On Wednesday, the White House announced a new agreement with Australia to station some 2,500 Marines in the country, with many analysts viewing the move as a response to growing Chinese military power in Asia-Pacific. However, the move is unlikely to be motivated by military concerns over China’s military build-up, and has more to do with the U.S. economic and defense interests.
Firstly, the move demonstrates a growing recognition of the importance of the region, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a recent Foreign Policy op-ed. As the Secretary of State noted, “In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make-and keep- credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action.” The Australian bases give the U.S. a presence which its Asian allies are seeking.
Currently, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) employs a strategy of “omni-enmeshment” — to provide a stake for both the U.S. and China in regional affairs and play them off each other for the security of the region. China’s contestation of surrounding territories with several Southeast Asian nations continues to be a sore point in regional relations. These claims are creating anxieties among its neighbors, who look towards the U.S. as a counterweight to potential Chinese aggression. Critics thus point out that a growing U.S. military presence in the region plays into these sorts of dynamics — the strong military presence makes China less likely to contest territories like the Spratly Islands. However, this is unlikely to be the main reason for the new security agreement.
Locating the bases in Australia — geographically removed from the contested areas — is a signal that the U.S. is not interested in curbing China’s military incursions. China has been accusing the U.S. of over-hyping its aggressive tendencies, and the Obama administration is wise enough to avoid a confrontation with China over its military build-up for fear of triggering more aggression. The Australian bases are thus unlikely to be motivated by military interests.
It is more likely that the move is motivated by America’s economic interests. The waters from the Indian Ocean to the Straits of Malacca house some of the busiest ports in the world, where most of the world’s trade is carried out. As the economic gravity of the world shifts to the Asia-Pacific region, America’s greater military presence in the region will be critical to sustaining its economic growth, both in terms of securing new export markets, as well as guaranteeing security of its energy transport lanes- the bases serve an economic, not military purpose. The Straits of Malacca alone carry one-quarter of the world’s traded goods and a quarter of the world’s oil.
There are also transnational crime issues concerning the increased military involvement in Australia. The military bases are located close to the Straits of Malacca than its East Asian bases, allowing the US to more stringently police the narrow stretch of waters that is still threatened by terrorism and piracy that disrupts shipping activities. Although the incidence of such activities are “close to zero”, the deterrence of such activities requires vigilance in patrols. The U.S. projected presence will help police the waters.
South-East Asia is also grappling with terrorist threats, and partnerships with local authorities in the region are mutually beneficial in weeding out regional organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah, which the Obama administration has identified as a target in its National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The nearby Australian bases thus allows the U.S. to protect both key shipping routes, and monitor regional security threats.
If the America’s aims were to balance against China’s military- it would have chosen a base closer to the country. The strategic choice of bases in Australia suggests that American aims are more motivated by economic and domestic security factors.