Australia must prepare for a Chinese military base in the Pacific

16-Jul-2019 Intellasia | The Guardian | 6:02 AM Print This Post

The cost of keeping China out of the region is too great. We must build forces that could counter its operations instead

Let’s be honest: Australians have never had much time for our South Pacific neighbours.

The island nations that lie to our north and north-east, stretching from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands to Vanuatu, Fiji and beyond, may be close to us geographically, but we have not found them especially interesting, important or profitable.

With a few honourable exceptions, and tourism aside, Australians have been indifferent to our nearest neighbours’ dramatic landscapes, their rich and diverse cultures, and their general welfare, and we have seen relatively few opportunities for trade.

A welcome ceremony for China’s President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby in November 2018, ahead of the Apec summit.(Getty Images )

A welcome ceremony for China’s President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby in November 2018, ahead of the Apec summit.(Getty Images )

Only their strategic significance has attracted us: the islands scattered widely across the north of our continent are critical to our protection from armed attack. Our closest neighbours are crucial to the defence of our continent simply because of their proximity.

Military operations are governed by distance. Whether you can sink a ship, bomb an airfield or seize a town–and, critically, how much it will cost–depends on how far your forces must operate from their bases and how far the enemy must operate from theirs.

For much of our history, distance has worked to Australia’s advantage. We have been secure because we are remote. But we lose this advantage if a potentially hostile great power can operate from bases close to our shores.

The China wake-up call

“We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours.” That was then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in April 2018, responding to press reports last April that China was seeking to build a naval base in Vanuatu.

The story was swiftly and categorically denied by both Beijing and Port Vila, and Julie Bishop, then minister for foreign affairs, poured cold water on it. While it may prove a false alarm, it seems Canberra has received credible indications that China is indeed actively seeking a military base somewhere in the South Pacific.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of such a development, were it to occur.

This would be the first time since Japan was pushed out of the islands at the end of the Pacific War that any major power, other than one of our allies, has sought a military base so close to Australia.

Establishing a base in our neighbourhood would be a low-cost, low-risk way for China to show off its growing military and diplomatic reach and clout. Moreover, by ignoring the noisy complaints that would surely emanate from Washington, Beijing would show that it is willing to defy the United States.

And it would send an unambiguous message to us here in Australia, signalling Beijing’s rejection of our claims to our own sphere of influence in the South Pacific, and sending a stark warning of China’s reach and its capacity to punish us if we side too vociferously with the US or Japan against it.

Abandoning the sphere of influence

What can Australia do, then?

One option is a radical recasting of our relations and role in the South Pacific, to draw our neighbour much more closely under our wing. But the better option would be to step back, abandoning our traditional ideas about keeping intruders out of the South Pacific. In fact, there may be no alternative.

China poses an unprecedented challenge to the strategic assumptions that have framed our policies since European settlement. We have never encountered an Asian country as powerful as China is now, let alone as powerful as it will likely become in the decades ahead.

The costs to us of trying to keep China out of the region might simply prove impossible to bear. Or, to be more precise, it might prove cheaper to build military capabilities that in a war could neutralise Chinese bases in the South Pacific (by denying access to them and subjecting them to strike attacks) than to prevent China from establishing such bases in peacetime.

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Building forces that could counter Chinese bases in our neighbourhood would mean that we could feel less anxious about the establishment of such bases, and relax the imperative to preserve the sphere of influence we have for so long assumed we must maintain.

This would not mean abandoning all interest in our nearest neighbours and succumbing to the indifference that has historically weakened our relationships with them. On the contrary, we should make great efforts to maximise our role and presence–not in the form of an exclusive sphere of influence, but as one of the region’s major partners.

It is possible to imagine Australia actively engaged in the South Pacific not to exclude China (or any other power), but to work with it where possible, and to work against it where necessary, to protect our interests and the interests we share with our small neighbours as best we can.

We should start to treat our smaller close neighbours as independent at last.

The uncomfortable reality is that preserving an exclusive sphere of influence in the South Pacific is not going to be possible against a regional power that is far stronger than any we have ever confronted, or even contemplated. It might turn out that the more we try and fail to exclude China from the South Pacific, the less influence we will have there.

If Scott Morrison is as serious about the South Pacific as he claims, he should start, paradoxically perhaps, by abandoning the idea of an exclusive sphere of influence, and then by guiding Australians to take a much greater interest in our neighbourhood than we ever have before.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2019/jul/15/australia-must-prepare-for-a-chinese-military-base-in-the-pacific

 


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