US pushes for stronger control over South Pacific
Written by: (Contributed) on 27 July 2022
Addressing the recent Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva, Fiji, in mid-July, US Vice-President Kamala Harris provided a Cold War diplomatic message which included the announcement that the US was opening two new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, enlarging the regional Peace Corps provision, having an envoy to the PIF, and providing $600 million for economic development programs. (1) The diplomatic statement followed an earlier announcement the US was planning to re-open their embassy in the Solomon Islands, which was closed in 1993.
The fact that Tonga is part of Polynesia, Kiribati part of Micronesia and the Solomon Islands part of Melanesia, would tend to indicate the US is planning to establish the three countries as minor regional hubs and spokes, attached to broader regional planning over-ridden by Australia and Japan. The arc between Kiribati and Tonga, furthermore, swings through sensitive Australian military institutions in Queensland. (2) The Solomon Islands also forms part of the triangulation: references, therefore, to 'the regional surveillance centre in the Solomon Islands', reveal a significant part of the US regional military and security provision. (3)
Queensland, with nine military bases, is also regarded in defence and security circles as the front-line for Australian military operations. One military facility, Lavarack, near Townsville, hosts the 3rd Combat Signals Regiment, the 141st Signal Squadron and the 11th Combat Service Support Battalion. (4) Lavarack is also situated at an angle of 175 degrees east to Kiribati, and rests on a horizontal line to Tonga, at 21 degrees south, cutting through New Caledonia, another regional country of extreme significance to US planning. The triangular arc contains the south-west Pacific, which in recent times has been a major preoccupation for the Pentagon and its Cold War diplomatic stance with China. (5)
It has not been coincidental that the US focused their recent diplomatic efforts upon the PIF: following the 2019 Australian diplomatic debacle at the forum, China moved to win the 'hearts and minds of the PICs in a win-win situation'. (6) The fact that two of the countries at the forum, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands also switched their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China later in the same year further increased China's strategic opportunities in the mini-regions.
While the three Pacific regions remain relatively small, with a total population of about 11.9 million, the countries have large exclusive economic zones, spreading over 7.7 million square miles of ocean, making them important factors for military considerations. (7) The large number of officially independent countries also provide enhanced lobbying power in international forums, including the United Nations.
It is important, therefore, to note the three areas of the Pacific have had a long and troubled history which has included colonial subjugation, 'black-birding', and in more recent times neo-colonialism based on the exploitation of vast mineral and natural resources and cheap labour. Many US mining companies, for example, use Australian-based company facilities for regional operations and the siphoning of wealth to elsewhere; they invariably keep their share-holders happy by paying large dividends while most citizens remain in poverty.
One of the main problems facing the US and their regional allies, Australia and Japan, however, has been accessing reliable intelligence about regional developments. While Pacific countries have become aid-dependent, many of their citizens remain suspicious about western interests in their countries: many foreigners, for them, come with dubious intentions, not necessarily in their own interests. In fact, it might be noted that the US and their allies have been shown repeatedly to be blissfully ignorant of local developments, languages and customs.
Military and security considerations are also problematic: while each country across the region has its own intelligence services, they are largely over-ridden by Australian counterparts in the southern part and Japan in the north. The military and security provision is then further over-ridden by US regional facilities which rely upon Pine Gap and other Australian-based sensitive facilities. But while it remains a technological achievement to fly a surveillance satellite over an area or monitor telecommunications, it is, however, another matter to access reliable intelligence from well informed local sources at ground level, referred to in official jargon as 'ground-human'.
References in Kamala Harris's diplomatic announcement, therefore, to the PIF and that the US was planning for increased Pace Corps provision in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, together with re-establishing the US Agency for International Development (AID) has little to do with economic development programs; they are intended for assisting the US to access reliable grass-roots intelligence and establishing networks. (8) The Peace Corps and the AID have long been hosted in US embassies overseas, and many of their programs have been highly questionable.
And the fact that the Australian defence forces have already undertaken joint counter-insurgency training with the Tongan counterparts as part of recent RIMPAC exercise, can best be viewed as a prelude to greater and larger US-led regional military programs. (9) Counter-insurgency provision is, invariably, linked to counter-intelligence and Cold War diplomatic positions and the politics of repression.
Reading publications from the previous Cold War throw extensive light upon present US diplomatic positions: references, for example, that 'US administration believes that the political and economic interests of the United States, security and stability in the region and its allies' trust must be based on military power … the US has a wide network of military bases and installations in foreign territories … as a kind of Asian NATO', show the connection and continuation of US projections from previous to the present Cold War. (10)
These US-led defence and security developments have drawn Australia even closer to the increased likelihood of real-war scenarios. When US Indo-Pacific Co-ordinator, Kurt Campbell, stated earlier this year the that region will most likely 'witness a strategic surprise over the next year or two', it provided a serious insight into their military planning. (11)
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1. Countering China's influence at the Pacific Forum, The Weekend Australian, 16-17 July 2022.
2. See: Peters Projection, World Map, Actual Size.
3. Pacific ahead of the curve on challenges facing Indian Ocean, Australian, 18 July 2022.
4. See: Wikipedia – Australian Military Bases.
5. Peter Projection, op.cit., World Map.
6. China's strategic objectives and ambitions in the south-west Pacific, Strategic Analysis Paper, Future Directions International, 31 October 2019, pp. 3-4.
7. The south-west Pacific and Sino-US competition, Strategic Analysis Paper, Future Directions International, 23 July 2019, pp. 1-2.
8. Americans prepare for big Pacific push, Australian, 13 July 2022.
9. Forces combine, Australian Government – Defence, 8 June 2022.
10. See: Disarmament, The view from Moscow, Asia-Pacific region, Vyacheslav Bunin, Novosti (Moscow, 1988), page 9, 29, and 33.
11. Americans prepare, Australian, op.cit., 13 July 2022.
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