Australian PM outlines indefinite military agenda in South Pacific

Australian PM outlines indefinite military agenda in South Pacific

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has revealed the real
motivations behind his government's interventions in the South Pacific
and foreshadowed permanent military operations there. Speaking to the
Sunday Telegraph on December 31, Howard acknowledged his concern that
hostile rival powers, such as China and Taiwan, could "take over" the
region. The prime minister also pointed to Washington's expectation
that Australia would take responsibility for maintaining "stability"
in an area US imperialism regards as its own sphere of influence.

Howard's comments are intended to signal that his government will not
back down in the face of mounting hostility to its activities in the
region, and will be prepared to utilise military force to suppress
opposition. The Telegraph interview confirms that Australia's recent
interventions in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea
(PNG), Tonga, and Fiji are only the beginning of its long-term plans.

Howard's Pacific agenda is marked by recklessness, arrogance and
complete disregard for international law. The government-and behind it
the entire Australian political establishment-aims to politically and
economically restructure the South Pacific in line with the strategic
and economic interests of Australian imperialism. National sovereignty
and the basic right of ordinary Pacific Islanders to determine their
own future are regarded by Howard and his accomplices as totally

The emergence of Australian neo-colonialism in the Pacific occurs amid
the eruption of US militarism and the re-surfacing of bitter
inter-imperialist antagonisms, comparable to those that dominated
world politics in the 1930s. Under the banner of the "global war on
terror", the Bush administration has torn up international law and
conventions, embarking on pre-emptive wars of aggression in an attempt
to overcome America's declining economic status relative to its
European and Asian rivals. Bush's recently announced escalation of the
Iraq war, and its likely extension to Iran and Syria, underscores the
speed with which the American ruling elite is resorting to outright
criminality and truly barbaric methods of rule.

No part of the globe-including the South Pacific-is immune from the
consequences of the breakdown of the international order established
after World War II. Howard pointedly warned the Australian people to
get used to permanent military deployment throughout the region. "This
is a long, hard road, and it will need great patience and
understanding by the Australian public to live with, probably for a
period of 10 to 20 years, with a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward
situation," he told the Telegraph.

"I can understand Australians saying, `Well, look, let's forget about
it. Leave them to their own devices; don't waste any money', but
that's the wrong approach to take, because they will fall into the
hands of the evil from other countries and we have to work very hard,"
he continued. "Certainly there's a bit of a battle between China and
Taiwan... If we just throw up our arms and go away, you'll end up with
these places being taken over by interests that are very hostile to

Notably, the prime minister made little effort to repeat his
government's usual justifications for Australia's neo-colonial
interventions: rescuing "failed states", preventing terrorism,
providing humanitarian aid, combating corruption, promoting democracy
and the rule of law, etc. That he set these aside, pointing instead to
the "evil" from Australia's rivals, indicates his alarm at the growing
opposition to Canberra's manoeuvres among ordinary Pacific Islanders
and the move by sections of the political elites in East Timor, Papua
New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji towards other powers, especially
China, as a counterbalance to Australian demands and dominance.

China's growing influence

The South Pacific has long been an arena for great power rivalries
between the old colonial powers, France, Britain, and Australia, as
well as Asian countries including Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The
rising economic and diplomatic influence of China, however, is a new
and profoundly destabilising factor that is challenging
long-established relations. While Howard describes the South Pacific
as Australia's "special patch", Beijing now has substantial economic
interests in the region, and is seeking to develop its geo-strategic

The Chinese and Taiwanese governments are competing to secure
diplomatic recognition from the various Pacific states. Of the 24
countries in the world that recognise Taipei over Beijing, six are in
the Pacific (Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, Solomon
Islands, and Kiribati). Governments in the region have played off the
two powers against each other, granting diplomatic recognition and
support in the UN General Assembly to the highest bidder in terms of
aid and trade agreements. Both China and Taiwan have been accused of
bribing favoured politicians and factions to ensure the installation
of friendly governments.

China's interest in the South Pacific, however, goes far beyond the
question of Taiwan and the "one China" policy. An estimated 3,000
state-owned and private Chinese companies operate in the region,
including in mining, logging, fishing, and tourism. Economic ties are
rapidly developing. Bilateral trade between China and Papua New
Guinea, the South Pacific's largest economy (and until 1975
Australia's colony), has increased from $A5 million in 1991, to $A233
million in 2000, to $A540 million in 2005.

The region's natural resources now help fuel China's ongoing
industrial expansion. Papua New Guinea, for example, was China's
second largest source of logs in 2005, behind Russia, and 80 percent
of PNG's log exports go to China. One of China's largest overseas
investment projects, the Ramu nickel mine, is located in PNG. Opened
late last year, the mine was developed by China's Metallurgical
Construction Corp after Beijing reached a $US915 million financing
agreement with the PNG government. The investment was directly driven
by a shortage of raw materials for China's stainless steel industry.

The Beijing bureaucracy is investing considerable resources in its
diplomatic relations with the South Pacific countries. China now has
more diplomats in the region than any other country, and Pacific
leaders visiting Beijing are granted lavish receptions. While there
are no official figures available, Chinese aid to the South Pacific is
estimated at more than $A300 million annually-a sum nearly twice the
total gross domestic product of the three poorest nations in the
region (Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu). Much of Beijing's aid is devoted
to prominent "prestige projects"-sports stadiums in Fiji and Samoa, a
parliamentary complex in Vanuatu, and new foreign ministry
headquarters in PNG-and unlike Australian aid money, Chinese funding
does not require Pacific governments to fulfil "good governance" and
other obligations.

Several American and Australian foreign policy analysts have warned of
the long-term strategic implications of China's growing influence. In
World War II, the US was forced to wage a series of bloody battles
against the Japanese to secure control of the Pacific Islands. After
the war, US authorities considered the entire Pacific Ocean to be an
"American lake". In partnership with allies such as Australia,
Washington's intent was to maintain exclusive control and prevent any
potential adversaries from gaining a foothold in the strategically
significant region.

Stratfor, an American security and intelligence think tank, has warned
that, "China's need to counter American power-combined with Beijing's
limited naval capability-makes a Pacific Island strategy as natural to
them as it was to the Japanese decades ago." Stratfor raised the
prospect of Beijing attempting to counter US naval dominance by
stationing missiles in South Pacific countries. "While Beijing is
unlikely to deploy forces to the South Pacific soon, its relationships
with the island nations offer it a strategic tool to counter US naval
power in Asia. The Chinese military has paid great attention to the
development of shore-based anti-ship missile systems it eventually
could deploy throughout the South Pacific and Southeast Asia."

The US has already made clear its unwillingness to allow any erosion
of its military position in the Pacific. Washington paid considerable
attention to a satellite tracking station constructed by the Chinese
government in Kiribati in 1997. While Beijing insisted the station was
only used for scientific and commercial purposes, the Bush
administration alleged that it was being used to develop a Chinese
space warfare program and also spy on the US military's missile
testing facility in the neighbouring Marshall Islands. This facility
is vital for the development of the Bush administration's Strategic
Defence Initiative ("Son of Star Wars") missile defence system. The
Chinese tracking station was shut down in 2004 after Kiribati's
government recognised Taipei. Although never proven, Washington was
widely believed to have been involved in behind-the-scenes manoeuvres
encouraging the diplomatic switch.

Canberra as Washington's proxy

Canberra fears Beijing's growing influence in the South Pacific for a
number of reasons. China's increasing commercial ties-particularly its
aggressive pursuit of oil, gas, minerals, timber, and fishing
investments-threatens corporate Australia's dominant position in the
exploitation of the region's natural resources. Canberra's foreign
policy establishment is also hostile to Beijing and Taipei's aid and
trade rivalry, which it considers a threat to its efforts to cultivate
compliant pro-Australian regimes in the Pacific states.

Canberra's alliance with Washington is a critical factor shaping the
Howard government's response to Beijing's entry into the South
Pacific. Bush has previously designated China as a "strategic
competitor" and looks to Canberra to defend US interests in the region.

In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Howard explained, "That's why we've
been increasing the size of our army. It's all designed to give us the
capacity to deal with things in the region. And this is our
responsibility. The rest of the world looks to us to do it, and the
more we are able to play our part effectively here, the less is
legitimately expected of us in other parts of the world. That's not to
say we won't do other things, but if we can have an effective
stabilising role in the whole Pacific region, I can assure you that is
mightily important to the Americans and to our allies in Europe."

The Howard government has unconditionally backed the Bush
administration's criminal interventions in the Middle East,
dispatching troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. In return, Washington
has provided critical backing for Canberra's operations in the
Pacific. Underlying this quid pro quo is a convergence of interests,
with the Howard government advancing its agenda in the region under
the aegis of US imperialism's claim to global hegemony. This is the
essence of Howard's self-proclaimed role of "deputy sheriff".

The Bush administration's so-called war on terror and its doctrine of
"regime change" and pre-emptive war were the basis for the Howard
government's takeover of the Solomon Islands in 2003, when it
dispatched hundreds of soldiers, police, and bureaucratic personnel to
the tiny country. The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands
(RAMSI) was subsequently hailed as a model military-led intervention
into a "failing state" that could be applied throughout the region.
When announcing the expansion of the Australian military last year,
Howard named Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Vanuatu as further potential

The Bush administration has repeatedly expressed its appreciation of
Canberra's role. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked last
month whether she was disappointed that Australian troops were not
playing a more front-line role in Iraq. "I would never use the word
disappointment in the same line with Australia," she replied. "This is
a country that, not only in Iraq, not only in Afghanistan, not only in
tsunami relief, not only in support for all that we're doing in the
Asia Pacific, but also in taking really primary responsibility in
places like the Solomon Islands, Fiji, East Timor, has put its
resources and its assets at the disposal of peace and security in the
region, and in the spread of freedom. And I just can't think of a
better friend and a better ally."

Nevertheless, Canberra and Washington do not share identical positions
in relation to Beijing. The Howard government has generally adopted a
less belligerent stance than the Bush administration. This is due to
the Australian ruling elite's interest in maintaining its lucrative
exports of natural resources such as gas, gold, iron ore, coal, and
aluminium to China. These exports have been crucial for Australia's
economic growth-and Howard's electoral successes-over the past decade.
Canberra is currently seeking to negotiate a free trade deal with

Despite these differences, the Howard government and the Bush
administration agree that no potentially hostile power can be
permitted to advance its strategic and economic interests in the South
Pacific at their expense. That Howard abandoned his usual caution in
the Telegraph interview and identified China as a rival indicates just
how much is at stake.

The struggle against neo-colonialism

The Howard government's vision of neo-colonial military-led
interventions in the Pacific lasting 10 to 20 years presents enormous
dangers to working people and youth in the Pacific Islands and in

It will inevitably produce a catastrophe. The population of the
Pacific Islands have suffered a long history of British, French,
German, and Australian colonial domination. It is impossible that such
forms of rule can be peacefully imposed in the twenty-first century.
Pacific Islanders have every right to resist Canberra's machinations
and it is only a matter of time before Australian soldiers and police
are targeted. The initial stages of such a struggle are already
evident in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Canberra will respond
by escalating its violence and repression, unleashing military force
on a scale not seen in the Pacific since World War II.

The domestic repercussions will be no less calamitous. Democratic
rights are already under sustained attack, and this will intensify as
opposition to Howard's agenda mounts. Bourgeois democratic norms and
basic legal and constitutional rights are fundamentally incompatible
with a state of permanent military mobilisation. In its efforts to
forge a constituency for war and divert mounting social tensions, the
political and media establishment is pumping out the poison of
national chauvinism-involving the incitement of anti-Muslim racism and
promotion of "Australian values"-and glorifying militarism.

Young people face a future of being dragooned into the armed forces as
cannon fodder for military interventions. School children are already
being encouraged to enlist in the cadets and then the army. The Howard
government has introduced a military "gap year" for those who have
finished school but do not wish to immediately begin their tertiary
education. Last year Howard announced that an additional $10 billion
will be spent to recruit another 2,600 troops, on top of a 1,500
increase announced in December 2005, bringing the total increase to 20
percent. Half a billion dollars has also been committed for the near
doubling of the Australian Federal Police's "international deployment
group"-an outfit focussed on operations in the South Pacific.
Inevitably, these initiatives will soon be accompanied by moves to
introduce conscription.

The billions of dollars in public funds being poured into the military
represent a massive social misappropriation. While funding for public
health and education, social infrastructure, and welfare and social
services have all been gutted by successive state and federal
governments, "defence" spending has skyrocketed. Australia is now the
eleventh largest military spender in the world and ranks ahead of
countries such as Israel, Turkey, Brazil, and Iran.

The political starting point for a struggle against the turn to
militarism and war is the recognition that not a single element within
the Australian political and media establishment opposes any aspect of
the Howard government's neo-colonial operations in the South Pacific.
To the extent that the opposition Labor Party and its new leader Kevin
Rudd have any criticisms of the government, they are all from the
right. Rudd accuses Howard of incompetence for allowing an "arc of
instability" to develop, and advocates greater tact in diplomatic
efforts aimed at browbeating Australia's neighbours. Like the Greens,
Labor calls for the redeployment of Australian troops from Iraq to the
South Pacific in order to bolster operations in East Timor, the
Solomons, and elsewhere.

The unanimous defence by Labor and the minor parties of Australia's
Pacific interventions ultimately derives from their support for the
profit system and the nation-state system upon which it rests.
Opposition to war, militarism, and neo-colonialism can only be
advanced on an independent socialist and internationalist basis.

The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) will be standing candidates in the
New South Wales state election scheduled for March 24 and the federal
election due later this year. Our campaign will be focussed on
building a mass movement of the working class against militarism and
war-in Iraq, the Middle East and in the South Pacific. We demand the
immediate withdrawal of all US, Australian and other troops from Iraq
and Afghanistan, and all Australian soldiers, police, and bureaucratic
personnel from the Pacific. We demand an end to all those regional
"aid" programs that function as nothing more than international slush
funds for Australian corporations.

Instead, billions of dollars in genuine aid must be spent to lift the
Pacific Islands out of poverty and undo the terrible legacy of
colonialism and the damage still being inflicted by International
Monetary Fund and World Bank programs.

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