Obama projects Pacific power

What’s the real story behind Washington sending a bunch of marines to Australia?

President Obama Visits Australia - Day 2 - escobar article
US Marines being dispatched to station in northern Australia are meant to symbolise a new focus on the Pacific  [Getty]

“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” That was US President Barack Obama, in his current Asia-Pacific swing, addressing the Australian Parliament.

One would expect a Pacific/peaceful power to promote, well, diplomacy and peace. Not really. Not when the key scriptwriters of the President’s offensive – “turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific” – come from the Pentagon.

Washington may not be on the verge of an Occupy Australia gambit – but one’s got to start somewhere. The start is 250 US Marines deployed as part of an Air-Ground Task Force to bases in Australia’s Northern Territory, including Darwin – which is a stone’s throw from Indonesia, and thus, Southeast Asia. 

US Air Force fighter jets will also be in the house, with the Marines on six-month tours starting in the summer of 2012 up to an eventual rotation of 2,500 troops.

Then comes the whopper. The marines will be conducting war games on Australian soil “out of the reach of Chinese ballistic missiles”.

And no one told an unsuspecting world that Beijing was about to establish a unilateral no-fly zone to conduct “humanitarian” bombing Down Under.

Here’s the scene

The hardly subtle Obama spin is that China must “play by the rules of the road”, and stop its “military advances”. This Washington narrative implies a benign superpower – the US – intervening to protect an Asia under siege.

Reality tells a completely different story; the “rules” – imposed by the US – assume that Washington has the right to (aggressively) police the whole planet. Beijing, for its part, is planning, long-term, how to defend its multiple national security interests in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.

No less than 85 per cent of China’s imported oil and gas travels across the Indian Ocean, through the extremely sensitive Malacca Strait, towards China’s ports in the Pacific.

Sure, China is investing heavily in Pipelineistan from Central Asia and from Siberia and is increasing energy imports from Africa. Still, two of China’s three top energy sources are Saudi Arabia and Iran (the other one is Angola).  

This means China needs to build its own defence/protection mechanisms for an immense merchant fleet plying the Indian Ocean – and the Western Pacific. It’s an utmost matter of national security. To rely on the US Navy to defend Chinese national interests would be suicidal.

The junction of the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific – where the South China Sea meets the Java Sea – is, for Beijing, the holy of the holies. That’s the bottleneck its energy imports coming from the Middle East and Africa must imperatively negotiate. And that converges with a wealth of untapped oil in the South China Sea that Beijing plans to exploit.

Here’s the agenda

Now imagine if Beijing decided to set up a base, say, in Catalina Island off the coast of California, or even in Hawaii, to patrol the Eastern Pacific.

None of this warmongering, though, is new. Not only the map, but the figures tell the story.

Almost 90 per cent of world trade and almost 70 per cent of oil travel by sea. Half of all the world’s shipping container traffic crosses the Indian Ocean. And from the Middle East to the Pacific, 70 per cent of all global oil trade flows through the Indian Ocean. 

The US Navy 2007 maritime strategy calls for a “sustained presence” in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. The US Marine Corps 2008 “Vision and Strategy” programme – which goes all the way to 2025 – stresses the Indian Ocean and environs will be a major area of conflict.

So when Obama said the US is a Pacific power, he also meant that the Pentagon wants to be not only that, but also the top South Asian power. Forever.  

For all practical purposes the Pentagon has extended its self-described “arc of instability” to the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. 

To top it off, it’s gaming a new strategy, called AirSea Battle – which assumes that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will “deny access” to US naval power in all the seas surrounding China.

“Imagine if Beijing decided to set up a base, say, in Catalina Island off the coast of California, or even in Hawaii, to patrol the Eastern Pacific.

This suggests the Pentagon will try to prevent – or at least intimidate – China in its quest for the untapped wealth of oil and minerals in the South China Sea.

Reposition me, babe

So it starts with 250 US Marines. Just like in Uganda it starts with a few Special Forces. That’s how it started in Vietnam in the early 1960s. And still the US keeps over 40,000 troops in Japan and over 28,000 in South Korea – decades after the (war) facts.  

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, in a masterpiece of understatement, said the new US move “deserves to be debated”.

Now this is how Beijing really sees it – as well as dozens of countries part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

The Pentagon calls it “repositioning”. It’s the warlike equivalent of the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. We take you from Iraq or AfPak and we ship to you Africa or Australia. The cover story – sold by a compliant corporate media – is that the US is repositioning itself as “a leader on both economics and security in the fast-developing Asia-Pacific”.

Pentagonism, as applied to Asia-Pacific, is an extension of the Pentagon’s Long War – which has been the “soft” denomination of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) since 2001.

See it as Global War Inc. And the new locations of choice are Africa (from Libya to Central Africa) and Asia-Pacific. 

Washington’s wars in Iraq and Libya offered mixed results. Iraq was a defeat of historical proportions – and China in the end was not locked out of the oil (on the contrary). Libya – for the moment – is a “victory”, with China virtually locked out of any new oil and gas contracts.

Now not only the Pentagon has launched a Cold War against Chinese commercial interests in Africa, it’s encroaching on China’s own maritime backyard. And by inverting all the rules of logic – posing as the usual, non-threatening benign outside power.

Obama said explicitly that if Beijing does not respect “international rules”, the US “will send a clear message to them that we think that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power.”

Translation of this “clear message”: “Occupy Australia” is just the beginning. There’s no business like (expanding) Pentagon business.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.