Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:04 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:04 | SYDNEY

Absent minded South Pacific ally


Graeme Dobell

19 January 2009 08:47

Perhaps the United States started to lose interest in the South Pacific ten minutes after the surrender treaty was signed in Tokyo Bay in 1945. Or maybe the absent mindedness can be dated from the moment MacArthur waded ashore to make his return to the Philippines.

More seriously (and giving proper respect to the blood and agony of the Island war) the US mental departure from the South Pacific is properly located in the 1970s. A formal starting point for that moment would be when President Nixon made a stopover in Guam in July, 1969, and gave a press conference that astonished Kissinger back in Washington as well as US allies around the world.

What became known as the Guam doctrine was Nixon’s impromptu public expression of the internal discussions in his administration about ‘the freewheeling interventionism that had brought over 500,000 Americans into Indochina without a strategy for victory.’ The quote is from Kissinger’s book Diplomacy, where he comments:

Though Nixon and his advisers had often discussed the new approach, there had been no plan to present it to the public on this particular occasion. Thus it was to everybody’s amazement, including my own, that Nixon announced America’s new criteria for involvement abroad.

Nixon’s Guam doctrine proclaimed that in dealing with non-nuclear aggression the US ‘would look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for defence.’ The Guam doctrine hit Canberra with as much force as the Tet offensive, and reverberated for much longer. A big ally that is losing a war — or just not winning — looks at the world afresh.

As I discussed in a previous post, the sense of dealing with a different or even unpredictable US runs through the Australian Cabinet documents of the 70s decade. In 1976, Kissinger, as Secretary of State, told Malcolm Fraser that the ANZUS alliance ‘provided only a marginal increase in Australia’s security.’ Kissinger’s advice to the Prime Minister was that Australia’s security was ‘more involved with its neighbours, as would have been highlighted had Sukarno stayed on in Indonesia.'

It was in 1976 that Fraser’s Government unveiled a landmark Defence white paper that carefully weighed the US alliance and judged it to be ‘significant’. Not central, not vital, just significant. Australia, ‘by our own policy and effort’ would have to confront uncertainties and change ‘with which we may well have to deal on our own.’

In the 1970s, US ground troops left Southeast Asia. And in Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu marched to independence. In that decade, decolonisation and the departing Americans put deep marks on Australia’s South Pacific policy. 

In 1977, the Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, told Cabinet that the United States had explicitly informed Canberra that Australia was responsible for the South Pacific. The US view was that Australia and New Zealand should have primary responsibility for security in the Islands. Peacock used that US position as the central element in a submission on the need to boost Australian aid to the South Pacific and open new diplomatic posts across the islands.

Peacock repeated that message to Cabinet in a submission on US relations in December, 1978, just released by the National Archives of Australia:

The Americans have looked to Australia and New Zealand to take the lead in the South Pacific, but have accepted Australian encouragement to take a more active role in the region. In view of Island sensitivities, Australia will need to exercise care in interposing itself between South Pacific countries and the US. (Submission 2828)

Leaving aside aid pledged to PNG, 1978 was the year that Australia for the first time increased its aid to the Pacific Islands beyond what was being given by New Zealand. So it has continued. And we’ve been encouraging the US to ‘to take a more active role in the region’ ever since.

The discussion of the low priority the US gives the South Pacific comes with a significant military caveat. The US ability to project power in the Islands is overwhelming and long-standing. It is such a formidable latent power that it is sometimes ignored in discussing America’s departure from the Islands. The US role has a continuing formal role in American Samoa and Micronesia. Hawaii's most powerful son is now US President. And Hawaii still houses the American with more power than most Asian leaders — the Commander of the US Pacific Command, holding a military remit over half the world’s surface area.

These days, too, the Guam doctrine is taking on a new meaning. The military is spending US$15 billion on turning Guam into an even more formidable military hub. The Guam build up is all about Asia and the Indian Ocean. Yet Guam demonstrates while the US might be absent minded about the South Pacific, it has certainly not lost the habits of the supreme Pacific power.