Since US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, there has been a spike in commentary about the increasing risk of a war in our region — a war that could involve the US and China. As things stand, it would be impossible for Australia to avoid involvement in such a war. That is a reality we must urgently confront.
In our region there is concern over North Korea’s growing military might and corresponding antagonism from the US, South Korea and Japan; tension between Japan and China over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; and tension in the South China Sea, the major trade-route where China is constructing facilities on reclaimed islands. The background to all these points of tension is the US’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, which involves a substantial build-up of US military assets in the region.
This amounts to a regional arms race. Think tanks and academics now openly discuss the possibility of war between China and the US. US military facilities form a chain that almost encircles China.
How does this affect Australia?
The answer is simple and was expressed very clearly by the late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in his book Dangerous Allies. There are US military assets on Australian soil that are of such military significance that, in the event of hostilities, no enemy of the US could afford to leave them untouched.
Pine Gap plays a crucial role in US surveillance and communication. It would be a prime target for attack. The US Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), stationed in Darwin, is designed to project US power.
Further, under the buzzword “interoperability”, Australia’s defence forces are closely integrated with US military forces. An Australian warship is part of the US Seventh Fleet and an Australian general is deputy commander of the US Army in the Pacific. Much of the weaponry used by our forces originates in the US, the prime example being the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. Australian and US forces conduct massive, biannual joint military exercises, known as Exercise Talisman Sabre, due to start again this July.
The Australian Defence Force’s internal communications make use of American-controlled systems — meaning the US could, if it found it advantageous, shut them down. It is arguable that Australia cannot conduct its own military operations unless the US approves of them.
It is no wonder that President Barack Obama, who visited Australia in 2011 to announce the MAGTF, said, when addressing Australian troops: “You can’t tell where our guys end and you guys begin...”. This blurred line between American and Australian military forces means that any potential enemy of the US is also, automatically, the potential enemy of Australia.
The same blurred line extends to Australia’s foreign policy. Witness the manner in which Australia has boycotted UN discussions on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
Our nation has a misguided obsession with the US alliance. The unfortunate consequence is that we are, by default, gaining enemies where we need have none.
Australia’s so-called defence is largely determined by the interests of the US. The perversely named Australian Defence Force has not been deployed to defend Australia since World War II. Yet in the same period it has been engaged in numerous hostile actions in countries distant from our own, in every case alongside US forces — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
From this perspective, Australia has given away its independence and compromised its defence. We think we can rely on the US to “protect” us, but the only reason we need that protection is because we host such important US military assets. The “protector” is the reason we need “protection”.
That much is not new. However, the emergence of an unpredictable president in Donald Trump, has raised the stakes. The recent missile attack on a Syrian military airfield — surely an act of war — and the movement of a US battle fleet to South Korean waters give the situation heightened urgency.
What is to be done?
A radical reassessment of Australia’s defence and foreign policies is necessary. Continuing on the present path is leading Australia into very dangerous waters.
As a step in this direction, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) has issued a statement entitled “Keep Australia out of US Wars”.
It states: “We believe Australia’s military alliance with the US, involving the complicity of successive Australian governments in US global military agendas, undermines Australia’s peace security and sovereignty.”
The statement demands less spending on all things military and the diversion of public funds to socially beneficial activities. It argues that the people must take control of foreign policy and review the presence of US forces.
For the present, war in our region is just a possibility. As events unfold, though, that possibility appears to be growing. However far off war might be, now is the time to speak out about it and stop its approach. One way to do that is by adding your name to IPAN’s statement.
[Nick Dean is a member of IPAN. The full text of the statement and facility for making a donation can be found on IPAN’s website.]