Australia Is Making a Bid for Power in the Pacific

As the US continues its slide toward cold war with China, pressure on Australia to maintain its dominance in the South Pacific has only grown. Ever the dutiful ally of the US, Australia is now earning accusations of imperialism from its Pacific neighbors.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to media during a press conference in Canberra, Australia, 2019. (Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images)

Australia’s ability to uphold its dominance in the Pacific is seen as an important test of its credibility as a US ally. But even in this restricted sphere, it can be hard for Australia to act without American support, as the case of the 1999 intervention in East Timor shows. We now know that John Howard only decided to dispatch Australian troops to the island once America had pressured Jakarta to accept a peacekeeping mission and scale back the militia violence.

Until that time, the Howard cabinet had preferred to continue Australia’s longstanding policy of support for the Indonesian occupation, even going so far as to withhold intelligence on the ongoing violence against Timorese civilians from the United States. When the decision was finally made for the Australian-led International Force East Timor force to go in, Howard was desperate to secure an American troop commitment to accompany it, but Washington was wary of getting too involved. Eventually a single warship with 900 marines was dispatched to keep a watching brief off the Timorese coast.

We now know a lot more too, about Howard’s purpose in “liberating” East Timor, as the sordid details of Australia’s efforts to spy on Timorese officials and swindle the impoverished nation of its resources have come to light. The close collaboration between Australian officials and Woodside Petroleum in seeking to maintain the lion’s share of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields exemplifies the way that Australian policy prioritizes the interests of elite corporate actors above the welfare of the people of the region.

Howard derived huge political benefit from the mission at the time and capitalized on it to give the Australian Defence Force a more interventionist form. Disseminated by think tanks such as ASPI, the discourse of the “failed state” justified Australia’s efforts in the 2000s to police the Pacific and liberalize the region’s economies. The 2003 Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands served to reinforce the structural reforms demanded by the IMF, reforms that had been a major factor in the crisis to begin with.

Using aid as leverage, the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea was compromised by the appointment of Australian officials to key public service positions and the granting of extraterritorial immunity to Australian police. Across what security specialists termed the “arc of instability,” Australian interventions served to undermine the state’s capacity to fend off the predations of foreign capital, creating a narrow elite of winners but offering the majority little chance of meaningful development.

For much of its history, the PRC [People’s Republic of China]’s interest in the Pacific was almost exclusively political: to persuade countries to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Kiribati and the Solomon Islands have recently done so, and now only the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, and Tuvalu remain as Taiwan’s friends in the region. A new piece of American legislation instructs the State Department to use pressure to deter countries in the region from recognizing the PRC, but as China ups its aid and lending programs, the cost of remaining loyal to Taiwan is increasing.

China’s actual aid spending in the Pacific has not yet lived up to its large commitments: the Lowy Institute’s data shows China stumping up roughly a quarter of what Australia provides, with figures in a similar ballpark to New Zealand. Nevertheless, the narrative of a Chinese invasion has been irresistible for the Australian media. As Nine News put it, “China is on the move in the Pacific and the communist country has already begun a slow invasion of Australia’s neighboring islands.”

Critical of this alarmism, authors of a 2019 Jubilee Australia study point out that China is “acting just like any other aid donor,” and therefore “current security concerns may be overstated.” This is obviously true in a sense, but it also misses the point. Australia itself now defines foreign aid as part of its “economic diplomacy”: as a tool of political influence, that is to say, not an act of altruism. It naturally sees Chinese aid in the same way, and any Chinese influence as a security risk.

Australia’s proprietary claim on this region is such that it simply doesn’t see itself, or America, as outsiders here. “Australia would be very concerned if anybody from outside of the Pacific decided they wanted to set up a military base in the Pacific,” assistant minister for the Pacific Anne Ruston said, shortly after Australia announced it was collaborating with the United States to revive the Manus Island military base in Papua New Guinea. Scott Morrison has come up with a new formula for the relationship: “We are connected as members of a Pacific family,” he said at Lavarack Barracks, announcing his Pacific “step-up” policy.

The step-up, Australia’s primary vehicle for countering China, aims to increase Australia’s regional defense collaborations, envisaging more training for Pacific militaries and police in Australia. Australia’s diplomatic presence is also being expanded, and more Australian TV will be broadcast to the region. But the chief selling point is the Australian Infrastructure Investment Fund for the Pacific, a A$2 billion commitment, combining A$500 million in aid grants with A$1.5 million worth of loans.

In stumping up this cash to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Australia has advertised the superior quality and transparency of its infrastructure support. China is building “roads to nowhere,” while Australia has the experience and local know-how to bring development to where it’s needed. But history shows otherwise: the region is littered with ill-considered and even harmful investments that have done little to lift people out of poverty.

One notorious example is Exxon Mobil’s liquefied natural gas plant in Papua New Guinea, built with the backing of Australia’s Export Finance Agency (EFIC). A 2018 report on the failing venture found that, far from paving the way to prosperity for Papua New Guinea, the investment had the net effect of reducing household incomes, employment, and public spending on health and education. Yet Australia continues to prioritize such initiatives, and has increased EFIC’s available funds and the discretionary scope of its “National Interest Account.”

As a consequence, Australia is doing precisely what it keeps accusing China of — using finance as a political tool, and lending with little transparency and accountability. In 2019, after the Papua New Guinean prime minister hinted he might go to China for help to refinance the national debt, Australia countered with a A$442 million loan package, the terms of which were kept secret. Naturally, corporate interests have been playing up the China angle too. In lobbying to widen EFIC’s remit, the PNG company Oil Search said the policy change would “help balance any potential influence from other nations that are prepared to provide material infrastructure funding to Pacific countries, often on a concessional basis.”

In the short term, therefore, opportunistic local politicians and corporations stand to benefit from competition with China, but it carries serious risks for Pacific island nations as a whole. Many of these nations are loose federations, with domestic conflicts that could easily be exacerbated by geopolitics. In his recent book, Rory Medcalf embraces the trope of the “Great Game” to describe today’s rivalries in the Indo-Pacific — invoking the contest that played out between the Russian and British empires in Central Asia during the nineteenth century.

We’d do well to remember, then, the outcome of the Great Game for its primary playing field, Afghanistan. Long conditioned to jump at Russian shadows, Britain’s colonial impulse led it to twice invade Afghanistan to install its preferred candidate for the Kabul throne in the nineteenth century. Imperial rivalries continued to lay waste to the country in the twentieth century, and today they play a role in drawing out a seemingly endless US-led occupation.

The imperial instincts that drove the first Great Game are no thing of the past. Australia and America warn of China’s desire to militarize the Pacific, but they are in the process of militarizing it themselves via the refurbished Manus Island naval base, a strategic window onto the western Pacific. In the name of defending small Pacific nations from China, Australia’s foreign policy establishment is debating blatantly neocolonial proposals to assume control of their affairs.

In 2017, the Lowy Institute’s Greg Colton aired a proposal for compacts of “free association” with Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Nauru, offering their citizens the right to work in Australia in return for exclusive military use of their territory and “consultation” on foreign policy. The move, he said, would “extend and deepen the second island chain formed by the US Free Compact States [such as Palau] and enhance Australia’s alliance with the US.”

In 2019, Kevin Rudd voiced his support for just such a “constitutional condominium” as a response to climate change. Rudd was rebuked by Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, for his “imperial thinking,” but [Australian National University]’s John Blaxland picked up the baton, dismissing Sopoaga’s criticisms as “superficial.”

Insisting that “Australia is not an imperialist nation,” in a 2020 senate hearing he touted the “benefits of peace, security and stability that would accrue from having these states integrally connected with Australia.” In a piece of imperial logic straight from the Great Game playbook, Blaxland claimed that this diminution of sovereignty would in fact “guarantee sovereignty” for Pacific nations. At the same senate hearing, [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] officials confirmed that they were studying the proposal.

Political Exports

There’s nothing specifically Australian about all this. It’s the logic of interstate competition that drives it to behave this way. The same logic may eventually induce China to respond in kind, with policies to push Australia out of parts of the Pacific, or to establish a military presence of its own. None of these developments is out of the question.

Recognizing this dynamic, some circle back to the question of regime type: it’s preferable, they argue, for a democracy like Australia to play the role of hegemon than for China to. But if we’re worried about someone “exporting authoritarianism” to the Pacific, we’re better off looking in the mirror. This is what we’ve literally done, in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, by exporting to these countries harsh detention facilities for people claiming their right to asylum. Particularly in Nauru, the country’s role as a subcontractor for Australia’s punitive refugee policy has been a catalyst for increasing corruption and authoritarianism in local politics.

Standing up for the interests of small, impoverished nations bullied by their large neighbors is a worthy cause. So too is defending international institutions against the notion that might makes right, and fostering democratic governance and the rule of law. But upholding such principles in Australia has to begin at home, with a critique of Australia’s role in the world. We certainly won’t uphold them by escalating a rivalry with China, the purpose of which is to maintain Australia’s ability to flout these principles when it suits its interests.

Yet with little public debate, Australia’s support for the United States is locking Australia firmly into that rivalry. Since Obama announced the “Pivot” in 2011, the US Marine rotation in Darwin has risen to 2,500. To Darwin’s east, millions of dollars are being spent to upgrade port facilities that can accommodate American warships — with some advertising these facilities as a possible base for the US Navy’s revived First Fleet.

Three hundred kilometers to the south, at the Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal, Morrison plans to spend A$1.1 billion to extend runways and enhance support capacity for US B-52s, transforming it into what commentator Paul Dibb excitedly calls “the most potent military base south of Guam.” Roughly $1 billion will also go toward purchasing Lockheed Martin anti-ship missiles, and defense hawks are lobbying for Australia to either acquire, or permit America to install, intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the Northern Territory. With a range of 3,000–5,500 kilometers, such missiles would be capable of hitting the southern provinces of China.

Beyond the tit-for-tat diplomatic exchanges that drive the news cycle, these are the hard realities of Australia’s positioning today. Amid a deep post-COVID recession, Australia will direct $270 billion into military spending in the coming decade, shedding all pretense that this is not aimed at China. The 2020 meeting of the Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations (a forum known as AUSMIN) is said to have resulted in a “secret defense plan” to counter China, but the basic plan is hardly a secret.

By doubling down on Australia’s historical role as an imperial sidekick in Asia, politicians of both major parties are pursuing policies designed to keep military options against China on the table and preserve America’s role in the region. Guided by the expansive notion of “security” that the architects of Australia’s regional dominance operate within, these policies increase the likelihood of confrontation with the PRC and make ordinary Australians less safe.

American military hardware and intelligence facilities on Australian soil, along with Australian ships and fighter jets embedded in US command structures across the Pacific, all but take the question that is most basic to any society — whether or not to go to war — out of Australian hands.

Currently there seems to be no appetite in the Australian parliament for considering the wisdom of the path the country is on, or what it might take to change course. That’s not to say, though, that politicians will have no hesitations here. Only America can do the heavy lifting required to preserve the status quo, and not everyone is convinced that it will.

Ongoing lobbying will be required to keep America’s priorities aligned with Australia’s. Outside parliament, elite voices warn of the folly of a pro-US alignment, or of the economic damage it will cause. These qualms and misgivings have yet to translate into significant public disquiet, but it’s conceivable that they could. While polls show strong support for ANZUS [Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty], only one-third of Australians endorse the idea of military action in Asia “in accordance with our security alliance with the United States.” A majority of adults below thirty see relations with China as more important than relations with the United States.

In any situation like this, there’s a gap to be bridged between the ordinary, commonsense perceptions of security that inform the outlook of most Australians and the anxieties of defense strategists, which are liable to be triggered by geopolitical tectonic shifts far from the Australian continent. It’s not as easy to do this as it once was. The old domino theory of communist expansion is gone, and none but the most imaginative security hawks can conceive of China ever invading Australia. The proposition that Beijing might choke off Australia’s trade routes to its north is hardly persuasive either, since almost all of that trade is going to China. Why would China shut off trade with itself?

Still, a convincing rationale for confrontation with China has had to be found. In 2017, a curious phrase made its way into the introduction that Malcolm Turnbull penned to his foreign policy white paper. Australia’s foreign policy, Turnbull wrote, was about “resolutely resisting threats to our way of life.”

The choice of words in official texts like these is an exercise in precision: this wasn’t a throwaway line. A single-minded focus on China in Australia’s military thinking was now to be accompanied by claims that our very way of life was endangered by its rise. The enemy, we were being told, was already at the door.