U.S. Marines in Australia is Reckless Showmanship

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that 2,500 U.S. Marines would be stationed in Australia to help strength the alliance between the U.S. and Australia. This move is widely seen as the Obama administration’s attempt to mitigate increasing Chinese influence in South East Asia.

This strategy, though, amounts to little more than overwrought posturing on the part of the U.S. without doing enough to stem Chinese economic influence in Australia. The U.S. should instead focus on building economic ties in the region through trade partnerships. This announcement, though, might make such an economic strategy more difficult than it should be.

This announcement comes in response to growing Chinese naval expansion and China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims. China has recently purchased its first aircraft carrier and has agreements with Russia for advanced weapons systems. Some fear that China’s continued naval military growth could achieve its territorial claims, allowing the Asian superpower to gain economic hegemony in the region.

For this reason, Obama has decided that an increased military presence is necessary in Australia. This base will require a substantial U.S. presence within the South China Sea. Many U.S. exports ship through the South China Sea lanes, although said trade has been disrupted as of late due to Chinese influence as a result of increased competition. The U.S. has also released more details of an overall increase in the military presence in Southeast Asia. No matter what Obama says, it would be incredibly hard not to see this announcement as anything other than a message to China that they are not the only game in town with a big military.

These moves, though, are more showmanship than substantive. On their own, they do little to effect Chinese economic influence in Australia and the rest of Southeast Asia. China is currently the most important trading partner for Australia with trade between the countries exceeding $100 billion. Australia serves as a welcoming market for Chinese goods. The flow of exports is not one-sided, either, as China accounts for one-third of Australia’s exports. Chinese tourism in Australia has been rising greatly over the years. Placing troops in Australia won’t stop these trends on their.

The threat of a rising Chinese navy in Southeast Asia is still many years off. China has just bought and retrofitted its first aircraft carrier. This ship, though, is hardly a clear and present danger. It was a Russian aircraft carrier, the Varyag, which was never actually finished. After construction halted in 1992, it spent years in dry-dock, never actually becoming seaworthy or even possessing an onboard electronics system. In fact, it had to be towed to China when they purchased it. This ship is still years away from being ready, and the U.S. already has 11 carriers in service. So it’s not entirely clear what ramping up our military presence in the region will accomplish aside from perturbing the Chinese and possibly convincing them they need more carriers soon.

It should be noted that the biggest winner in all of this is Australia. Not only do they continue to benefit from trade with China (they already have their own free trade agreement with each other) but now they have the added economic boost of U.S. troops. This increase in economic integration, though, is minimal, as there will only be 2,500 Marines in Australia. It is not as though their presence will affect the Australian economy anywhere near the level that China does. This makes it even harder to see this announcement as anything other than political posturing by the U.S. Furthermore, our ability to be an economic power should not be based solely on military projection. 

A better strategy for securing a strong U.S. presence in the region would be America’s continued participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This group of countries seeks to create a new free trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations, including Malaysia, Chile, Vietnam and Australia, amongst others. The goal of the organization is to lower trade barriers between the countries in order to increase economic development. China, though, is noticeably absent from the participating countries. In order to join, it would have to allow its currency to rise in value. This is a way to not only flex American economic power in the region but also gives the U.S. a way to try and entice the Chinese to abandon its currency manipulation.

Placing troops in Asia is showmanship at its worst. It does nothing to actually curb China’s real influence in the region and only serves to perturb the Chinese government and put them on edge. Economic strategies should be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the region. By making much of these military moves, the U.S. might actually being undercutting the work it is doing with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as China may see the military measures as too threatening to actually consider joining the trade group. So we are left with a suspicious Chinese government that will definitely continue to manipulate its currency. Oh, and China also owns a lot of U.S. debt. Maybe the Obama administration should have just stuck to the economic strategy. It might be the only option we can afford. 

Photo Credit: San Diego Shooter