The decision to station 2500 marines at a permanent base in Northern Australia is seen by many as a deliberate signal to China of America’s continued commitment to the Pacific and as a gesture of goodwill to a stalwart ally. 2500 pairs of boots on the ground can certainly engender quite a lot of goodwill, especially as the Australian government pursues a robust defense posture against China.
This is, so far, America’s clearest sign that it is committing to the realities of the Pacific Century – a decision that comes 11 years over due and with a mess of relationships and alliances potentially more difficult to maintain than last century’s NATO.
Even as China grows to become some of Australia’s and America’s largest and most influential trading partners, there is a sense of unease that China will eventually present a bill that neither country would be able to pay. Without a doubt, 2500 marines, stationed only a 6 hour flight away from the Chinese mainland will do little to significantly shift operational planning but does strongly signal a new strategic paradigm.
Unlike the security arrangements the U.S. weaved for Europe, it is highly unlikely that this move can replicate such an enduring success. NATO was, in large part, developed out of a single, clear adversarial threat – that of Communism and the Warsaw Pact – with states bonded together with experiences from the trauma of World War II. Furthermore, with the exceptions of Greece, Turkey, and Iceland, NATO in Europe shared nearly a contiguous area, with straightforward benefits in sharing and coordinating military resources.
The Asia-Pacific region does not present such simple and obvious reasons for banding together.
As much as the hawks in Tokyo, Canberra, and Washington would like to think, China does not represent a clear and present threat yet. Unlike the triumphant Soviet Union, China has not collected a gaggle of puppet states or attempted military action liable to break the global order. It may loom threatening over the present network of alliances but it has, so far, actually brought enormous prosperity to virtually every state it has had dealings with.
Additionally, the sheer geography and diversity of the region may prove insurmountable. In the Asia-Pacific, only three states (China, Japan, and the U.S.) have what is called "power projection" capability – the ability for a state to conduct a sustained independent military operation far from its shores. The smaller militaries in the area do exceedingly well to protect their own borders and trade lanes but lack the ability to take any part in a larger regional conflict. Australia, South Korea, and Thailand may well possess the theoretical capability but it is unlikely that they will achieve the means to do so in the immediate future. This makes any potential system of alliances less a partnership and more of a dependency on American assets – something a shrinking military budget cannot stretch to cover.
It also seems unlikely that America could ever corral all of its individual allies in the region – and that’s nearly everyone – under a single alliance. It still remains politically difficult for certain governments to coordinate – especially militarily, for the likes of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – while others just simply don’t even share any developed military relationships. Why would the Philippines maintain defense connections with New Zealand?
Additionally, not every state feels that China’s rise – the raison d’etre for a potential defense grouping – is necessarily threatening. Unlike the Soviet Union, there is barely any ideological competition with pseudo-capitalist China. Territorial disputes, as they exist in the South China Sea, are also unlikely to need an external American mediator. With China’s increasing restraint in this matter, the existing regional grouping seems confident in handling this on its own.
Most significantly, present day Asia is in a far better position than post-war Europe was. Its economies are stronger, its governments more secure, and there is no lingering memory of liberating American troops coming to the rescue.
The American government has been showing a growing willingness to prioritize Asian-Pacific affairs. But the Pacific Century will throw up some new, insurmountable challenges for American diplomacy.
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