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.