Australia in the Asia-Pacific: ‘Lap dog’ or aggressor?

Graffiti on the wall of Australian Embassy in Dili.

Is Australia a “lapdog” for the United States or is it also an imperialist power — albeit smaller — looking to grow its own interests? This discussion has intensified in the wake of the announcement of the new AUKUS defence treaty.

Australia is a product of colonialism since British colonialists invaded in 1788. British, and now US, capitalist interests have had a considerable influence. Australia also has its own capitalist elite that, in turn, want it to expand its imperialist role within the South Pacific and south-east Asia.

The colonial state was largely built by British capital in the 19th Century with indentured labour and, in the later parts of that century and after federation, it became the dominant British colony in the South Pacific.

Within Australia, this was largely uncontested. A working class aristocracy in a low population and awash with British capital and, later, gold, collaborated with imperialism to maintain this status quo.

Henry Parkes, one of the so-called founding fathers, wrote in 1891: “Australia ought to be the mistress of the Southern Seas. The trade, the commerce … of these groups of rich islands ought to centre in our ports; and with these advantages, we ought to hold mastery of the hemisphere.”

The Intercolonial Military Committee in Sydney said in 1896: “Instead of thinking in terms of the continent and Tasmania ... the defence [of the] region of Australia [must] be extended to include New Zealand, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides [Vanuatu], New Guinea and portions of Borneo and Java."

An example of Australia’s colonial actions in the Pacific was the enslavement of Pacific Islander peoples to work Queensland’s cotton and sugar farms. Sugar cane cutting and thrashing is lethal and debilitating work. At least 60,000 people were removed, mostly forcibly, but sometimes under indentured servitude.

At the turn of the century, Australia’s rulers made plans to take over rival French and German colonies, located on its north-east. This accelerated at the outbreak of World War I when Australia’s rulers were quick to seize what Pacific territory they could, such as New Guinea, Samoa and Nauru. They hoped to hold on to these territories after the war.

At this time, the ruling class’ policy towards Asia was to work in solidarity with European and US imperialism to continue colonising the region and to defeat any liberation movements.

After World War II, Australia looked to the US rather than Britain, distancing itself from European colonialism largely to defeat communist movements in neighbouring countries. Australia backed the Indonesian military dictator General Suharto, turning a blind eye to the massacre of up to half a million communists and activists.

It maintained bases in Malaysia for several decades after World War II and helped the British fight the Malayan Communist Party, which tried to take power after the defeat of Japan rather than allow British rule to continue.

Containment policy

Foreign policy up to 1975 was about the “containment” of communist movements.

Despite losing the Vietnam War, the failures of subsequent revolutions and the degeneration of the Chinese Revolution allowed capitalism to stabilise in the region. Australia started to invest more heavily in these countries, especially after Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam recognised China.

This accelerated after the 1970s recession in the West, then still a time of high growth in Asia. Ramping up its investment in South East Asia and the Pacific allowed Australian capitalism to play an influential role. In the late 1960s, New Guinea received 58% of Australia’s overseas investment. In 2000, two thirds of Papua New Guinea’s foreign investment came from Australia.

Australia sends large quantities of manufactured goods to the Pacific nations, which, until China started playing a larger role in trade, relied heavily on it for imports.

Foreign aid is not about being helpful: it performs the role of keeping these island nations profitable for capitalism, because the process helps to co-opt local elites thereby extending leverage.

There are also many examples of Australia pressuring Pacific Island nations over their economic policies and views on independence. This has been most obvious through the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment loans and neoliberal reforms, such as privatisation and the removal of tariffs, many of which were brought on in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s.

Australia has used its imperialist influence to try and squash East Timor’s push for self-determination and, later, to try and thwart its ability to set up a stronger state. After its successful independence struggle, Australia worked hard to bring East Timor into its imperialist sphere, sending consultants and advisors and controlling access to East Timor through Darwin.

It drew up gerrymandered sea boundaries to help Indonesia access East Timor’s gas. The illegal bugging of the East Timorese presidential palace on behalf of Australia’s Woodside Petroleum is an overt example of Australia’s meddling on behalf of big capital.

Australia has stacked East Timor’s resource and infrastructure industries with technical advisors and companies and pushed an Australian-run telecommunication system for phones and internet.

It is taking maximum advantage of East Timor’s resources and markets, while expending a minimum amount on developmental assistance.

Military

The Australian Defense Force (ADF), and often the police, play an active role in the wider Pacific region. Australia expects the US to lead, but for it to contribute militarily. The ADF has dedicated tens of thousands of troops to police the region by deploying them to “troubled hot spots”.

The ruling class aims to equip the ADF with enough technology to be integrated into US-led wars to protect the interests of imperialism. Its other function is to put down insurgencies and revolutions and threaten independent governments who dare challenge its “sphere of influence” in Bougainville, East Timor, West Papua, the Solomon Islands and Fiji.

Australia is always ready to support local elites in these countries that are prepared to its interests. A good example was the 1987 military coup in Fiji in which the democratically elected Fiji Labour Party — the first multi-racial government since colonial rule — was toppled. Australian imperialism believed it could lose out under a migrant and worker-led coalition.

After the coup, George Speight and his military successors backed away from their initial call to reinstate the democratically-elected government and formed links with the coup leaders. At Australia’s urging, the coup regime set about implementing major privatisations, lowering taxes for the wealthy and cutting public services and wages.

The 2001 coup was almost a carbon copy of the previous one, and also led by Speight. The outcome was the installation of the capital-friendly banker Laisenia Qarase, again with Australia’s approval.

Bougainville

Bougainville is another stand out example of how Australian imperialism meddles to weaken independence struggles. The vast Panguna copper mine, in the heart of the rainforest on the main island of Bougainville, was producing 45% of PNG’s export revenue in the 1970s: then, it was the largest open cut mine in the world.

The people of Bougainville, a series of islands between the PNG mainland and the Solomon Islands, were receiving very little revenue, with most of the profit going to the Australian corporation Rio Tinto.

By 1988, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was in a war with the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF). Australia supplied helicopters, patrol boats and other military hardware to the PNGDF, to help it defeat the BRA. Later on, it supplied guns and ammunition directly.

The civil war, in which up to 20,000 people were killed, dragged on, until the 1997 ceasefire. An independence referendum, where 97.7% voted in favor, led to the 2020 election of a former commander of the BRA. The mine has been dormant since the start of the fighting: Google Earth shows it slowly decaying.

Former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare alleged in 2011 that Rio Tinto had directly financed the civil war to allow the mine to reopen.

Australia has, and is, meddling in the Solomon Islands. In 2003, it sent thousands of police and military to assist the government after violence erupted. Canberra claimed the country was a “failing state” and chose to send military and police rather than any practical assistance.

Under the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) operation the Australian-led police force as well as around 120 officials took control of the state and accelerated the wholesale privatisation of state-owned businesses, which had begun after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. RAMSI forces also created “economic reforms” that enriched foreign-owned resource extraction corporations and reduced business taxes.

These decisions allowed the Australian Federal Police to deploy significant new resources. It also allowed for the establishment of new Australian-run, private prison systems. Solomon Islands’ sovereignty was stripped away, while Australian capitalism was enriched.

Although Australia sits within the global imperialist machinery, run chiefly by the US, it acts alone, and often ruthlessly, in pursuit of its own imperialist interests in this part of the world. It is by no means a US dupe.