Friday, November 20, 2020

US to revive First Fleet – or the behaviour of misfits awaiting eviction?

 Written by: (Contributed) on 20 November 2020

The announcement from a senior military figure in the Trump administration that there are plans afoot to re-establish the US First Fleet was given a mixed reception in the Indo-Pacific region. Taking place at the same time as the annual US-led Malabar joint military exercise, the announcement appeared more as a statement of intention than as a serious military plan.

The area of demarcation for the US First Fleet has also raised the prospect of increased use of Australian-based military facilities, drawing Canberra ever closer to hawkish, aggressive diplomatic positions in the dying days of the Trump administration.

The announcement in mid-November from US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, while addressing the annual symposium of the US naval submarine league, that the Pentagon was planning to re-establish the First Fleet is but another example of the wave of US-led militarism sweeping the Indo-Pacific region. (1) It has followed the re-establishment of the Second Fleet which became fully operational last December, with a demarcation area of the US east coast and the north Atlantic.

The US First Fleet was taken out of operation in 1973, following re-organisation of naval facilities; its demarcation area, historically, from its formation in 1947, was the western Pacific.

If the new military planning is approved, the US First Fleet will cover parts of the Indian Ocean and Pacific alongside the Seventh Fleet which is presently based at Yokosuka, in Japan. The Seventh Fleet, composed of 80 ships, 140 aircraft and submarines, has the largest demarcation area covering 77 million square kms of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, from the international time line, the Kuril Islands in the north and Antarctica in the south.

The announcement, curiously however, took place without the usual military protocol; Braithwaite admitted he had not sought approval for the plan from Acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller who replaced Mark Esper, sacked by President Trump last week. While Esper had apparently discussed the matter in Pentagon circles, nothing was officially approved. Whether anything was even officially minuted, remains to be established. Braithwaite, therefore, might be regarded as little other than a political upstart, displaying behaviour typically associated with the misfits of the Trump administration who have problems distinguishing between fantasy and reality.

Elsewhere, in other regional media outlets, the Braithwaite announcement was diplomatically downgraded to the position that he had 'suggested' the re-establishment of the First Fleet, although nothing further had been resolved. (2)

Singapore not happy

It is, nevertheless, interesting to note the Braithwaite announcement had been accompanied two days earlier with an official diplomatic statement from Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, that the foreign policy of the Trump administration had alienated countries across the region with serious repercussions. He stated, 'most Asian countries will resist any US attempt to create a Cold War-style alliance against China', whereby, 'smaller countries such as Singapore could be forced to choose sides between them'. (3) Most countries across the region have, historically, lived with Chinese diplomacy and trade for centuries.

The announcement also took place during the Malabar US-led naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the northern Arabian Sea, with India, Japan and Australia. It was noted in military media releases to form part of 'a second phase of a combined war game to counter China's influence in the region', amid a wave of US-led Cold War swashbuckling bellicosity. (4)

It was not only the announcement about the proposed US First Fleet which appeared questionable.

The proposed base facilities for the new First Fleet also appear to be a matter of some controversy; Braithwaite stated that 'the headquarters … is likely to be Singapore'. (5)

The Trump administration, however, appear to not to have followed usual diplomatic protocol and consulted the Singapore government with their proposals, nor requested high-level talks to implement the proposals. Diplomacy, for the Trump administration, would appear to be conducted more along the lines of directives which other governments are expected to accept.

An official media release from the Singapore government and Ministry of Defence, therefore, stated no official talks with the Trump administration had taken place about the matter. (6) They clarified the position of the Singapore government with the statement that 'it would be deemed unacceptable for the small island nation … among Washington's key strategic partners in south-east Asia … to host a permanent naval base', and that Singapore did not want 'a formal military alliance with Washington'. (7)    

The announcement, by Braithwaite, about the proposed Singapore First Fleet facilities, had paid no attention to the detail of a vital factor explaining the behaviour of their governments, past and present, for decades: Singapore has long pursued a regional foreign policy of maintaining friendly relations with all countries, including those, historically, which did not support the US. The Singapore government, for example, when positioning statues of former regional political leaders whom they had supported, around the surrounding gardens of the main parliamentary buildings, was proud to also include one of Ho Chi Minh, President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the northern part of the country from 1945-69 despite the war with the US.

It is, therefore, interesting to note the Braithwaite announcement about the First Fleet had already planned a fall-back position which gave reference to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean as another additional command headquarters. (8) The US Naval Communication station on Diego Garcia is directly linked to similar facilities at Pine Gap, in central Australia. It forms the centre of US-led global intelligence provision, with the Pentagon. Operational in 1973, the US base has been continually upgraded, and now includes extensive military facilities.

It is significant to note the arc which swings from Diego Garcia in the east, from Pine Gap, also swings through Guam in Micronesia in the west, linking two important US military hubs for forward regional operations. The same arc also swings through Singapore, which already has sensitive military agreements with Australia.

The announcement about the new, proposed US First Fleet, can, therefore, perhaps be best viewed as a military game of smoke-and-mirrors which will hopefully never see the actual light of day before the demise of Trump and all that he is associated with.

Whatever the outcome of recent political instability surrounding the Trump administration in the US, Australia, nevertheless, is increasingly being drawn closer to the hawkish, anti-China view of the world, the origins of which lie in the Pentagon with military planners. Biden is probably closer to this group than was Trump. The myopic and intellectually limited vision of the world and regional foreign policy, characteristic of the imperialist system of the US, is dangerous.

We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     US to revive old fleet as curb against Beijing, Australian, 20 November 2020.
2.     US Navy Secretary proposes new Indo-Pacific fleet, The Diplomat, 18 November 2020.
3.     Asia's perceptions of America may never recover: Lee, Australian, 18 November 2020.
4.    Australian, op.cit., 20 November 2020.
5.     Diplomat, op.cit., 18 November 2020.
6.    US Navy First Fleet, This Week in Asia / Politics, 18 November 2020.
7.     Ibid.
8.     Australian, op.cit., 20 November 2020.

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