HUGH WHITE. Why Pacific nations would host a Chinese military base (AFR 13-14.7.2019)

Our neighbours’ commitment to values and interests shared with Australia might prove feeble in the face of Chinese persuasion.  

Why would China want a military base in our neighbourhood? From an operational perspective it doesn’t make a lot of sense but a facility with little military value can carry diplomatic weight as a symbol of intention and resolve, and that can be important strategically.China does not want to fight a major war to achieve its goal of primacy in the western Pacific, because it hopes and expects to be able to convince others to accept its power more or less peacefully.

But to do that, China has to convince the region of its capacity, and the resolve to impose its will if necessary. That is what it has been doing in the South China Sea.

China’s bases on contested features such as Mischief Reef would be of little use in a serious conflict, because they would be easy to knock out in the first few hours of a clash.

Their value to China is in showing the world, including the US and its allies and friends in Asia, how serious China is about defying US power and asserting itself as a maritime player in the western Pacific – showing that this is no longer America’s lake, and is fast becoming China’s instead.So how hard would it be for China to find a military base in the south Pacific?

We can perhaps exclude, for the time being, the question of whether it could acquire one by force, and focus instead on its chances of securing permission from one of our near neighbours to establish a site on their sovereign territory.

We would be unwise to assume this would be difficult.

Of course, there are many good reasons for our neighbours to resist such a request. There are principles of high policy: the Vanuatu government, in denying the 2017 report by Fairfax Media’s David Wroe that it was considering such a facility, said that its commitment to non-alignment precluded the hosting of foreign bases on its soil.

More importantly, our neighbours have developed alignments with Western, and specifically Australian, perspectives and interests, which have carried over from the colonial era and have been perpetuated under the US’ clear and mostly benevolent supremacy.

Perhaps more important are fears of getting too close to a country as powerful, and potentially as demanding, as China.

But these factors would likely be outweighed by what China can offer – and what it can threaten. China’s growing wealth and power give it huge influence.

In the years to come it will increasingly overtake Australia and other Western-oriented countries as the most important economic partner for our small neighbours.

It will become the primary source of trade, investment and aid, and Beijing will decide which opportunities are offered and which withheld.

The benefits of acquiescing to a Chinese base might simply be too great to refuse. Moreover, any assenting states may assume they can rely on Australia and the US to counterbalance Chinese influence, or that they can play us and the Chinese off against each other.

Nor are national interests the only consideration. Beijing will no doubt be willing to offer personal inducements to leaders willing to see things their way.

Our neighbours’ commitment to values and interests shared with Australia might prove feeble in the face of Chinese persuasion.

We’d be unwise to expect that their gratitude for our generous aid in decades past will outweigh their anticipation of future benefits flowing from Beijing.

Their recollections of all we have done for them will be counterbalanced by equally vivid recollections of Australia’s record of interference, paternalism and neglect.

They will note Australia is eager to take advantage of its own economic opportunities in China, and has been willing to trim its policy sails to do so – which might make our protests about their accommodations with Beijing look distinctly hypocritical.

And they will ask why they should be sensitive to our strategic concerns about China when we have been so insensitive to their fears about climate change – an issue on which China’s credentials might seem somewhat better than ours.

This is an edited extract of Hugh White’s essay In Denial: Defending Australia as China looks south to be published in Australian Foreign Affairs 6 on 15 July.

Hugh White is a columnist with The Age. He is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

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One Response to HUGH WHITE. Why Pacific nations would host a Chinese military base (AFR 13-14.7.2019)

  1. James O'Neill says:

    I appreciate that this is an edited version of a longer piece, but that cannot explain what is essentially a jaundiced view of China’s increasing role in the region viz a viz that of the experience of the past 70+ years. Mr White says “perspectives and interests, which have carried over from the colonial era and have been perpetuated under the US’ clear and mostly benevolent supremacy.” This is frankly astonishing. The US has been at perpetual war since 1945. It has overthrown dozens of governments and interfered in the governance of more. Much of that was justified either in terms of maintaining US economic and military supremacy, or waging war against its perceived ideological enemies.
    That has not changed with the rise of China, and is more likely accelerating. It is clearly stated US policy, in multiple official reports, to maintain its military and economic supremacy. That this is increasingly a vain hope does not modify their behaviour.
    Australia’s role is increasingly schizophrenic. China is by far its most important trading partner, yet it persists in manifestly belligerent conduct towards the PRC. Taking part in US military activities is but one example. Maintaining a loyal silence in the face of US military activity in the Asian region (almost completely unreported in the mainstream media) is another example.
    I think it was Professor White who pointed out some years ago that Australia for the first time had as its major trading partner someone who was not an ally. Manifestly, that required new thinking. Equally manifestly, such thinking has been conspicuous by its absence in the highest echelons of Australian political, military and administrative thinking.

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