Australian Militarism in the Pacific

A letter we wrote to the Minister for Defence 20th Oct, 2018

The Hon Christopher Pyne MP
Minister for Defence
PO Box 6022, House of Representatives, Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Minister,

Re.: Australian militarism in the Pacific

The Australian Government’s decision to re-claim the Lombrum military base on Manus Island, under the guise of a joint facility agreement, is extremely alarming. There seems little doubt that the main motivation for the move is not to benefit the people of PNG but to counter Chinese interest in the island’s port development.

The Lombrum agreement exemplifies how Australia’s adhesion to a ‘hip-to-hip’ alliance with the US, its own military ambitions and its anxieties about China are undermining any capacity we might have to engage on a mutually beneficial basis with our much smaller and less powerful Pacific neighbours. The people of the Pacific have suffered long and hard at the hands of military powers and many have worked tirelessly for a peaceful Pacific. Instead of being inspired by that work, Australia is wielding its economic and military muscle unfairly, compromising the independence of Pacific Island states’ own foreign policy making.

What began as the Australia’s Defence Department’s Pacific Patrol Boat Program in the 1980s, the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP) has now grown military tentacles that extend far beyond our rightful reach. December 2017 saw the inauguration of a 30-year regional aerial surveillance capability, supposedly ‘civilian’, involving a $10 million Department of Defence contract (annual?) with Technology Service Corporation and the permanent basing of two long-range aircraft in the region. The new capability is in addition to the ADF’s Operation Solania and activities of the Quadrilateral Defence Coordinating Group (Australia, NZ, France, US).

Australia has also established a $2 million communications centre at the Lombrum  base and extended its patrol boat program by promising 21 new Guardian Class (i.e. military) patrol boats to 12 Pacific nations, including 4 for PNGDF and 2 for Timor Leste; the reported cost is over $300miliion. Plans for an Australian Pacific Security College are also being implemented.

Now the program is to include a ‘joint military facility’, what will be in effect a foreign military base for Australia – a $5 million upgrade of PNG’s Lombrum naval base all the better to support US and Australian navy operations and accommodate large US and Australian warships. The base is also to receive regular deployments of Australian armed forces, adding to the network of RAN advisers already deployed in PNG.

The PMSP, combined with other ADF activities in the Pacific, is a program of military intervention and risks abusing the sovereignty of Pacific states. Non-intervention and sovereign equality are founding principles of the UN Charter. Australia’s insistence on assuming economic and military leadership in the South Pacific has made us a bully. Even conservative commentators acknowledge our misuse of power. ASPI’s Graeme Dobbell recently stated, “The hegemon isn’t always benign—we have form as a selfish bully” https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-agenda-for-integrating-the-south-pacific/. Another ASPI spokesperson, Michael Shoebridge, has made clear what is the true purpose of the Manus Island base: “ … it makes ‘good sense’ for Australia and the US … it would help give the US a wider operating and support footprint in the Pacific and give Australian naval forces a location 2000km from [their otherwise closest base in] Darwin …”

Australia’s excessive offshore military posturing in the Pacific makes no sense strategically. It is perceived by China as a hostile, provocative action, simply an augmentation of US aims to militarily contain China.

Australia needs to be talking to and building a cooperative relationship with China, not spending huge sums of aid money on such things as the Lombrum naval base and other developments to pre-empt or compete against Chinese interests. Why couldn’t Australia have worked with China on upgrading PNG’s ports, something we could have done also on the $136 million internet cable between PNG, Solomons and Australia?

Every dollar spent on military aid is an opportunity lost. Many Pacific communities are among the poorest in the world. They need support to develop their education, medical and other essential services, not a base to accommodate foreign defence forces. Imagine what could be achieved if the PMSP and its Pacific military budget were transferred to DFAT and used to help meet civilian need, including the islands’ efforts to mitigate the effects of sea level rise and severe weather events!

Pacific leaders have rightly criticised Australia for its failure to meet its global responsibilities in dealing with climate change. Global warming is the world’s greatest security threat, and the Pacific Islands are among the first and worst of its victims. Australia’s foremost and indeed most urgent responsibility to the Pacific Island states (and the world) is to put in place its own emissions reduction measures to achieve, within the next 12 years, a 78% emissions reduction on 2010 levels, as demanded by the recent IPCC report.

Besides being unduly interventionist, the Lombrum agreement is anti-democratic. PNG’s Prime Minister and defence command may support Australia’s military interventions but neither the people of Manus nor of Australia have been consulted. The agreement has not been given so much as an airing in either country’s parliament. For the past 5 to 6 years, Manusians have had their community life and economy seriously disrupted by Australia’s notorious refugee detention centre, managed by our militarised ABF. Now, they are to suffer the imposition of a foreign military base and become the focus for Chinese and US/Australian strategic rivalry.

The glaringly obvious question to you and your government is: How does Australia’s military impositions on Manus Island, PNG generally and other small Pacific neighbours differ from the destabilising strategies of which you accuse China? Australia’s increasing military expansion – its claim on Lombrum naval base, its development of Fiji’s Black Rock military camp, its increasingly provocative military exercises, such as the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour wargames – is diametrically opposed to a peace promoting foreign policy and the ’de-escalating of uncertainties’ to which the PM has given lip service.

We also ask that, as demanded by basic accountability, the full text of the Lombrum Base agreement with PNG and related documents be made public. Has revision of the SOFA between PNG and Australia occurred? What environmental and social assessment has been undertaken?

Australia has the capacity and responsibility to be a force for peace in our region. It is tragic that the government is denying our potential.

Sincerely,

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