Australia must act to help protect the Pacific from Chinese dominance
The world is taking note of China’s claim that the country has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea” and that the Yellow Sea is “pivotal to China’s core interests”. With such profound assertions made officially by government spokesmen – backed by a massive naval build up, the deployment of supposed “carrier killer” super missiles and aggressive tactics such as ramming and harassing foreign naval and coast guard ships in the South China Sea – demonstrate China’s apparent strategy to seize control of over a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
While China seeks to dominate large swaths of the Pacific, the number of warships in the United States Navy – the world’s traditional guarantor of freedom of the seas – has declined significantly (the force only has 286 of its required 313 warships). Last month, while Hillary Clinton was in South Korea attempting to shore up U.S. influence in Asia, the Obama Administration undercut her by announcing that another eight American warships would be decommissioned. In attempting to do more with less around the world, and especially in the Pacific, the US must rely upon its allies’ assistance in keeping the sea lanes open and in protecting Western economies that are more dependent than ever on the shipment of goods and energy resources by sea.
Two British aircraft carriers
Great Britain is now building two advanced aircraft carriers in Scotland that are to be named the Queen Elizabeth class. These new carriers, scheduled for launch in 2015 and 2018, will be joint-service platforms, operating up to 50 aircraft, including the new F-35B fighter, a variety of helicopters and UAVs. The carriers will pack a powerful punch with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, force projection, logistics support, close air support, anti-submarine and anti-surface naval warfare and land attack capabilities.
The arrival of such robust British carriers in the NATO Theatre would have allowed the US to redeploy key naval assets from the Atlantic and Mediterranean to the Pacific Command, where they are clearly needed. The new British government is, however, facing massive deficits and is instituting unprecedented cuts in domestic and defence spending. In fact, it is widely speculated that such cuts will doom one, if not both, of the new carriers. Efforts in Great Britain to save the carrier project include a proposal that Britain “share” the new carriers with France. Not surprisingly, the “floating Anglo-French condominium” proposal has received little support in either country.
Assuming that the British defence cuts cannot be avoided, the US and UK should strongly encourage Australia to purchase one of the carriers for the Royal Australian Navy. Australia, with its booming commodity and agricultural exports, was largely unaffected by the global downturn. Australia has the resources to invest in its defence. Because its economy is export-driven, Australia, more than most nations, depends on the freedom of the seas to protect its economic welfare.
In light of the growing Chinese naval threat to the Pacific and the steadily declining number of US warships in the region, Australia has shown its mettle by increasing the capability of its Navy in recent years. The RAN will soon take delivery of three air-warfare destroyers and two larger, flattop amphibious ships known as Landing Helicopter Docks, which will be fitted with helicopters and will be capable of carrying more than 1,000 troops.
RAN sought an aircraft carrier
In a 2008 White Paper dealing with its future, the RAN also sought an aircraft carrier, like the ships being built in the UK, to complete its fleet upgrade. At the time, the Australian government decided not to pursue a carrier purchase. Since then, circumstances have changed. Chinese plans to dominate the Pacific have become manifest, the US cut its carrier force from 11 to 10, when it decommissioned the John F. Kennedy, the Australian economy, driven by exports and shipping, withstood the global recession and the UK appears to have a new carrier on the market.
Australia has a proud history of naval aviation and operating British-built carriers that dates back to World War II. Ironically, the last Australian aircraft carrier, the HMAS Melbourne, was sold to China in 1985. Since then, she has been studied by People’s Liberation Army Navy architects as part of China’s openly-secret aircraft carrier initiative. An Aussie carrier task force that included a Queen Elizabeth class carrier, as well as the RAN’s new amphibious ships, would be a formidable force patrolling the South Pacific that could protect the freedom of international sea lanes as well as democratic counties in the region.
Australia has fought side by side with America in every conflict since World War I, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Royal Australian Navy is practically interoperable with the United States Navy. Unfortunately, since taking office, President Obama has twice cancelled State visits to our staunch ally Down Under. Rather than futilely extending his hand to North Korea and Iran and attempting to reset relations with our traditional adversaries and regional bullies, the President should travel to Canberra to thank the Australian people for standing with us in the war on terror and in defence of freedom. While there, he can ask them to continue Australia’s contribution to the safety of the Free World by adding a Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier to their Navy.
Robert C. O’Brien is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP. He served as a United States Representative to the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. His op ed pieces are available at www.robertcobrien.com.