In tandem with its economic war on China, the United States has ramped up its military presence in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, extending the “Pacific pivot” that began under former president Barack Obama.
On June 1, the Pentagon released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.
The report clearly identified China as the number one predator in the Indo-Pacific region that is “seeking to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernisation, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations”.
In addition to China, the US “threat list” in the region includes Russia — referred to as a “revitalised malign actor” and North Korea — the “rogue state”.
The paper also identifies “backsliding” countries such as Cambodia (that allowed China to build a military base on its soil) and Myanmar, for its treatment of minority Rohingya people. Also on the list are the threats of terrorism, trafficking, piracy, ISIS and natural disasters.
The report characterises the recent elections in the Philippines as “free and fair” — no surprise given that the country is home to two US bases.
It also praises Sri Lanka for transitioning to a “constitutional, multiparty republic with a freely-elected President and Parliament”, and giving the US permission to engage with it militarily.
The US vision is to “compete, deter and win” through “developing a more lethal, resilient and rapidly innovating Joint Force”. It suggests “increasing collaboration” from among “a robust constellation of allies and partners,” namely Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia.
The US Indo-Pacific Command is made up of 370,000 armed forces’ personnel, 2000 planes and 200 ships and submarines, the largest concentrations of which are in Japan and South Korea.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings praised the “substantial overlap” between US and Australian “interests” in the region, but bemoaned the fact that Canberra hasn’t taken a more aggressive stance towards China.
“Canberra is still unwilling to accept the reality that China is the most pressing strategic problem we face … giving rise to daily policy contortions as DFAT [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] and others stick to 1990s-style rhetoric about how we have a ‘constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests, mutual benefit and mutual respect’.
“Whatever the official soothing public utterances, the need is for a hard-headed assessment of how to deal with the risks presented by Beijing.”
Jennings has a point, given that Canberra has to balance competing interests in relation to China while staying close to the US.
On one hand, the Australian government wants to maintain good relations with a key trading partner to protect its billion-dollar resource exports to China. In 2018, Chinese tourists spent $11.5 billion in Australia and 250,000 Chinese international students are enrolled in Australian universities.
On the other hand, Australia is keen to match Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, as part of its alliance with the US. Under this military partnership, Australia hosts 2000 US Marines on annual rotation in Darwin (under the Force Posture Agreement signed in 2014 under the Julia Gillard government), which will grow to 2500.
Australia is collaborating with the US and Papua New Guinea on the redevelopment of the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island, which will enable it to host US Navy vessels.
Australia also “partners” with the US in cyberspace, defence science and technology and the exchange of defence intelligence.
The ABC recently revealed secret planning between the US and Australia for construction of a new port outside Darwin (the Darwin port is leased to a Chinese company) to help US vessels and US Marine rotations.
While a truce has been called in the economic war between the US and China, as the report states, the US considers the Indo-Pacific to be the “priority theatre” where it can pursue its “national interests”.
Aside from “defending the homeland”, these strategic interests include ensuring that the US remains “the preeminent military power in the world”, ensuring the balance of power in the region remains in its favour and “is most conducive to” its “security and prosperity”.
We know what this means for the Indo-Pacific countries: reduced sovereignty and the implicit threat of war breaking out between the US and China.