Marines in Darwin: US Energy Imperialism and the South China Sea


During Barack Obama’s visit to Australia in November 2011, the US and Australian governments announced the establishment of a permanent Marine presence in Darwin, located on South East Asia’s doorstep.  By 2014, some 2, 500 Marines plus associated hardware such as military aircraft, tanks, artillery, and amphibious assault vehicles will be based near the Northern Australian port city.

They will presumably be organised as a self-contained Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) drawn from the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Division, combining air, ground, and logistics combat elements.  The MEU coming to Darwin will be supported by US warships and even (it is speculated) B-52 bombers.

“I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region,” Obama told a joint media conference with a suitably deferential Australian Primer Minister Julia Gillard in Canberra.  “It is appropriate for us to make sure . . . that the security architecture for the region is updated for the 21st century and this initiative is going to allow us to do that,” the US President said.

Obama delivered a series of “charm offensive” speeches, extolling the history of the bilateral relationship and painting the US and its junior partner Australia as altruistic democratic powers seeking to advance the cause of freedom in the Asia Pacific.  “As two global partners, we stand up for the security and dignity of people around the world.”

The one word that Obama did not use in his Australian addresses was “oil,” but it was surely not far from his mind.  For at least a century, controlling the world’s resources has been a major priority of US foreign policy, prompting interventions all over the globe.  Tom Lehrer’s satirical gem “Send the Marines,” written in the mid-60s, remains totally relevant:

Members of the corps
All hate the thought of war,
They’d rather kill them off by peaceful means.
Stop calling it aggression,
O we hate that expression.
We only want the world to know
That we support the status quo.
They love us everywhere we go,
So when in doubt,
Send the Marines!

Since the late 1990s, the so-called “end of cheap oil” scenario has dominated the thinking of the US energy establishment.  This has led to an intensified commitment to well-established hegemonic tendencies: a worldwide “strategy of maximum extraction,” according to Michael Klare in Blood and Oil.  The Marine build-up in Darwin, as well as other signs of increased US military activity in the region, should be viewed in the context of what John Bellamy Foster has identified as “a dangerous new era of energy imperialism.”

Over the past decade, Sino-American tensions have been increasing on all energy fronts, including the South China Sea (SCS).  In addition to being the world’s most valuable maritime trade route (worth at least $5 trillion to annual global trade), the SCS possesses significant fossil fuel reserves.

Just how significant these reserves are is not yet fully known, but estimates range from 7 to 28 billions barrels of crude plus vast gas fields numbering in the hundreds of trillions of cubic feet.  Methane hydrates (frozen methane) are also thought to be abundant.  Dubbed the “ice that burns,” methane hydrates have been identified by the US Energy Department as “the gas resource of the future.”  Present technology does not permit its commercial exploitation, but that is likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Darwin’s relative proximity to that region — which China has fairly accurately dubbed a second Persian Gulf — confers it with considerable strategic significance to US planners.  Since the discovery of oil in the region in the late 1960s, a tangled web of overlapping claims has been established by China and several Southeast Asian nations.  China asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over some 80% of the SCS, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

On occasion, armed clashes have taken place over the Spratly archipelago.  In 1988, Chinese forces launched an attack on occupying Vietnamese troops, killing over 70 and sinking several ships.  Recent years have seen an upsurge in non-lethal confrontations and a dramatic escalation in the war of words.

Unwilling to cede this rich energy province to its main 21st-century geopolitical rival, Washington has begun exerting greater influence in the region through client states such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and, increasingly, Vietnam.  In a trend that is becoming more prevalent, Western energy corporations develop close “partnerships” with local state-owned oil and gas companies, which in turn grant exploratory licences and drilling concessions in return for a share of the profits.

The Chinese government has also entered into extraction arrangements with some Western commercial entities.  However, as far as “Big Oil” is concerned, dealing with a powerful country like China leads to a less favourable return on capital investment.  The game plan for the future is to negotiate with weaker SCS governments, using a position of comparative advantage to extract maximum profit.  The aim is to pay as little as possible to the host country, which effectively becomes a Trojan Horse for capital.  This is tried and true neoliberal policy, the same logic that has underpinned bilateral “free trade agreements” between the US and weak, internally-divided and poverty-stricken “developing” nations in various parts of the world.

Texas-based Exxon Mobil, the richest energy corporation in the world, has led the charge in this direction, forging a Mephistophelean alliance with the Vietnamese government.  In August 2011, Exxon announced that it had discovered commercially-viable hydrocarbons in Block 119, a concession located a few hundred kilometres off the coast of Danang.  Vietnam claims that Block 119 lies within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but China also asserts territorial rights over part of the area.  The Chinese government bluntly warned Exxon to stay out, saying that they should “mentally prepare for the sound of cannons.”

Seemingly undaunted by the threat of Chinese intervention, Exxon has announced that it will go ahead with extractive operations.  Behind Exxon and other Western companies that have voiced similar intentions stands the US government, which is pursuing an increasingly assertive policy in the region.

Although Obama likes to talk up the need for green energy, his relationship with the fossil fuel lobby is almost as solid as his predecessor’s.  In 2007-2008, Exxon contributed more campaign donations (totalling $117,946) to Obama than any other energy company.  BP and Chevron were also significant donors.  For a relative pittance, the oil companies get a lot of bang for their donated buck, whether they’re dealing with a confirmed energy reactionary like Bush or a “liberal” with a slicker “greenwashed” image like Obama.

As it happens, nearly a third of the world’s coral reefs are located in the SCS region, with the Spratly Islands alone boasting over 600 sensitive reef structures.  The coral reefs of the SCS provide a habitat for a plethora of marine species and seabirds, some critically endangered.  Past oil spills from tankers have cut a swathe through affected areas.  A deepwater mega-spill would prove utterly devastating.  The potential for a Gulf of Mexico-style environmental catastrophe in the contested SCS, however, doesn’t enter into the calculations of Obama or his corporate donors.

Other corporate beneficiaries of the US presence in the SCS will include Santos, the major Australian-owned company that is aggressively lobbying for a massive expansion of coal seam gas extraction in Australia.  Santos has also acquired gas interests in Chinese-claimed areas of SCS in association with PetroVietnam.  The folks at Santos are some of the most ruthless land-grabbers in the business; just ask the many Australian farming communities who have experienced their relentless encroachment.

Julia Gillard, who offers unconditional support for US foreign policy, is herself no stranger to the influence of energy corporations.  Strictly speaking, she is not a democratically elected leader.  Gillard was installed when a backroom Labor Party right-wing factional coup deposed sitting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010.  Labor’s right has always had indecently close connections with the mega-profitable mining companies, who were gunning for the usually safe and dependable conservative Rudd because of his proposed super-profits mining tax.

Gillard, who now leads a troubled minority government after failing in subsequent elections to win a majority in her own right, introduced a greatly watered-down version of the mining tax.  She has also responded to US diplomatic pressure by overturning a decades-old Labor ban on the selling of uranium to India, a move that has already prompted some state governments in Australia to consider expanding exploration and extraction activity.

The US claims it is propping up international law and freedom of the seas; Beijing views it as an aggressive policy of anti-Chinese containment.  Clearly, the SCS is rapidly becoming the setting for a new “great game” of brinkmanship between two energy-hungry great powers, both of which have shown a willingness to impinge on the rights of smaller nations.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of China’s stance with regard to the SCS, it is worth remembering that the US response would undoubtedly be more aggressive if China were to start throwing its weight around in the Gulf of Mexico, establishing close diplomatic and military relations with Central American nations.  The existence of the Monroe Doctrine, which asserts US control over the entire Western Hemisphere, while simultaneously warning other powers to stay out, shows up the hypocrisy of Washington’s (and Canberra’s) rebuke of Beijing.

The appalling US human rights history in Southeast Asia needs no elaboration, but it has apparently been expunged from the historical consciousness of the foreign policy elite.  Some of Hilary Clinton’s pronouncements, in particular, have been breathtaking in their shamelessness.  “The US is back” in Southeast Asia, she brashly proclaimed in a visit to the region in 2009.  Imagine for a moment if the Germans were to forget past crimes in a fit of predatory capitalist enthusiasm and announce: “We’re back in Poland.”  The Germans, of course, could never get away with it — but US corporate control over the media allows Washington all sorts of wilful amnesiac privileges.

The rapid-response MEU in Darwin will be of direct benefit to Western oil interests in their quest to dominate the fossil fuel resources of the South China Sea.  Contrary to the “humanitarian” impression created by Obama’s propagandistic Australian speeches, the Marines and their B-52s are coming to serve the corporate interests that they have served for at least a century.

Few voices on this subject could be more authoritative than General Smedley D. Butler, who at the time of his death was the most decorated Marine in the history of the Corps.  He also became a prominent anti-war activist following his retirement.  “I spent thirty-three years . . . in active military service as a member of . . . the Marine Corps,” said Butler in 1935.  “I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers.  In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”  Ironically, the Marines still have a base named after Butler.  They are still trained to be gangsters for capitalism.  The only difference between then and now is that US military and economic power has a far greater reach.

The contradiction at the heart of the Marine Corps is a microcosm of broader US society.  While the Corps serves the “1%,” most of its members are drawn from the disadvantaged socio-economic sectors of American society.  A more recent ex-Marine dissenter, Sgt. Martin Smith, has written eloquently about this contradiction. “What I learned about Marines is that despite the stereotype of the chivalrous knight, wearing dress blues with sword drawn, or the green killing machine that is always ‘ready to rumble,’ the young men and women I encountered instead comprised a cross-section of working-class America.”

The Marines in Darwin will have been subjected during their training to a “process of dehumanization,” as Smith puts it, “that is central to military training.”  It is this process of indoctrination and brainwashing that leads to the victims of the US class system becoming bullies and aggressors in the service of capital.  In the words of Smith:

It speaks volumes that in order for young working-class men and women to gain self-confidence or self-worth, they seek to join an institution that trains them how to destroy, maim, and kill.  The desire to become a Marine — as a journey to one’s manhood or as a path to self-improvement — is a stinging indictment of the pathology of our class-ridden world.

A few thousand Marines represent no direct threat to mainland China itself — but they and the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet could well play an important role in enforcing Western economic expansion at China’s expense.  Will a “cold war” situation turn hot in the SCS?  And If China does respond with violence against perceived challenges to its sovereignty, as it did back in 1988, will the US use that as a pretext to initiate a military campaign in the SCS?

It is hard to conceive of a hypothetical conflict situation in the SCS “going nuclear,” but the implied threat was present in Obama’s promise to pursue US interests in the Asia-Pacific “with every element of American power.”  Why go there?  Because like a heroin-craving “junkie,” the fossil fuel energy-dependent captains of capitalism will run any risk, and sell anyone out including their nearest and dearest, to get that all-important fix.

David T. Rowlands is a frequent contributor to Green Left Weekly.


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