The following article appeared in Pearls & Irritations on 6 April, 2022.
The US had its moves worked out three years ago. Australia, with the most pro-American government since Holt, has been malleable, fawning, uncritical and easily led.
Noted was the ease with which the Morrison government jumped when asked, to criticise Xi Jinping with respect to Covid and the banning of Huawei. The US concluded that Morrison and his ministers were an easy mark. They proposed the north of Australia become a US controlled area of operation for confrontation of China.
As part of gaining control over regional operations they decided the French should get the flick, which entailed getting Australia to ditch the submarine deal. The AUKUS arrangement is the Trojan Horse, the vehicle for securing control. They plan for northern Australia to host a number of bases from which they can contain China. The involvement of the UK is little more than window dressing.
In many ways it is a good deal for Australia, if the question of sovereignty is put to one side. Australian defence procurement in recent years has been less than satisfactory. Australia will find it difficult to rectify these errors in the short to medium term. An enhanced US presence will make up for those deficiencies. Nonetheless Australia is expected to share, handover or build defence infrastructure for what is termed ‘interoperable’ force arrangements. New harbour facilities are to be built in Darwin to facilitate US fuel storage, provide birthing for nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. HMAS Stirling, near Fremantle, is to be upgraded for similar reasons. The search is on to provide harbour facilities for US nuclear submarines on the eastern coast.
Given Australian defence weakness, the backbone of the new confrontational force will be American. Existing Australian equipment, even though much is new and the rest little used, will be supplemented and supplanted by US materiel.
Many of the armoured vehicles that Australia possesses are too heavy for use in the region. The purchase of the upgraded Abrams tank is difficult to understand. It is too heavy for Australian topography and infrastructure let alone operating effectively in the region.
The F35A, a Howard call and bought off the plan, is struggling to meet operational requirements. Lockheed Martin, who built the aircraft, are more successful in putting panels and promotional material in the Australian War Memorial than they have been in solving problems to make the F35 fully effective.
Australia is to scrap its fleet of ADF helicopters and replace them with the upgraded US Black Hawk. The upgrade of Jindalee is years behind, the digitisation of the army under Land 200 is on hold after 15 years of ‘work’ and could take another 10 years to complete.
The Hawkei vehicle replacement program has come to a halt with brake problems. The proposed manufacture of northern based guided weapons has struck range capability issues even before the project has begun. Alterations in the specifications of the Hunter Class Frigates has seen a reduction in speed and manoeuvrability before delivery. The Australian submarine saga has been widely discussed.It is as familiar to class rooms and aged care facilities as it is to overpaid and over superannuated politicians. It doesn’t need further discussion here other than to note Australian nuclear submarines are unlikely to eventuate. The capability gap will be filled by US nuclear submarines and new facilities are being built or upgraded, at Australian expense, to accommodate their home porting in Australia.
Dutton has forbidden ADF personnel to publicly discuss climate warming but that is the battle Australia must prepare for. HMAS Adelaide and Canberra, Hercules and C17 aircraft, patrol boats and merchant marine vessels are useful in assisting Pacific Island states and near regional neighbours in the event of catastrophic climate warming events and other natural disasters. Not submarines and tanks.
Why has Australia bought, ordered and planned for defence equipment not suited to its needs? Have decisions been made under pressure from the US government or arms manufacturers? Has Australian defence planning struggled to find focus? Did fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan divert attention away from regional defence planning? Whatever the reason, Australia has defence equipment not suited for purpose or below specifications.
Significant quantities of US defence materiel and personnel will be transferred to Australia, including submarines. Pine Gap is being expanded to enhance our northern focus. China has expressed concern at AUKUS and the proposal to increase US forces in Australia.
However just as the security focus north was being locked in place, the Solomons enhanced its relationship with China.It was interpreted by politicians and the MSM as a threat. The Solomons Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, foreshadowed a security agreement with China. The intention to proceed received joint signatures on 1 April. It is no joke. Both parties are serious. Apparently, consideration has been underway for some months, probably from when AUKUS was proposed.
When the details of the enhanced relationship were leaked it had an electrifying effect ranging from suggestions for an Australia intervention in the Solomons (a regime change?!!) to calls for the Solomons to reconsider entering the agreement. ASPI, the LNP and much of the MSM led what can only be described as an overwrought reaction.
Some commentators did note that the Solomons was a sovereign state.
Respect, or lack of it, for the island states of the Pacific by the conservative side of Australian politics was probably a factor behind the joint China/Solomons announcement. In 2019, Dutton, in the presence of Abbott and Morrison, was caught making a disparaging and demeaning comment about Pacific Island States in relation to climate warming. It is Australian denial of the effect of climate warming bringing rising sea levels to these states which has upset them. Their public reaction to Australian climate warming denial has ranged from polite castigation to anger. None have respect for LNP policy toward the use of fossil fuels.
Patronising arrogance might best describe the LNP’s long held view toward the Pacific. A view formed within their deep-seated racism, obvious to all except apparently themselves. It is insulting and demeaning for Australia to use the term Pacific Family when there is no respect, feeling or meaning behind it and when it is not reciprocated.
Australia has had a long association with the Solomons including through RAMSI and the deployment last year of 200 ADF and AFP personnel to restore order following riots. It has allocated millions to development projects, including a radio network. Apparently it is to little effect. Underlying grievances, centred on bruised sensitivities and feelings and insults, real and perceived, have apparently been fertile ground for the Chinese to sow the seeds of deeper ‘co-operation’.
There are provisions in the proposed agreement for China to deploy military and police to maintain law and order and protect ‘Chinese personnel and major projects.’ More febrile observers have suggested that China will build a naval base and in doing so threaten eastern access to Australia. The head of the ANU National Security College, Rory Medcalf, has said such a development would be ‘pretty damn dangerous.’
In view of the projected American build up in the Northern Territory, with Darwin set to become a garrison town, China may proceed down that path. It has certainly given itself the room to do so. AUKUS will now shift some of its focus east to the Solomons. The Americans are pushing the pace in the region and we shouldn’t be surprised when the Chinese respond. The upshot is an increasing Chinese presence in what we used to regard as our backyard, a yard that we neglected. It should have come as no shock that China, as a growing economic and military power, would take an increased interest in the affairs of Pacific Island states. The problem for Australia is that it did not anticipate that interest and had no diplomatic mechanisms in place to deal with it.
China has not indicated it wants to build a base, but were it to do so how should Australia react? Ramp up its current level of hysteria, hubris and bombast ? Or enter dialogue with China, which is here to stay. The sooner we learn to deal with that fact the better.
If Australia had maintained normal diplomatic relations with China, it might have been possible to discuss in advance joint security and aid arrangements for the region including the Solomons. But Australia has taken sides, and in so doing fuelled distrust. We have foregone independent diplomacy for the dubious protection afforded a vassal state.