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The Giant’s Rival, Part Two: The US Response

The Giant’s Rival, Part Two: The US Response *

Paul G. Buchanan

21-09-09


China’s emergence as a great power rival to the US in the South Pacific went unchallenged for a decade. For a number of reasons, the US reduced its diplomatic presence and withdrew most of its developmental assistance programmes in the South Pacific during the 1990s. This extended to elimination of the regional Peace Corps volunteer office and the withdrawal of USAID-directed poverty relief and developmental assistance efforts. Militarily, US attention remained concentrated on the North Pacific as a communications and transport corridor as well as a forward staging area for US power projection into East Asia. The US assumed that traditional allies Australia and New Zealand would take up the slack in developmental and security assistance as well as perform the maritime patrol duties requisite with keeping Southern Pacific sea-lanes open and Western influence predominant. The growing Chinese presence has belatedly altered that view.

The US signaled its attention to re-engage the South Pacific by announcing at the 2007 Pacific Island Conference of Leaders that year was to be “The Year of the Pacific.” Although US rhetorical interest has not yet coalesced into a coherent South Pacific strategy, the latter has economic, military and political components involving direct and indirect forms of linkage. Before exploring these, mention must be made of the broader geo-strategic outlook in which the US response is situated.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has construed the Western Pacific Rim as a three-tiered outer defense perimeter. The first line (or arc) extends from the Aleutians, through Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand to the Ross Peninsula in Antarctica. Each of these locales has US military bases, US military personnel in country as advisors or instructors, or friendly military-to-military relations, and all participate in US intelligence gathering activities in areas of mutual interest. The relationship with individual countries ebbs and flows—witness Philippine and Japanese refusals to continue lease agreements for US military bases in Subic Bay, Clark Air Field and Okinawa, respectively, and the sometimes strained nature of US-Indonesian relations on human right issues and of US-New Zealand relations on the latter’s non-nuclear stance. Even so, the overall contours of the perimeter have remained largely intact even with the end of the Cold War. What has changed is the nature of the perceived adversary.

The US holds a second defensive arc that runs from Hawaii through the Mariana and Marshall Islands, rooted in Guam, extending down to Australia. Here the US permanently stations military personnel and conducts front-line intelligence gathering, operational deployments, continuous exercises and forward logistical storage. This is the Pacific equivalent of a US Maginot Wall, where its presence in the Western Pacific geo-strategic space is at its most robust. It also serves as a trip wire for conflict escalation, as (impending) defeat in this battle space will likely entail US resort to tactical nuclear weapons.

The third defensive perimeter is a triangle that runs from the Aleutians to Hawaii to San Diego. It is the last line of defense before the US mainland, and if needed assets of the US Southern Command deployed in Central and South America will be drawn into it in order to reinforce those of the Pacific Command. It is an ultimate “shatter zone” in which the full range of US military power will be brought to bear on aggressors.

Although the latter is an improbable scenario, the Chinese second island chain objective brings it into direct contact with the US second defensive arc, and Chinese economic and diplomatic ventures are already prospering within it. This area of overlap is a potential conflict zone between the US and China. Given that reality, the US response to Chinese expansion within the second defensive perimeter is analytically dissected in order of priority, from least to most.

Soft Power initiatives:

Diplomatic approach.

The US has political authority over Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa. It maintains close ties to the Freely Associated States (FAS--Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau) and maintains military bases on Guam and the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. 60 per cent of the Marshall Islands’ GDP comes from US aid and the direct economic benefits derived from the Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Kwajalein. Via the Compacts of Free Association with the FAS, the US has the responsibility for defending the FAS but also the right, via the “defense veto” and the “right to strategic denial,” to prohibit these states from engaging in activities injurious to US security. That includes establishing diplomatic, commercial, or military ties with potential adversaries.

Otherwise the US maintains a limited diplomatic presence throughout the region, having reduced its consular presence in the 1990s. After the 2007 PICL meetings the US opened a public diplomacy office in its embassy in Fiji, following the restoration of the Peace Corps regional office in Suva in 2004 (the US embassy in Fiji is the hub of its diplomatic presence in the PIF outside of Micronesia). There are currently approximately 350 Peace Corps volunteers serving in seven PIF nations. USAID programs also resumed, in limited fashion, in 2007, although most of the direct US aid outside of the FAS is directed towards disaster relief rather than poverty alleviation or nation-building. The latter are deemed to be the priority of US regional allies, Australia and New Zealand in particular. Beyond that, the US promotes anti-corruption and good governance initiatives on a case basis, often tying specific short-term assistance to transparency requirements. The Chinese have no such compulsion.

The main thrust of the US diplomatic approach emphasizes “partnerships” with its small island counterparts, not only in terms of military-to-military relations but also on a wide range of subjects of mutual interest, to include environmental degradation resultant from climate change, resource sustainability, pandemic relief, state building and governmental accountability. In this measure it seeks to strengthen its ties to local authorities while not having to confront them directly with regards to the Chinese presence. This allows the Chinese to do most of the “hard lifting” when it comes to regional development, but without the full diplomatic benefits such assistance would otherwise accrue. The idea is to subtly counter Chinese moves to realign the PIF in accord with its diplomatic and military interests.

Economic approach.

Although the South Pacific remains a low priority to US policy makers, they have revived limited country-to-country aid programmes. However, the thrust of the US approach is defensive rather than developmentalist. The major concern of the US is with money laundering, black market document sales and the presence of organized crime as a facilitator to terrorist organizations or their front agencies. It has consequently worked hardest to tighten PIF compliance with international banking regulations and standards restricting “shell” entities from hiding or transferring funds using PIF banks, as well as to increase the sophistication of local Police forces when dealing with the economic activities of foreign crime syndicates.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) received US$1 billion in direct US aid from 1987 to 2003, while the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) received approximately US$1.5 billion. In 2003 the US signed into law grant assistance packages for the period 2004-2023 totaling US$629 million and US$1.4 billion to the RMI and FSM respectively. Palau received US$450 million in direct economic assistance from 1995 to 2009. Of the total of US$ 887 million in direct foreign aid to Pacific island countries in 2006, the US provided US$140 million, of which US$131 million went to the FAS. The US also pays the RMI US$15 million per year for leasing the Kwajalein test site (rising to US$18 million/year in 2014). According to the US Congressional Research Service, as part of the Compacts, the United States agreed to support the FAS economically with the goal of making them self-sufficient. The FAS are eligible for many U.S. federal programs, while FAS citizens have the right to reside and work in the United States and its territories as lawful non-immigrants or “habitual residents.”

Other major U.S. foreign aid programs in the Pacific Islands region include the Pacific Island Fund ($100,000 in FY2006), supporting small projects developed by U.S. ambassadors in their host countries; South Pacific Fisheries (about $18 million annually); HIV/AIDS programs in Papua New Guinea ($1.5 million per year); and environmental programs (particularly coral reef conservation and environmental research), with budgetary supplementation from agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Where not specified, the amounts designated for each depend on Congressional budgetary priorities, which militates against significant increases given the current fiscal climate. As a result, and even with the purported re-emphasis on the Pacific announced in 2007, the total volume of US aid to the PIF has remained constant and well behind that of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China.

Out of a total PIF world trade volume of US$8.279 billion in 2005, trade between the US and the PIF amounted to US$ 3.93 billion, the majority of which was with Fiji and Papua New Guinea. This puts it behind Australia, the EU, Japan, and China in terms of bilateral trade volume. The combined impact of US direct foreign aid and trade with the region outside of the FAS is therefore minimal when compared with that of China and other states. In spite of its rhetorical commitment to reinvigorating its commercial ties to the region, the US has preferred to allow others to take the lead while it concentrates its resources elsewhere.

Hard Power initiatives.

Military re-focus.

It is clear that the US soft power response to growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific has failed to achieve symmetry or commensurate effect. It is difficult to determine whether that is by design or by neglect, but the result is that it has resorted to its default option. Given the limited amount of US diplomatic attention and economic assistance given to the PIF outside of the FAS, the US response to Chinese overtures in the South and Western Pacific has mainly been driven by military strategic interest.

The thrust of the US approach is summarized in the February 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which states that “Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantages”. As a result, the US is shifting it military-strategic emphasis away from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater of operations.
That includes moving submarine assets to the Pacific (in a reversal of the Cold War 60/40 rule for Atlantic/Pacific submarine deployments). More importantly, the deployment of Carrier Task Forces (which include a carrier, two tenders/tankers, two destroyers and/or guided missile cruisers, and at least one submarine as well as its designated fighter, antisubmarine and electronic patrol air squadrons) has shifted westward. Five of 11 US carrier task forces are now stationed in the Pacific, with an increase to six scheduled for 2010. That includes a carrier to be eventually home ported at Guam, in a first of its kind.

The shift in strategic emphasis is evident in the US organizational approach. The Pacific Command based in Honolulu (PACCOM) is now the primary government authority in the region, overshadowing the State Department.
A Navy-oriented command (unlike the Army-focused Central Command or CENTCOM, now conducting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq), PACCOM controls 300,000 troops, including the US Pacific Fleet (PACFLT) headquartered at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The world’s largest naval command, PACFLT includes more than 213,000 sailors, marines and civilians, approximately 190 ships, about 1,400 aircraft, and 35 shore installations. PACCOM is comprised of units from all military service branches, the Coast Guard and dedicated intelligence components. In many areas it is the first point of contact between local authorities and US officials (such as in disaster relief operations in remote locales). In terms of personnel, budget and scope of operations, PACCOM dwarfs the US diplomatic corps in its area of operations.

PACCOM’s preeminence in the formulation and implementation of US policy towards the South Pacific is significant. In assuming a leading role normally assigned to the State Department, it demonstrates that US policy towards the southwestern Pacific has been “securitized.” “Securitized” is the term given to the re-definition along security-related lines of traditionally non-security related subjects (e.g. climate change, immigration, pollution, pandemics, diplomatic representation). Here the concept refers not only to the securitization of non-military policy areas, but to the reinterpretation of the full range of US policy in the region through a security-focused analytic filter. Moreover, since the US strategic policy in the South and West Pacific was formulated well before he was elected, installation of Barak Obama as US president will not effectively change that securitized approach to regional foreign policy. In fact, it can be argued that his inexperience in foreign and military affairs makes him more reliant than usual on his security advisors in that regard—most of who will have close ties to PAACOM. With the State Department influence on South Pacific policy diminished and its focus directed elsewhere, this ensures that the securitized approach to US-PIF relations will continue for the foreseeable future.

The proof of this is found in US actions. The defensive thrust of US economic assistance projects is evidence of securitization in that policy area. But the real proof of the securitized US approach to the PIF theater is in its military build-up. It is upgrading its military facilities on Guam at an accelerated rate, to include expanding and deepening its port facilities and enlarging Andersen Air Force Base. This includes construction of a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) facility, expected to be completed by 2012, that will give the Army the capacity to intercept and shoot down incoming missiles (particularly of the middle range surface to surface variety that the Chinese are emphasizing as part of their conventional arms buildup). 8000 US Marines will move from Okinawa to Guam by 2015 as part of a phased withdrawal negotiated with the Japanese government, which will raise the total number of personnel stationed on Guam to over 50,000. Because Guam is US territory, unlike Okinawa or the Philippines (which were major Cold War forward basing points), there are little diplomatic costs to its reconstruction as an island redoubt.

The strategic importance of Guam cannot be over-estimated. Andersen AFB is 4 hours flight time from China and North Korea, has important bomber and fighter wings as well as forward deployed tactical nuclear weapons, plus a huge conventional armory and fuel dump. No other Air Force base in the Pacific stores as much weaponry as Andersen, estimated at some 100,000 bombs, cruise and other missiles at any one time. Andersen stores 66 million gallons of jet fuel, making it the Air Force’s biggest strategic depot in the world. The Navy has turned Guam’s Apra Harbour into a home for Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, whose primary missions are to shadow the Chinese submarine fleet as they move to patrol from the first to the second island chain (it is an open secret that Chinese submarines hide under the acoustic signatures of Chinese fishing fleets). In line with this, both naval air and surface anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets have been reinforced, and it is reported that the US has offered to share advanced ASW technologies with its Australian (and perhaps Kiwi) counterparts.

The US is refurbishing wharves at Apra to accommodate aircraft carriers and to transform Guam into a base for its new Littoral Combat Ship (a shallow-draft stealth ship designed to operate close to shore) as well as for reconfigured Trident submarines that now serve as SEAL commando delivery vehicles (removal of bow planes on these ships is one sign of their new shallow water role). The cost of the upgrades and redeployments runs into the trillions of US dollars and demonstrates that the US sees the Western Pacific as the next potential major conflict zone.

In concert with this military upgrading the US has increased the tempo and scope of its Pacific operations and exercises, reaching a total of 1700 different types of exercise in the last two years. It trains regularly with a host of regional forces, to include Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Australian and New Zealand units. It has over 600 Special Operations troops in the Philippines on counter-terrorism duty and quietly deploys military advisors and trainers throughout the PIF. It has increased its military presence in Australia and conducts regular exercises with Australian and New Zealand commandos. It has close military-to-military links with Thailand (location of one of the infamous CIA “Black” interrogation sites), Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and, increasingly, Indonesia. In the measure that the Chinese are suspected of using their expanded diplomatic presence in the South Pacific as a cover for intelligence-gathering operations, the US is reported to have increased its counter-intelligence capability focused on them. The last two roles require Australian, New Zealand and French cooperation within their respective spheres of influence, to include re-direction of Echelon resources towards Chinese communications intercepts.

In summation: It is clear that the US response to the expansion of Chinese influence involves little carrot and a lot of stick. The US expects its regional allies, Australia and New Zealand specifically, to assume primary responsibility and funding for political stabilization and economic development efforts in states now falling under the sway of Chinese “chequebook diplomacy.” In return the US is deepening its security commitment to keeping the South and Western Pacific as an area of strategic dominance, both as an outer defensive perimeter and buffer for the US mainland as well as a geo-strategic area of fast response reinforcement for its regional allies in the event they are physically threatened. Although the current emphasis is asymmetrical warfare against unconventional adversaries (Islamic extremists in particular), the longer-term strategic perspective is firmly sighted on the looming Chinese military-diplomatic presence and the concomitant potential for inter-state conflict.

That raises the question of whether such a conflict is imminent or possible. The answer is, in short, that conflict is not imminent but is possible over the longer term. The second Chinese island chain objective overlaps with the first and second US outer perimeters. These cover the so-called “Arc of Instability” in the Southwestern Pacific, a geopolitical area of poor governance and civil strife that includes Fiji, Tonga, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea. Should the current pace of Chinese expansion continue and result in land-basing rights for Chinese military forces, competition for resources and influence between the Chinese and the traditional Western patrons in these island states, if left unchecked or unmitigated by greater cooperation under mutually agreed- upon rules and international commitments, can lead to military confrontations at sea or at land when competing national interests come into conflict. With one country on the ascendance and the other seemingly in decline, the stage is set for a great power confrontation in the next few decades. The question is not if the confrontation will occur, but how it will occur: will it be armed or not?

Although the US will maintain its regional military dominance for the foreseeable future, its lack of commitment to a soft power counter-strategy and the inability of Australia and New Zealand to fill the developmental assistance gap mean that China’s soft power expansion will continue to erode the traditional political influence of the West in the South Pacific. More than anything the West does, the main thing holding China back from developing full-fledged alliances in the region is its continued lack of cultural understanding and nuance when approaching the PIF states. This is the root cause of indigenous resentment against the Chinese presence in their midst and is what, more than anything else, can thwart China’s best laid plans for eventual regional dominance once its military is able to raise the costs to the US of an armed confrontation in the PIF theater beyond what the American strategic command or public are willing to bear. However, should the Chinese improve their public diplomacy and cultural understanding of the South Pacific beyond influence-peddling and naked resource extraction, and should the US and its allies not be able to arrest the shift in PIF political loyalties towards the People’s Republic, then that time could well come. If it does, a new balance of power will emerge in the South Pacific, with the preferred language of regional business and diplomacy being Mandarin rather than English or French.

*************

*This two part series is based on an article prepared for publication in Gauntlet, a soon to be launched New Zealand magazine dedicated to political debate and public affairs. The author thanks the editors for giving him the opportunity to explore this subject.

Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. A member of the www.kiwipolitico.com weblog collective, he has an interest in security analysis and strategic thought. His book in progress, Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies, compares the security policies of Chile, New Zealand and Portugal in the Post Cold War era.

 
 
 
 
 
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