21.02.2023 Author: Petr Konovalov

AUKUS Alliance Members to Strengthen Presence in the Pacific

China, which continues to step up its military and economic power year after year, is becoming increasingly concerning and alarming for the United States and its allies, who are aware that Beijing may soon surpass Washington in terms of the volume of its geopolitical influence. Western leaders are taking a variety of steps to limit China’s sphere of influence, but their schemes are rarely successful because Western bloc states lack the same resources as the People’s Republic of China.

The formation of the AUKUS alliance in September 2021, which included Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, was intended to weaken China’s position in the Pacific. In the end, the United States’ actions were only moderately successful. As part of AUKUS, Washington shared military technology with Australia, which improved the military capabilities of the Australian army. Britain, for its part, has begun to prioritize the training of its soldiers stationed in the Pacific.

AUKUS member states decided to strengthen their relationships with the South Pacific’s 12 small island nations in addition to improving their own defense capabilities. This decision comes from the fact that the United States has tasked itself with preventing Chinese military facilities from appearing on the territory of other countries. The signing of a security agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Solomon Islands in April 2022 demonstrated to the AUKUS the importance of pursuing a more active policy in the region. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid a state visit to Papua New Guinea in mid-January 2023 to discuss the timing of the security agreement, which is scheduled for June 2023. Canberra sincerely believes that by displaying force, it can slow the rise of Chinese influence in the South Pacific region, which it regards as critical to the country’s defense.

Equally important are AUKUS members’ strong relationships with Pacific ASEAN countries such as the Philippines. For example, relations between the United States and the Philippines were largely based on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which established U.S. military bases on the territory of the island nation of 114 million people. As international tensions began to ease at the end of the twentieth century, the United States’ military presence in the Philippines was gradually reduced, and the Treaty effectively expired in 2020. Rodrigo Duterte, known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views, served as President of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022 and advocated for the complete withdrawal of US troops from Philippine soil. However, in 2022, Bongbong Marcos became the new president of the Philippines and resumed talks with the US.

Currently, the US Armed Forces have the right to station their troops on only eight Philippine military bases, but US officials have recently expressed their desire to station their troops on more local military bases and conduct more joint exercises with the Philippine army.

Carlito Galvez Jr. and Lloyd J. Austin III, the military leaders of the Philippines and the United States, met in the Philippine capital of Manila on February 2, 2023. The purpose of this meeting, according to both sides’ statements, was to strengthen the bilateral partnership in order to improve the defense capabilities of the two countries’ armies.

The true purpose of Lloyd J. Austin III’s visit to the Philippines was to negotiate access for the US military to four additional Philippine military bases. Lloyd Austin accomplished his goal: The Philippines agreed to give the US Army access to four of its military bases.

The reason for Manila’s concession in favor of Washington is simple. The United States and China account for roughly equal shares of Philippine exports and imports. Because the developing country does not want to lose US investment, it has expanded its military partnership with the US side. According to Philippine officials, the likelihood of armed conflict between the PRC and the US is low because both countries are each other’s largest trading partners and have sizable nuclear arsenals. It’s worth noting that the increased US military presence in the Philippines has more political overtones than military ones. The number of US troops in the Philippines does not correspond to the size of a full-fledged offensive or defensive military force.

The defense ministers of the two countries held a joint news conference, during which they stated that the united efforts of both sides of the dialogue create effective conditions for dealing with natural disasters and climate change, and that the increased number of US troops in the Philippines will have a positive impact on the country’s defense capabilities.

It is important to note that the United States is not the only AUKUS member seeking to maintain its presence in the Pacific by fortifying ties with Manila. Australia is also working hard to maintain its credibility in the Philippines. In October 2022, a joint Philippine-Australian naval exercise was held to increase the two countries’ capacity to counter smuggling, terrorism, drug trafficking and the effects of natural disasters. The exercise involved approximately 400 navy personnel and officers from both countries. The exercise, according to the Philippine Navy, has helped to improve the capabilities of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard.

It should be noted that this was not the first joint Australia-Philippines exercise held on Philippine territory in 2022. An exercise took place on May 12, the same year, at the Fort Ramon-Magsaysay range in Nueva Ecija. This demonstrates Australia’s desire to maintain its presence in the Philippines while also exhibiting its military might to its neighbors.

The rationality of AUKUS participants’ actions can be called into question. As previously stated, US military units stationed in countries such as the Philippines are insufficient to constitute a serious military force. Nonetheless, the maintenance of the United States military contingent on foreign countries’ soils consumes significant budget funds that could be used more wisely. One factor explaining Washington’s desire to send troops to as many countries as possible is an aspiration to increase its geopolitical weight in the Pacific.

The People’s Republic of China does not station military facilities in other countries, but includes them in its sphere of influence through trade agreements. Beijing recognizes how inefficient and pointless it is to keep small groups of military personnel abroad, and it is also aware that doing so seriously harms international relations. Many states’ representatives sign comprehensive partnership agreements with China, largely because Beijing offers better terms for trade and economic cooperation than the US.

Petr Konovalov, political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.