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The best warship is... friendship

The Village Explainer
The best warship is... friendship
By Dan McGarry • Issue #57 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.
This issue asks the question: Everyone knows what nuclear subs are good at, but who are they good for?

Nuclear subs are cool. Of that there is no doubt. Tactically and strategically, they’re better than diesel. And a sub in the hand is better than two on the drawing board. However much France may want to fart in Australia’s general direction right now (a dire threat in a sub), it’s apparent to nearly everyone that the development programme was not working as well as anyone wanted. People have been calling for a change of course for some time.
So okay, now Australia has hitched its wagon to two established and experienced nuclear submarine builders. This buys it access not just to the craft themselves, but to supply chains, weapons systems and surveillance capabilities that are much more likely to remain resilient and accessible if the Pacific becomes the source of our next collective nightmare.
It also benefits the USA substantially—arguably more than Australia—because this partnership’s first steps will quite likely include American subs based at least part-time in Australia, subsidised and partially crewed by Australians. Having access to an Indian ocean base is a huge strategic win. It gives the US Navy the ability interdict China’s most important shipping route.
I get the reasoning that says if we’re forced to fight, this is what we want to fight with.
But my question is the same as Van Jackson’s:
How can we know if this is what we need unless we have a plan to win?
Vulgar Balancing is Bad Statecraft | The Duck of Minerva
I’d go one step further. How can we have a plan to win until we know what China’s plan is?
There has been altogether too much breathless analysis warning that China is building a string of Pearl Harbours across the Pacific.
It’s been over 1250 days since the Pacific Base Watch began, and so far, not a single ground-breaking has occurred.
Yes, China is making inroads in the Pacific. Yes, it’s cause for significant concern for anyone who cares about democracy and human rights. Yes, it absolutely requires a response.
But the encroachment is military only in the oceans directly proximate to the Chinese mainland. It’s well understood that China wants the US out of the ‘First Island Chain’. It’s not a mystery that China sees Japan and Taiwan as American proxies and therefore as a threat to their predominance.
The Philippines and several other border nations are being bullied, and the question of how to respond to this strong-arming is a continuing worry.
But Pacific military history teaches us that naval overextension is the worst strategic mistake one can make. Japan proved that in Tsushima, knocking Imperial Russia out of the Pacific. They demonstrated it again by trouncing Britain and the USA using shorter supply lines and a well-equipped navy to drive a remarkably effective series of land assaults.
And their downfall was sealed when they failed to apply that key lesson to their own exploits. The Imperial Navy was effectively neutralised at Midway and in the Coral Sea, at the furthest extent of their reach.
Once their naval capacity was destroyed, all the bases in the world couldn’t save them. Allied forces simply sailed past them, targeting only those they needed to secure their advance.
Either strategists and analysts in Canberra and elsewhere believe that China has forgotten this blindingly obvious lesson, or they have forgotten it themselves. Warnings have been circulating for years, claiming that China has a plan, and that bases in the south Pacific are part of it.
Australian defence analysts have long maintained that the southwestern Pacific is second only to Australia itself in priority. Pacific security is Australian security. And Pacific security is defined as an absence of rival powers.
But the Pacific doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us. And most Pacific leaders feel that their interests, strategic and commercial, are better served with a balanced presence from both western and Asian powers.
New Zealand can’t be expected to budge in its no-nuclear vessels policy. Fiji is likely considered too friendly with Russia and China to be a viable port of call or transit point. Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea might be more inclined to grin and bear it, but they’d be grinning through gritted teeth.
Again, the strategic win here is for the USA and their position in the Indian ocean. A fleet based in Perth would place a knight where the PLAN can’t counter. It’s an excellent long-term deterrent.
But as Rana Mitter astutely notes, there’s a great deal more at stake than just submarines. This is a realignment as much as a reinvestment.
So the question is not just the cost of the subs themselves, but their opportunity cost in terms of achieving strategic victory, which we hope can be defined as a prosperous, peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific.
China’s strategy in the south Pacific—such as it is—has been clear for a decade: Treat leaders as peers whose interests are legitimate and worthy. Don’t judge their behaviour at home. Build personal, enduring relationships, and hinge reciprocity on mutual obligation, rather than higher ideals.
How China Exports Authoritarianism | Foreign Affairs
If that means building airstrips, wharves and other dual-use infrastructure in the process, it’s a welcome bonus. But the PLA/N know as well as anyone that the point is not who builds the wharf. The point is who can hold it.
China’s interests are primarily commercial, driven by construction companies seeking profits offshore. But no business, no corruption, no crime is un-political for the CCP. The proliferation of all three through the Pacific islands is an unquestionable benefit to them. Each provides a lever they can pull.
They can erode Australian influence, reducing our reliance on its good intentions. They can drive a wedge into the middle of a diplomatic relationship that too often views Pacific leaders as subordinate rather than sovereign. They can weaken Australia’s position in the Pacific without launching a single ship.
And that is exactly what they’re doing. As economic capacity begins to rebound and transportation becomes easier and more frequent, watch for an unprecedented spate of project announcements. I’m told there are big things coming.
The Chinese know—and it seems the Australians have yet to learn—that they will win any straight up, transactional contest for the hearts and minds of our political elites.
Australian obduracy in the Pacific is a greater threat to Australian interests than China’s presence. In fact it’s making China more attractive as a counterweight to the increasingly self-interested behaviour Australia is indulging in.
Their worst-in-class approach to climate change is seen as an affront. Officials publicly refrain from casting aspersions, in the hope that the US and the EU will bring Morrison to heel. But the frustration is increasingly expressing as anger.
Again and again, Pacific islands leaders are denied agency. They’ve had no place in the conversation when Australian economic and strategic interests are discussed. Relationships that could have matured over the last generation into a web of shared vision, purpose and conviction are instead a threadbare rag bag of gifts and grabs.
The people who most value our centuries-old cultural, linguistic and social ties are the most disaffected. They’re the ones who care about democracy, about individual freedom, about peace and prosperity. They are watching this king tide of disdain for democratic values lapping at their doors with concern and waning hope.
And now, they stare bemusedly as Australia commits tens of billions to counter a threat that is still over the horizon and may never in fact arrive here.
But climate change—the Pacific’s greatest threat, according to the Boe Declaration—is barely worth a farthing in comparison.
The only ship that can never be sunk is friendship. Nonetheless, in the Pacific, Australia seems unable to stop firing torpedoes into it.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu