Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What Flows From US Marines in Australia?

That US engagement with East Asia has grown in recent years is news to none. But as the dust settles following US President Barack Obama’s announcement of the imminent stationing of US marines in northern Australia, it is perhaps time to assess what this development might augur for the broader East Asian region in the longer term.

The new deployment will involve the transfer of at least 2,500 US marines to northern Australia over the coming five years. US naval and air forces will also increase their presence, and military exercises will be expanded. Given that Darwin is located only 800 kilometers from Indonesia and East Timor, reactions within the region have also been intently followed since the Nov. 16 announcement.

China is one of the loudest critics, suggesting that the placement of US marines in Darwin “indicated the persistence of a ‘Cold War mentality,’ ” and that this is the “starting point for the return of US armed forces to Asia,” with the aim of “sowing discord between China and Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations].” While Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has warned that the action could inflame regional relations, Asean members have generally produced cautious statements hiding a muted satisfaction with the announcement. And unsurprisingly, Japan has welcomed the news.

Within Australia itself, there is vigorous debate on the new move. Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, avers that the deployment decision will have deep consequences for Australia’s relations with China, and that “in Washington and in Beijing, this will be seen as Australia aligning itself with an American strategy to contain China.” Clearly, the new deployment is responding to Southeast Asian and Western concerns about China’s burgeoning military and economic power in the region. And when all the euphemisms and rhetoric are stripped away, this is great power rivalry for influence and allies in maritime Asia.

The Darwin deployment is only one part of a much larger regional strategy, placing US forces far enough from Chinese missiles to be comfortable, but still sufficiently near to maritime Southeast Asian allies to swiftly engage if necessary. The proposed stationing of the US Navy’s newest littoral combat ships in Singapore and the growing American naval and air force cooperation with Indonesia serve a similar function.

This episode is the beginning of a major addition to US-led East Asian security architecture, involving the creation of a Southeast sector to the “Offshore Asia” security zone. The Northeast sector is already well in place, with US bases and facilities in mainland Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam being equipped with more than 80,000 service personnel and some of the world’s most advanced defense hardware. Establishing a maritime security umbrella in the Southeast sector of “Offshore Asia” (including the maritime Asean states, Australia/New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and some of the Pacific states) is now key to maintaining a balance of power in East Asia, and the US’s stated aim of precluding the emergence of a regional hegemon.

Why create a security shield just for “Offshore Asia” — the Asian maritime realm? Yes, maritime routes need to be kept open, especially while the South China Sea disputes festers and demands attention. But most importantly, the rationale for this new strategy lies in a simple truth: the United States and its allies have overwhelming superiority in terms of maritime power. The US Pacific Fleet alone comprises 180 ships, nearly 2,000 aircraft and 125,000 service personnel. If the United States is to maintain influence in East Asia it needs to provide these countries with some convincing evidence of defense capacities, and the “Offshore Asia” security shield, utilizing US “Air-Sea Battle” forces, is intended to do precisely this.

What, then, of the mainland Southeast Asian states? Asean has been increasingly dividing along the mainland — island Southeast Asia fault line over the last decade, and China has been progressively drawing unto itself the polities and economies of the mainland. This is being done, with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank, through the creation of a Greater Mekong sub-region linking China and mainland Southeast Asia through economic corridors, which include Chinese high-speed rail networks linking mainland Southeast Asian capitals directly to Yunnan. And despite repeating the rhetoric of “Asean centrality” or “Asean as a fulcrum for regional architecture,” most parties now at least obliquely recognize that the organization is no longer united and that policies toward its component parts need to be differentiated — a practice that China has long been pursuing. The US State Department-sponsored Lower Mekong Initiative, intended in some ways to counter this trend, is far too little and obviously too late.

Meanwhile, Darwin, where the first US marines will be stationed, provides the United States and its allies with unrivalled access to both the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean maritime routes. Initial reports also suggest that B-52 long-range strategic bombers and other US aircraft will be stationed at the RAAF Base at Tindal, about 320 kilometers southeast of Darwin.

With Australian population centers and economic activities moving closer to Indonesia, and in fact closer to all of maritime Southeast Asia, the existing political, economic, social and military linkages with these areas will inevitably become more intense, strengthening the “Offshore Asia” grouping of which they will all be a part.

The “Offshore Asia” security strategy, of which the Darwin deployment is an important element, promises to have huge effects on maritime Asia and on East Asian alliances for decades, if not centuries, to come. Whether this strategy will be a means of preserving peace in East Asia or will eventually be seen to constitute a casus belli remains, as they say, to be seen.

East Asia Forum

Geoff Wade is a historian at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

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