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Published in Crikey 18 November, On Line Opinion and Canberra Times 21 November 2011

In view of the sycophantic nature of Australia’s relationship with the United States over the past sixty years I guess it was inevitable that Australia, in the absence of tough minded governments, would eventually come to host a US military base. The North West Cape, Pine Gap and Geraldton communication facilities and joint exercises were incremental steps along that path, not to mention Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf war, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As announcements go relating to major policy change this one was a shocker. Whilst the rest of the world called it for what it was, the establishment of a US base, the Australian Defence Minister said it was merely an enhancement of joint exercises. Then to make matters worse few other details were provided. We have been told that in mid next year, 250 US Marines will arrive on a six month posting to undertake training. Over five years that commitment will rise to 2,500 Marines. That figure represents a stripped down brigade. Also hinted at, alluded to, mumbled about, are B52s and other aircraft, including perhaps fighter aircraft operating out of/based at Tindal for unspecified periods of time, perhaps permanently. Then the most important mumble of all, there will be more US naval visits, including capital ships to Darwin – soon.

Pathetic, absolutely pathetic; it has been an exercise in gutless avoidance on the part of our fearless sycophants. This is a democracy, where are the facts, where is the debate?

The media led by giving a voice to Australian right wing commentators, who had few facts but were prepared not only to endorse the deal but also act as spokesmen for the US. This Gillard/Abbott folly has a long way to run yet, the commentary is only just beginning and it is not going to be managed by the Australian Defence Association or The Lowy Institute.

The decision to put a US base in the Northern Territory, centred on Darwin, has to do with the containment of China’s growing naval power.

From around 2001 China embarked on an ambitious ship building program, including the Type 094 and 093 ballistic missile and nuclear attack submarines, based near Sanya, the most southern city in China. The base and pens have been built underground; two hundred kilometres north at Zhanjiang is the base of China’s South Sea Fleet. Attached to that fleet are two marine brigades.

China has 10 nuclear submarines and 50-60 diesel-electric submarines. In September of this year it commissioned into service, after an eighteen month refit, a former Russian aircraft carrier. In 2009 China said it intended to construct its own aircraft carriers. This would have taken some time. China apparently decided it was short of time and time concerns now seem to be driving both China and the United States.

The US views the expansion and modernisation of the Chinese navy as a matter of deep concern; it believes it is the only power capable of confronting the Chinese particularly with respect to disputed territorial claims by China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

It is said that China is expanding its naval capabilities in order to defend and assert maritime claims, freedom of navigation and protect energy imports from the Persian Gulf. China is particularly worried about taking vital supplies through the choke point of the Straits of Malacca. They fear a US blockade in the event of deteriorating relations. Opening a base in Australia would help the US in that regard.

China also seeks, through the use of aid, development projects, and the presence of its navy, to have influence over littoral states that impact or could impact upon its lines of communication. To this end it is constructing port facilities at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar on the southwest coast of Pakistan and at Sittwe in Burma.

All are being constructed as trading and economic facilities but are capable of transformation to naval use. China financially assisted the Government of Sri Lanka to defeat the Tamils, in exchange it gained a great deal of influence and the right to develop Hambantota, which will give China a strategic reach into the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. Britain and the US have a joint base on nearby Diego Garcia.

Gwadar will provide China with a capacity to monitor and match US naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Indian naval activities, including US/Indian naval co-operation in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

China is expanding its military/naval capabilities because of perceptions of vulnerability over extended trading routes. It fears being cut off from supplies, in much the same way as the Japanese did in the years leading to WW II. China is expanding its military/naval capabilities to match its economic capabilities and needs, and it is doing it because it can do it; which is bringing it nose to nose with the US, who does not agree that it should. As far as the US is concerned there can only be one top dog.

The pace of change in US policy over recent weeks has been frenetic, partly to position Barack Obama for the presidential race next year, partly to take attention away from the failure of Afghanistan and partly because it seems the US has regained its nerve.

Over the past ten years while China beavered away making money and rebuilding its navy, the US was spending its money in pursuing terrorists in the deep dark canyons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama now tells us he has had enough of the Middle East and all the action is in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The US wants India on side. Australia has been pressured by the US to sell uranium to India. So we will. The US is not worried about India adding to its stockpile of nuclear weapons; in terms of China they probably think it a good thing. As Pakistan and Afghanistan slide away, they need India and they need India to help counter Chinese naval power.

At the same time Obama was in Australia, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, was in the Philippines to sign a Philippine-US Partnership for Growth (PFG), but really she was there to urge the Philippines to help front down China. The US believes that it has the Philippines in its pocket, it gave them another destroyer. Some in the Philippines were unimpressed saying Clinton was only seeking to bolster US hegemonic interests regionally and globally.

Clinton said the US was ‘updating’ the relationship with five treaty-bound allies in the region – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand. She said the 21st Century will be America’s Pacific century and “…the world’s strategic and economic centre of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas.”

The dispatch of marines to Darwin seems a bit of a smoke screen in terms of the gunboat diplomacy that the US is building up to wage against the Chinese. It is the port of Darwin that she covets.

Basing B52s in Darwin has the capacity to upset the Chinese. The B52 has a range of around 15,000 kilometres, enough for them to threaten southern and eastern Chinese naval bases, including the submarine pens at Sanya. Will these planes carry nuclear weapons? Will nuclear weapons be stored in Australia? Not at this stage, but let’s just see how tensions develop in the escalating Great Indo/ Pacific Game.

The US must eye the great empty plains behind Darwin, serviced by the Howard railway line, as a likely safe storage area.

As the inevitable build up of US forces in and around Darwin occurs, Darwin will become a US rather than an Australian base and with US troops come drugs. How will the indigenous population handle this pressure, how will the environment?

In order to maintain the presence and expand the Base, the US will apply pressure on the political process, both Federally and in the Northern Territory. The greater the need, the more substantial the pressure, no doubt applied in a variety of ways.

What are the rules of this game? Does the US believe it can break the Chinese like it broke the Russians? What is the end game? Both these states need each other. What are the Chinese and the US seeking to achieve? They need to sit down and talk; they need to deploy the hard talking diplomacy of the Cold War.

And why has Australia allowed itself to get sucked into this nonsense? What have we ever got from taking sides with the US and earlier, with Britain. The US would have come to Australia in 1942 even if we were neutral, they needed a safe base, an aircraft carrier with a food basket, from which to launch their front in the Pacific.

Australia, along with other smaller littoral states, stand to gain a lot more in the emerging Indo/Pacific Great Game, by oscillating between Beijing, New Delhi and Washington, than by throwing their lot in with anyone of them. By so doing they will or have destroyed their bargaining power.

Bruce Haigh is a political and strategic analyst and retired diplomat.