rules is demonstrably false. On the contrary, US involvement in the region – especially since World War 2 – has been devastating. The Vietnam War, the worst atrocity in the post WW2 period, is but one example of this. Another is US support for the coup that brought General Suharto to power in 1965 and the subsequent army-led massacre of hundreds of thousands of mainly landless peasants.2 Others include US complicity in atrocities committed in East Timor3 and in West Papua.4
In the ongoing conflict between a rising China, regional states and the global hegemon, the US, Australia needs to develop a sense of its own independent interests. These should never be conflated with US interests in this region or anywhere else in the world. Aiding and abetting provocative freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the South China Sea does not enhance Australia’s security. On the contrary, by its complicity, Australia risks being dragged into another US-led military conflict.
Promoting the Freedom of the Seas Convention
As against militarising conflicts in the region, Australia could be a force for constructive resolution of these conflicts. For example:
- Australia, as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), should encourage the US to ratify this convention and campaign for UNCLOS to be observed by all claimants as a way of defusing disputes over territorial waters, archipelagic waters, exclusive economic zones etc. within the South China Sea.
- Also, it would be appropriate for a Senate inquiry to examine the competing claims of the US and China in the South China Sea and explore how adherence to UNCLOS could contribute to defusing tensions between claimants.
- In addition, bodies such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) could also be used to assist with the resolution of regional disputes involving territories and resources.5
Recent statements by the Commander of US Pacific Air Forces, General Lori Robinson, clearly show that the US is preparing for armed conflict to sustain its hegemony over China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
For Australia to eagerly participate in such a dangerous military project, via the US Marine Rotational Force in Darwin and the proposed stationing of B-1 bombers in Tindal and Darwin, is the height of strategic folly.
1. Stephen Conroy, ‘Turnbull Government adrift on ambiguous South China Sea rhetoric’, The Interpreter, Feb 24, 2016. Conroy even quotes conservative journalist and staunch defender of the US alliance, Greg Sheridan, in support of his belligerent stance on the South China Sea.
2. Refer to Bradley Simpson, ‘Accomplices in atrocity’, Inside Indonesia, No. 99, Jan-Mar 2010 and the webcast of his presentation to a forum on his book Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford University Press, 2008) organised by the Wilson Centre on Nov 14, 2008. Also refer to Hamish McDonald, ‘Indonesia’s coup remains a mystery 50 years on’, The Drum, Oct 1, 2015.
3. Colum Lynch, ‘Report: U.S. Arms Helped Indonesia Attack East Timor’, Washington Post, Jan 25, 2006.
4. Tom Benedetti, ‘Developed nations complicit in West Papua injustice’, The Free Library, Pacific People’s Partnership, 2004. On Australia’s complicity, refer to Stuart Rollo, ‘Ending our pragmatic complicity in West Papua’, The Drum, Oct 28, 2013.
5. Timor-Leste (East Timor) has used both the ICJ and PCA in disputes involving Australia. Following the Australia–Timor-Leste spying scandal in 2013, Timor-Leste launched a case in the PCA seeking to have the inequitable gas treaty it had signed with Australia declared invalid and the maritime boundaries between the two countries redrawn in accordance with international law. Refer to Frank Brennan, ‘Finding a just oil and gas settlement between Australia and Timor-Leste’, Eureka Street, Sep 24, 2014.