Why Australia is an imperialist country

The recent announcement by the Turnbull government of plans to set aside nearly $4 billion for Australia’s arms manufacturers and turn the country into a top 10 global arms exporter has pushed Australian militarism back into the spotlight.

Despite its limited population and evident lack of any military threat, Australia is a big hitter with military outlays. It already ranks number 12 in the world and will rise higher in coming years. In its 2016 Defence White Paper, the Turnbull government set out an ambitious expansion, which it called “the largest defence procurement program in Australia’s history”.

With an arms race in Asia in full swing, the Australian government is determined not to be left behind.

Not that Australia has neglected its military budgets until now. Military spending rose by 29 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 2007 and 2016 and is projected to grow from $35 billion in 2017-18 to $42 billion by 2021.

During the 13 years Australia participated in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, the country’s longest ever war, the government deployed 26,000 troops and spent $7.3 billion. Thousands more served in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

Although the numbers have fallen since, 1,800 Australian Defence Force personnel are still deployed in four operations across the Middle East.

A further 500 personnel at any one time are involved in Operation Resolute, responsible for turning back refugees in Australia’s maritime territory. Resolute has cost $330 million since it was established in 2006.

Previous military operations have included the deployment by the Howard government of 2,000 troops and police to the Solomon Islands in 2003 to put down anti-government protests, and which resulted in the de facto takeover of the Solomons government by Australia for several years.

And intervention into East Timor, starting in 1999 and concluding only in 2013, involved thousands of troops and enabled the Australian government to manipulate the newly independent country’s affairs and steal the country’s energy resources.

Australian militarism is a bipartisan project. The ALP backs Australian wars and interventions to the hilt and supports the military spending; much of the 2016 Defence White Paper was foreshadowed in its predecessor, published by the Gillard government three years earlier.

Why Australian militarism?

What explains the bipartisan enthusiasm for Australian militarism?

Supporters of Australian militarism like to point to Australia’s involvement in “peacekeeping missions” in South Sudan, Egypt and the Israel-Lebanon border. The ADF never fails to highlight in its public relations its involvement in relief efforts in places such as Nepal, Vanuatu and the Philippines to assist in dealing with the after-effects of earthquakes, cyclones and typhoons.

But these are sideshows. The numbers involved in “peacekeeping missions” are tiny: fewer than 60 military personnel are deployed in the three currently under way. The relief efforts are short lived and no justification for outlaying tens of billions of dollars on a standing army.

Another popular explanation for distant military adventures, particularly in left and liberal circles, is that Australia is a puppet of the United States, dragged into wars far from our shores and for interests we do not share, because our leaders are spineless dupes grovelling at the feet of the US president. For example, the Greens argue that we should pursue what they call a “more independent” foreign policy.

But this doesn’t wash. Australia, more often than not, champs at the bit to get involved in invasions and occupations.

Are the huge military outlays under way to defend Australia from invasion and occupation? The 2016 White Paper says plainly: “There is no more than a remote chance of a military attack on Australian territory by another country”. This has been admitted repeatedly by successive governments and chiefs of staff for decades.

The main objective of the Australian military is not to prevent invasion and subjection to foreign rule but to secure what the White Paper calls “stability” and the “rules-based global order”. Central to this “stability” is the ongoing presence of the US military in the Asia-Pacific, which, according to the White Paper, will be “an essential ingredient in preserving stability and security over the coming decades”.

Why are Australian governments so keen to entangle the United States in the Asia-Pacific? It is not because they are lackeys of the US. It is because, throughout its history, the Australian ruling class has looked to a big imperialist power to protect its interests in the region.

Once the first objective, establishing dominance of the continent, had been achieved by disease and musket fire, Australia’s early colonial authorities cast around for more territories to conquer. They looked at New Guinea and the South Pacific, which were soon to become a happy hunting ground for Australian trading companies and slave traffickers. New Guinea was seized and remained an Australian colony until 1975.

Australian mining and logging companies continue to rip out resources and exploit the labour of local people across the region. When the profits have been threatened by angry workers or villagers trying to take back control over their wealth from the Australian pirates, or when nationalist leaders emerge who threaten the set-up that allows Australian businesses to ravage their economies, the Australian government has sent in helicopters, guns, special forces, police detachments to push them back into line.

And when it suits the Australian government, countries such as PNG and Nauru can be dumping grounds for refugees.

Sea lanes

Australia’s ability to exploit its neighbours depends on securing the northern approaches to the Australian mainland. Australian capitalism rests on its ability to sell and buy commodities in Asian markets, to import oil from the Middle East and to access deliveries of weapons, machinery and equipment from the United States. The sea lanes, in particular the Strait of Malacca, are Australia’s Achilles heel: strike at this access and Australian capitalism will die.

It is here where Australia’s military alliance with the US, the foundation of Australia’s “stability”, is so important. Only the US navy can control the wide arc of maritime territory from the Indian Ocean off north-western Australia to the South Pacific.

The US navy and nuclear arsenal provide the umbrella under which Australian capitalism shelters.

Australia’s alliance with the US, codified in the ANZUS treaty, is a huge boon to our rulers. As a junior partner of US imperialism, Australia can piggyback off the US military, saving the capitalist class of this country a fortune. Military strategists call this a “force multiplier”. This is why the US alliance is an item of faith for both Liberal and Labor governments. Any party with the ambition to govern the country must sign up to the alliance or face instant destabilisation at home by the bosses.

Australia’s dependence on a “great and powerful friend”, as prime minister John Curtin referred to the United States in 1942, means that the ruling class does everything it can to keep this “friend” focused on the Asia-Pacific, to thwart the emergence of a rival imperial power or any regional force that might obstruct the country’s sea lanes. This can mean urging the US to escalate military confrontations in the region, as the Menzies government did with the Johnson administration in 1964, when it implored the US to send more troops to Vietnam.

But there’s a price to pay for US military protection. This is the contribution by Australia to US wars and occupations. These include Australian military deployment in Vietnam in the 1960s, Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s and Syria today.

Far from being dragged into these conflicts at the behest of the White House, the Australian government enthusiastically embraces these opportunities to remind the US of Australia’s value to its broader imperialist project. Australian strategists believe that the more valuable Australia appears in the eyes of the US, the more likely the latter will be to defend its ally if Australia’s interests are threatened by a rival power in the region.

Instability today

The dominant trend in world politics today is the emerging great power competition between the US and China. This competition is a source of potential “instability” to the Australian ruling class – China is threatening US domination of the Asia-Pacific, and the security of Australia’s own imperialist project, which is closely identified with that of the US. As the 2016 White Paper put it:

“The framework for the rules-based global order is under increasing pressure and has shown signs of fragility. The balance of military and economic power between countries is changing and newly powerful countries want greater influence and to challenge some of the rules in the global architecture established some 70 years ago.”

Imperialist competition, the battle between the big powers for control over the world’s resources and territory, receded after the Cold War. It is now back with a bang.

Part of the motive for Australia’s increased war spending is to assist the United States in its project of “containing” China. Hence the increasing emphasis on “interoperability” of Australian military hardware with that of the US. The other factor is Australia’s own assessment, evident in the 2013 and 2016 white papers, that the country must beef up its strike capacity in case it needs to act independently of the US. Naval and air power are crucial to both projects.

As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings, an adviser on the 2016 Defence White Paper, explained at the time of its publication, the outcome of the military enlargement will be an Australian navy whose weight will be “much, much further forward into the region than we had a generation ago … [We] have here … the design of a maritime strategy for the defence of Australia really based in south-east Asia and the Pacific”.

Australia supplies much of the intelligence the US needs to run its empire, through the spy station at Pine Gap in central Australia. Australia has long offered port facilities for visiting US warships. And it now provides US marines a base in Darwin and the US air force access to northern airfields.

The US and Australian elites want to ensure that, if a military escalation occurs with China, their respective navies, along with those of their allies Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India, can blockade the country and prevent the movement of Chinese shipping.

The working class pays

But if the capitalist class benefits from this set-up because it ensures the smooth functioning of Australia’s international trade and investments in international markets, the working class bears the cost.

When the government bangs the drum for more military spending, that money comes out of our pockets in higher taxes and cuts to social spending. And when the recruiting sergeants issue the call for more men and women to rally behind the flag, it is predominantly the working class that will pay the price for the battles that follow.

That is also true for the working classes of Australia’s imperialist rivals: the money thrown at the Chinese Navy by the Beijing government comes from the household budgets of Chinese workers.

It is not just Australian workers and the workers of other imperialist countries who suffer, but also the workers and peasants in the countries oppressed by US and Australian imperialism.

These include the residents of Fallujah in Iraq, who in 2004 were slaughtered at the orders of Coalition army chief general (now Liberal senator) Jim Molan.

And the civilians in Yemen starving to death because of the blockade of the country by Australian-trained Saudi navy personnel or being blown to bits by Saudi aircraft equipped with Australian technology.

And the villagers in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq being bombed by US aircraft and drones and attacked by US special forces guided by the Pine Gap surveillance station.

And, closer to home, the villagers in PNG whose mineral wealth is stolen from them by US and Australian mining companies and Port Moresby politicians, backed to the hilt by security forces armed or trained by Australia.

The rich and powerful tell us to rally around the flag against our enemies. But the Australian flag is soaked in blood. Our rulers’ enemies are not ours; their fights are not ours. We should find common cause with workers and the oppressed of all countries, and direct our struggles against the rich and powerful at home.