25 May ARTICLE | China’s Pacific bases, the US pivot to Asia, and Australia’s role in militarising the region
BY STUART ROLLO
A recent article claiming the Chinese Government approached officials in Vanuatu about building a permanent military presence on the island, and the response to it by Australian officials, highlights the threat such a base would pose to Australian security.
Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister, Ralph Regenvanu, denied the “paranoid” claims, and said Vanuatu was against any sort of militarisation of its territory.
China’s Department of Foreign Affairs also refuted the story, labelling it “fake news”, and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop affirmed her belief Australia remained Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice.
It appears the matter can be laid to rest for now, but we in Australia should take it as an opportunity for reflection.
The matter of Chinese bases in the Pacific will almost certainly arise again, and the major reason will be the US-led strategic encirclement of China, in which Australia plays an important role.
Vanuatu in the frame amid Pacific threats
The prospect of a foreign base in Vanuatu strikes a particular chord in the Australian psyche.
Australia has been obsessed with the fear of foreign powers setting up in the archipelago that surrounds our continent for most of our history. So much so that throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Australian politicians, media outlets, and religious organisations persistently petitioned the British Colonial Office to annex any and all “unclaimed” islands of the South Pacific, lest any part should fall into the hands of a rival power.
The campaign to annex the New Hebrides, as Vanuatu was then known, and keep it out of French hands was particularly intense. From the 1860s onwards, the Australian colonies produced a constant stream of public and legislative assembly resolutions, media articles, and political speeches called for the British annexation of the islands.
Probably the single most important driving factor behind the federation of Australia itself was the perception the British could not be relied upon to promote Australian regional security interests, and the desire to establish an Australian “Monroe Doctrine in the Pacific” held strong currency among Australia’s first federal political leaders.
The French threat in the New Hebrides was resolved through a joint governance agreement between Britain and France in 1906. Ironically, as Japan emerged as the main foreign threat to Australia in the Pacific, the idea was soon circulated among Australian leaders to cede the British stake in the islands entirely to the French, so as to establish a third power in the region to help balance against Japan.
History and geopolitics show that as long as we have strategic rivals, the South Pacific islands will be a potential point of vulnerability for Australia.
China ‘surrounded’ by 250 US military bases
This begs the question of how to avoid the intensification of strategic rivalry with our neighbours.
A fairly obvious answer would be to follow our own advice, and advocate for the demilitarisation of the region.
The reason China would have an interest in establishing a military base on a remote Pacific island, is that they themselves are surrounded by a dense and heavily armed archipelago of American military bases, 250 or so according to US Department of Defence statistics.
Australia is itself home to several valuable US bases that would certainly be used in any conflict with China. The most important of them, Pine Gap, sits in the centre of the country and acts as a geospatial operations and intelligence hub.
On top of its role in America’s global drone surveillance and targeting programs, Pine Gap is also a vital piece of the United States’ nuclear warfighting apparatus, the capabilities and destructive capacity of which has been radically increased in recent years.
Australia is also host to a fully equipped US Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) stationed in Darwin, south of the Straits of Malacca, which is an important chokepoint for China’s seaborne energy and trade.
Vanuatu’s location is particularly strategic as it lies within the sea lines of communication between the United States and Australia, so American forces transiting to Australia would pass nearby.
The MAGTF base in Darwin has only been in operation for a few years, and came into being as a result of the American “pivot to Asia”, announced by then-president Barack Obama in Australian Parliament in 2011. The pivot aims to reassert American dominance of the Asia-Pacific region, and is easily the single biggest example of militarisation of the region that has been seen in decades.
US bases in Western Pacific a worry for China
Our own actions show we are only opposed to the militarisation of the region when it is done by the other side.
The sense of danger that grips us when we are confronted with the possibility of one Chinese base on an island 2,000 kilometres away should give us pause to consider how China’s sense of security is affected by a chain of hundreds of American bases stretching longitudinally along the Western Pacific.
Australian leaders are right to oppose the construction of a Chinese military base in the South Pacific.
But as long as we enthusiastically support, encourage, and participate in the much larger American military build-up in the region, rather than seeking to moderate and reduce regional tensions through our alliance, we should expect nothing else.
Stuart Rollo is a research associate at the Sydney Democracy Network at the University of Sydney.
Originally published by ABC News