The Defence Strategic Review and the new imperialism
The Defence Strategic Review and the new imperialism)

Our Alliance partner, the United States, is no longer the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific. The region has seen the return of major power strategic competition, the intensity of which should be seen as the defining feature of our region and time.

As a consequence, for the first time in 80 years, we must go back to fundamentals, to take a first-principles approach as to how we manage and seek to avoid the highest level of strategic risk we now face as a nation: the prospect of major conflict in the region that directly threatens our national interest.

— From the executive summary of the Australian government’s Defence Strategic Review

The single biggest contributor to the threat of an inter-imperialist conflict in East or South-East Asia is the US military’s aggressive forward positioning as it tries to maintain regional dominance over China. Any specific threat to Australia emanating from this situation will primarily be a function of Canberra partnering with Washington in a war against Beijing.

The Australian government’s Defence Strategic Review, released yesterday, doesn’t mention these obvious realities. All the talk is about “national defence” in an age of proliferating threats and a new strategic environment unfavourable to the historically embedded orientation and structure of the Australian armed forces. A leitmotif is the collapse of US hegemony in Asia (“the return of major power strategic competition”).

This strategic setting is written as a background to the decisions that the Australian government is now making, as though plucky Australia must simply learn to wade through Lombok and Makassar straits on its own, making new friends and partners as it goes. (The Review’s list of wanted or strengthened alliances and partnerships includes those with Japan, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pacific Islands Forum, the European Union, Britain and even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—a not so obvious choice for a self-described “Indo-Pacific” strategy.)

It’s a case of anyone but Beijing, because, the Review notes, “China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea threatens the global rules-based order” in the region. This seems a bit deaf given previous Australian governments’ ambitious boundary claims in the Timor Sea; their enthusiastic partnerships with Narendra Modi’s India as fascism marches through the country’s institutions, eroding democratic norms; their support for the genocidal and utterly corrupt Rajapaksa regimes in Sri Lanka over the last two decades; their flouting of international law and the refugee convention through the offshore gulag archipelago and excising of the entire Australian continent from its own migration zone; and Canberra’s gung-ho participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq, among other things.

The United States-led “order” that is apparently so in need of a more aggressive Australian military is the one that accommodated the US’s nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a year after the Bretton Woods conference establishing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). It’s the Western “order” that welcomed General Suharto’s murderous New Order dictatorship in Indonesia and which exported “the Jakarta method” of extermination to US operations across Latin America. It’s the “order” that allowed the US carpet bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It’s the “order” of global trade architecture that facilitated the mass sweat-shopping and slave labour of South and South-East Asia that have for decades fattened the profits of US companies.

What arrogance that the US and Australian governments—run by venal, power-hungry sociopaths who cannot keep their own workers out of poverty—dare to waltz into 21st century Asia giving lectures about rules. The US doesn’t even have any territory here, unless you include the Mariana Islands, which were wrested through war from Spain and later Japan, their sole purpose as possessions being military: Guam, the southernmost island in the archipelago is a major naval base and a station for long-range nuclear bombers. Tinian to its north was the take-off point for the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

“Southeast Asia is one of the key areas of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific”, notes the Review. There’s a sleight of hand in this presentation. The US first raised the spectre of “strategic competition” precisely because it has been comprehensively outcompeted in the region’s economic sphere (China has more extensive and more valuable economic ties with all ten ASEAN members) and because it has been incapable of diplomatically isolating Beijing, as most countries in the region, even those with legitimate grievances about China’s behaviour—are not interested in a US-led conflict that would devastate Asia.

Not so Australia’s ruling class, which continues the trend of joining Australia and the US at the hip and projecting an offensive military capability far beyond this continent’s shores. The reasoning is that, because China is a strategic competitor to the US, it is therefore an adversary of Canberra. This imperial cringe has few serious equivalents in the modern world.

There remain plenty of US strategic legacies to the north. Washington has around 80,000 troops stationed in nearly 200 bases in Japan and South Korea, less than 1,000 kilometres from some of China’s biggest cities. Now, it is expanding operations to the south to spread and deepen its military footprint. The Biden administration recently gained access to four additional bases in the Philippines, a former US colony, where this month American and Australian soldiers participated in the largest ever war games with the Philippine armed forces. Earlier in the year it opened a new Marine base in Guam. But the jewel in the crown of US expansion is Australia.

“Successive Australian governments from both parties have made sustained efforts to reinvigorate the alliance with the United States since the end of the Cold War”, Andrew Shearer, a senior research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, wrote a decade ago. “This was a key factor in Australia’s military contributions to coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, in major Australian defence acquisitions (such as M1 tanks, Aegis-equipped air warfare destroyers, and F-35 aircraft), and in steps to institutionalise much closer defence, intelligence, counterterrorism, and other security links. As a result, only the United Kingdom is as broadly and deeply integrated with the United States as Australia is in security matters.”

That integration has only deepened in the years since. The Defence Strategic Review comes after more than a decade of US force posture initiatives in the Northern Territory and after the announcement of the AUKUS partnership. There have already been $2 billion announced in joint military infrastructure upgrades in the Territory, allowing for the permanent rotation of 2,500 US marines, the hosting of long-range US nuclear bombers, an increase in the size and frequency of joint military training exercises and greater resources for the forward deployment of a range of US military assets.

When completed, the expansion of Tindal air base, south of Darwin, “will mark an important milestone toward the integration” of the Australian and US air forces, write Charles Darwin University’s John Garrick and Deakin University’s Michael Hatherell in a recent piece for the Conversation. And Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, speaking at the US Naval Institute in Maryland last month, noted of Washington’s orientation to the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal:

“We will ... immediately begin ramping up increasing the number of port visits of our submarines to Australian ports and that will eventually get to the point where we will begin to stage submarines out of Australian ports under rotation, probably in the late 2020s, and we’re going to call our part of that the Submarine Rotational Force West.”

On top of all this, the Review recommends even more US military rotations in Australia and the fast-tracking of “a developed network of northern bases”. Such an ever-increasing integration of the two imperialist powers will result in numerous path dependencies, such as the following, mentioned in the Review:

“An enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential. As a maritime nation dependent on our sea lines of communication, it is essential that the shape, size and scope of the Navy’s surface combatant fleet is appropriate for the levels of risk we now face.”

It is true that there is a heightened level of risk that “we” now face. But that’s because northern Australia is being turned into a beachhead for US imperialism in South-East Asia. US marines and US military supply infrastructure are already positioned in Darwin; this is just the beginning. The Northern Territory capital will become a major military target in the event of a US war against China.

General Douglas MacArthur, who was chased out of the Philippines by the Japanese offensive in 1941, set up the Allied South West Pacific Area Command beyond the reach of Tokyo’s long-range bombers in eastern Australia during World War Two—something that US and Australian strategists weighing up a conflict with China no doubt have considered as a precedent. Japanese imperialism was a minnow compared to China’s 21st century military. But its bombers were still capable of strafing Darwin’s bases and harbour to prevent an Allied counter-offensive into Indonesia after the fall of Singapore.

Northern Australia turned into a staging ground for US imperialism in a major conflict will all be open for military retaliation—everything from Exmouth in the west to Townsville in the east, as the Review describes. That’s one aspect of what’s at stake in the strategic framework being offered as some objective necessity: the Australian government is enthusiastically participating in a build-up to what could turn into World War III, destroying millions of lives.

As such, it feels like some form of gaslighting that the Review begins with the Department of Defence recognising Aboriginal people’s “continuing connection to traditional lands and waters” and is followed by an empty phrase from the defence minister about grave government responsibilities to protect “the security, interests and livelihoods of its people”.

Yet of all the words in the document, none leave such a feeling of unease as the appeals to a “whole-of-nation effort”, to “national unity and cohesion”, and for the utilisation of “all elements of national power” to transform Australia’s military. This doesn’t only mean increased spending, something that, like the broader integration of Australian and US imperialism, is not wholly new. A decade ago, Defence Department resourcing was less than $30 billion. The 2020 Strategic Update outlined that budget funding would rise to more than $70 billion a year by the end of this decade, with total ten-year funding of $575 billion. Now, there will be another long-term outlay of $368 billion on nuclear submarines and an accelerated increase in annual budgetary funding in coming years.

The main sense of discomfort comes not from these financial outlays. The ruling class is dragging Australia from the margins of world politics to the centre of global imperialist conflict. This will, over time, result in an ever greater encroachment of military culture into civilian life—more authoritarianism, more public exhortations of duty to the state, more aesthetic representations of mass violence as sublime.

As the AFL’s current Anzac Round attests, carnivals of lies to generate patriotic sentiment and force enlistment are already regular occurrences. No lie is more sinister than the frequently invoked phrase from commentators speaking about fallen soldiers: “they sacrificed”. The conspicuous omission of “were”—“they were sacrificed”—suggests to every young football fan that generations of people chose to die, that their choice was commendable and ought to be emulated, burying the reality that they were sent to die, that they were misled about the true nature of the conflicts they entered and that it was criminal for the generals and politicians to have mustered them in the first place.

So, again, the coming cultural offensive will not be wholly new. But it will become more intense as time passes and more sections of the population are drawn into the military’s orbit through its “engagement to harness the nation’s economic, industrial and societal strength”. Previous calls for such total mobilisation have accompanied dramatic restrictions on thought and expression—and mass human sacrifice for the capitalist “order” that the state’s bureaucrats seek to create or maintain. The Review’s appeals to an integrated national effort point in a similar direction.

The permanently expanding imperial “forward posture”, and the inevitable militarisation of domestic politics that will accompany it, come as increasing numbers of people never will experience the relative prosperity that had been a feature of working-class life in this country. These two things—expanding military might and deteriorating conditions of the working class; imperialist war and class war—are becoming indelibly linked in Australia, as they are in the United States. It will be impossible to be a consistent champion for workers, for the dignity of life in general, without also becoming a strident opponent of Australian imperialism and of its partnership with the United States.

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