The downgrading of two important Asia-Pacific regional diplomatic meetings by the United States and Australia has revealed a changing emphasis on relations with China.
The downgrading, however, should not be interpreted as the US displaying a declining interest in regional affairs.
To the contrary, the US-led diplomatic initiatives have shown a definite shift from trade and economic considerations to military options in the Asia-Pacific region.
A recent media release from the White House announced President Trump would not be visiting Australia and two high-level diplomatic Asia-Pacific meetings in November. The announcement met with a mixed response, adding weight to recent coverage of the White House and the portrayal of Trump as 'a president out of his depth in his job and at war with his aides who disdain and distrust him'. (1) Trump had initially arranged to attend the ASEAN East Asia Summit in Singapore and the APEC leaders' summit in PNG together with a visit to Canberra earlier last June. (2) The announcement concluded with a statement that vice-president Mike Pence 'will stand in for Mr Trump'. (3)
The two regional summits had been given a great deal of publicity as 'tensions in the Asia-Pacific region over Chinese influence grow'. (4) In recent times China's role, particularly in the South Pacific, has been given a great deal of negative publicity in mainstream Australia media outlets. Canberra has always regarded the southern part of the region as their field of interest; military and security planning from the end of the Second World War concentrated upon the countries of Melanesia with the justification that they would ‘act as buffers against possible threats from the north’. The Defence of Australia (DOA) doctrine became central to Canberra's military thinking for over seventy years; revealing a merger of class and state power, initially in the form of formal colonialism, and later, neo-colonialism following independence of countries in the region in the 1970s.
Increased Chinese influence, particularly in PNG in recent years, has therefore, heightened diplomatic tensions and rivalry between the US and China. A recent media release from Canberra, for example, declared the South Pacific as an area where Australian defence planners needed to be the 'most active and most attentive to granular detail'. (5)
The heightened diplomatic tensions between the US and China have been partially dealt with by Australian and New Zealand officials drafting the Biketawa Plus regional security declaration which was tabled at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, in September. (6) The forum, however, took place in a rather low-key environment, revealing an already changed position on the part of US-led diplomacy; Australia did not even send Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the US sent a previously unknown government official, Ryan Zinke, who, nevertheless, took the opportunity to state, 'the US remained committed to the region'. (7) Australia was represented by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who was provided with accommodation at the Menen, a hotel which attracted 43 reviews, twenty of which regarded it as 'poor', a further four regarding it as 'terrible'. (8)
The low-key image of US-led diplomatic representation, however, provided a convenient smokescreen for the real agenda; military and security planning having taken priority over trade and economic considerations. It is not difficult to establish the reason from well-placed sources. A recent media release from a former Australian diplomat, for example, pointed out that 'Australia's policy on China was increasingly being run by intelligence, defence and security advisors', and, 'the US has started to vacate regional leadership'. (9)
The statements, however, are important placed within a 'bigger picture' of regional military and security frameworks of reference. The Global Transformation of Defence and Security (GTDS) dates from the period when Donald Rumsfeld was Defence Secretary in previous Bush administrations. It included Japan being elevated to a fully-fledged northern hub for 'US interests' with Australia in the southern part of the region. Now implemented, the GTDS has enabled the US to take a lower profile and rely upon the two hubs for their regional foreign policy. It has included, 'the defence, security and intelligence establishment saying we have to fill a void', in what has amounted to a new world order for US-led diplomacy. (10)
It is important, therefore, to look at the outcome of the implementation of the GTDS and how it has enabled the US to send waves of militarism across the region in an attempt to retain their traditional hegemonic position. The military planning has also rested upon previous military budgets which have included increased allocations for 29 consecutive years since the late 1980s in the Asia-Oceania region. (11)
In August, the US Senate passed a US$716 billion defence authorisation bill. A total of US$69 billion in what was officially clarified as 'war funding', was allocated to 'overseas contingency operations'. (11) In 2017, the defence budget was $602.8 billion, amounting to 35 per cent of total global defence spending. (13)
Japan, likewise, has a defence (military) budget at record-high levels with a request for Y5.3 trillion ($64.8 billion), the outcome of military spending rising for seven consecutive years with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (14) It was noted in official media releases the present budget request included provision for 'cruise missiles, and to increase their electronic warfare capability'. (15)
The Australian defence budget, furthermore, while allocated two per cent increases a year, is set to rise dramatically. The 2017 defence budget was A$32 billion, but is set to increase to A$58.7 billion by the middle of the next decade, an increase of 54.5 per cent. (16)
US-led defence and security provision has included military planning for real-war scenarios; there is little ambiguity in their position.
1. PM urged to seek private Trump talks, Australian, 3 September 2018; and, 'Authors' devastating portrayal of an 'idiot in crazytown', Australian, 6 September 2018.
2. Trump set for tour Down Under, The Weekend Australian, 23-24 June 2018.
3. Australian, op.cit., 3 September 2018.
4. Weekend Australian, op.cit., 23-24 September 2018.
5. Pyne all set to pursue his priorities for our defence, The Weekend Australian, 1-2 September 2018.
6. Xi invites Pacific friends to talks, Australian, 11 July 2018; and, Pacific pact to counter China push, Australian, 6 July 2018.
7. 'Insolent' Chinese envoy created 'big fuss', Australian, 3 September 2018.
8. Payne left to rough it in the wake of jet-set Julie, Australian, 5 September 2018.
9. Canberra 'struggles' with rise of China, Australian, 20 August 2018.
11. SIPRA, Fact Sheet, May 2018.
12. $969 bn defence bill sent to White House, Australian, 3 August 2018.
13. Wikipedia, SIPRA.
14. Japan eyes record military budget, The Weekend Australian, 1-2 September 2018.
16. The end of 2%: Australia gets serious about its defence budget, The Conversation, 26 February 2016.