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Trump security chiefs sniff out the South Pacific as new Ambassador arrives

(Contributed)         18 March 2019

The sending of two senior United States security personnel to the South Pacific and elsewhere has shown how the Trump administration is determined to push Cold War diplomatic agendas on Australia's doorstep. The brief visit to the region was accompanied by other significant developments.
 
The US, under terms of the so-called alliance, expects Australia to follow its diplomacy. It has been interesting, however, to note voices of dissent in Canberra, within the higher echelons of class and state power.
 
In early March an official visit by Matt Pottinger, Senior Director, Asia Affairs (in photo behind Trump), together with Alexander Gray, Director, Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security, for the National Security Council (NSC), to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and then Australia, New Zealand and Japan, received the bare minimum of media coverage. (1)
 
Later media releases, however, revealed further official visits had also taken place at the same time, with a, 'flurry of visits by US officials to the Pacific Islands'. (2)
 
The NSC is a Washington-based advisory body composed of those closely associated with the Trump administration. The fact two of the most senior personnel (Pottinger has been referred to as Trump’s “primary point of contact on US-China security issues” and “among Trump’s longest serving aides”) were sent to the South Pacific has revealed US priorities. Incoming US ambassador to Australia Arthur B. Culvahouse, stated, 'I do expect a number of very senior administration officials to visit Australia this year'. (3)
 
The moves, by the US, have also coincided with Australia establishing an Office of the Pacific, linked to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
 
Whether the two senior US personnel concerned together with others, were part of the recent reorganisation of the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) with priority given to emerging threats has yet to be established. It would appear likely they were. Whereas ordinary intelligence operations are concerned with wholesale spying, military intelligence assessments are invariably the product of military mind-sets and concerned with balances of forces and military preparedness.
 
Documentation about the changes within DIA organisation, for example, included references to agents who did not work undercover together with naming the so-called Defence Clandestine Service (DCS), which 'reflects the military's latest and largest foray into secret intelligence work'. (4)  
 
The three Melanesian countries of the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, form a strategic part of the Defence of Australia doctrine where northern shores are protected by a buffer-zone against foreign military incursion. And they have most certainly become the main focus of US-led military intelligence operations at the present time.
 
While all three countries have had Chinese ethnic minorities since the nineteenth century, in recent times large-scale investment programs from China have provoked a furious response from US-led western allies. Matters came to a head at the APEC summit in Port Moresby last November, with an announcement that the US would take a leading role in establishing the Lombrum military base on Manus Island.
 
That both Pottinger and Gray also visited Australia and Japan as part of their South Pacific fact-finding tour should come as no great surprise. US-led regional military planning has included the elevation of Japan to a major hub for 'US interests' in the north, with Australia as a southern counterpart. The triangular diplomatic relationship is primarily focussed upon China, with greater responsibility for the two hubs to pursue Pentagon directives, as required. It is no accident that the implementation of the major diplomatic moves coincided with the establishment of the DCS. The triangular diplomacy has provided the framework for the DCS to operate within.
 
Evidence of the triangular diplomatic relationship between the US, Australia and Japan, and their special focus on the South Pacific has not been difficult to identify; last year, for example, US-led initiatives to quash an arrangement between Huawei Marine and PNG for an underwater telecommunications cable deal proved unsuccessful. (5) In response, the US and its two regional hubs have subsequently stepped-up their position against China in the region.
 
The fact that both Pottinger and Gray also visited New Zealand is significant for two reasons: NZ forms an active part of the Five Eyes intelligence networks. Secondly, NZ has always taken a much more proactive role with educational and training provision in the Pacific. Many islanders have relied upon NZ facilities for specialist education and training of all levels. Educational institutions across NZ will obviously possess many useful contacts across the wider region.
 
A number of other important considerations have arisen.
 
The US war-drive is about to accelerate into over-drive with an announcement from the White House defence budget for proposals including a five per cent increase to $750 bn. for the coming year. (6)
 
Secondly, the Trump administration has finally got an Ambassador into Canberra after a lengthy delay, since 2016, when the previous ambassador departed. The incoming Ambassador Culvahouse, has already revealed a set agenda which has included a stiffening the Australian spine on China. (7) What has been particularly revealing about his appointment is that Culvahouse has been officially referred to as Ambassador to Australia while elsewhere he has been labelled an envoy. The latter, in diplomatic speak, is usually a specific position for greater responsibility across other countries.
 
It is also particularly relevant to note how the US finds dealing with Coalition leaders in Canberra easier than their ALP counterparts. Right-wing Liberals and the National and Country Party friends were not overtly concerned about the long-term absence of a US ambassador; senior coalition leaders would appear to have a cozy relationship with their US counterparts without having to discuss matters through usual diplomatic procedures. Culvahouse, however, was pushed into Australia, 'ahead of the federal elections', which the ALP is expected to win. (8) The speed of his arrival in Canberra following the latest political opinion polls was obviously a serious consideration: Culvahouse noted, for example, the speed of his departure had actually cut short his time at 'ambassador school'. (9)
 
Two points, therefore, emerge.
 
As the South Pacific has already being specified in official US foreign affairs media releases as 'strategically vital to the US and its regional allies' in the context of countering China's regional influences, the question arises whether this is the main reason why the US requires Culvahouse as an envoy? (10) Will Culvahouse reside in Canberra while making forays elsewhere in the name of 'US interests'?
 
Secondly, high-handed US diplomacy has also been accompanied by the NSC opening an investigation into what they described as the 'grey area' of Chinese covert influence in Australia. (11) The NSC was not asked to open the investigation from Australian sources. The Trump administration took the initiative as part of their planned regional war-drive.
 
Such moves, by the US, have already set the wheels in motion for the new Cold War, much of which is being waged in Australia. Recent legislation, including the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, is little other than a wholesale domestic spying program. (12) It forms a conspicuous part within overhauled espionage provision 'unveiled by the Turnbull government' which stoked the fires of the new Cold War at the behest of the Trump administration. (13) The new Cold War has affected every level of Australian society: academic, political, and economic.
 
The response, therefore, from some senior Australian decision-makers to the US-led initiative has been interesting to note.
 
A recent media release from Andrew Robb, a former Coalition cabinet member responsible for negotiating the 2015 FTA with China, has noted problems arising with an 'American obsession with China'. Their preoccupation that 'Beijing's rise needs to be contained rather than embraced', has left little to the imagination. (14) He added that the problem was 'security interests which has largely been driven by the US'. (15)
 
Another figure, Stephen Fitzgerald, appointed as Australia's first ambassador to Beijing in late 1972, was recently interviewed about regional affairs. He drew attention to the problems of 'economic and political disruption in the Asia-Pacific', and said that 'Australia, not the US, is living in a Chinese world', followed by the statement that 'we must deepen engagement with China and the region', inferring our diplomatic relationship with the US was detrimental to our standing in the wider region. (16)
 
Finally, analysis from Professor James Curran, Sydney University, about recent US diplomatic initiatives within the region and the appointment of Culvahouse as ambassador, included the comment: 'this ambassador will note that.....we're not signing up to the US cold war in Asia'. (17)
 
Statements from the people above reveal wide divisions at the higher echelons of class and state-power toward US-led regional diplomatic initiatives. They have a different position to the present Morrison government. The question might be asked is whether this is one of the main reasons why the present Coalition government in Canberra remains dysfunctional?
 
Are the present Morrison cabinet merely money-grubbing faceless wonders wanting more US patronage and ill-gotten gains for themselves and their families?
 
It might be a very useful project for a researcher to establish how many times members of the present cabinet and their families have visited the US recently, how many of their children have entered into US-based 'scholarships' and where their business interests really lie.
 
We need an independent foreign policy!
 
 
1.     Donald Trump's Top Security Advisers Visit the Pacific,  ABC News, 4 March 2019.
2.     Warning on China's 'loan diplomacy', Australian, 14 March 2019.
3.     Ibid.
4.     Pentagon plays the spy game, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 7 December 2012.
5.     US in underwater battle with China for internet control, Australian, 14 March 2019.
6.     Defence, border spending rise as White House proposes $6.6 trillion budget, Australian, 13 March 2019.
7.     US envoy arrives to 'translate Trump', Australian, 13 March 2019.
8.     Australian, op.cit., 14 March 2019.
9.     Ibid.    
10.   How to counter China's influence in the South Pacific, Foreign Affairs, Council of Foreign Relations, 13 November 2018.
11.   Trump orders probe into Chinese influence, The Weekend Australian, 13-14 January 2018.
12.    A-G's warning to foreign agents, Australian, 11 March 2019.
13.   A-G's warning to foreign agents, Australian, 11 March 2019.
14.   Robb: China relations 'turned to custard', Australian, 12 March 2019.
15.   Ibid.
16.   Why Canberra must reset its relationship with China, Australian, 12 March 2019.
17.   US Envoy, Australian, op.cit., 13 March 2019.  

 

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