26 June 2019
At a United States–run store at a military base outside Darwin, the currency is US dollars and the marines stationed there can buy cans of Coke at the non-Australian price of 50 cents. Marines have rotated through the base since 2012, starting with 200 troops. In July 2019 the size of the deployment is due to expand to its intended maximum of 2500 marines.
This American military presence receives little attention in Australia. Yet, earlier this month, the US signalled that it would expand its military footprint, as Australia becomes increasingly central to Washington’s long-term plan to resist China’s ascendance. Its vision, including the role envisaged for Australia, was laid out in the new Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, released by the United States Department of Defense. The report recommends that America move beyond its reliance on large bases in countries such as Japan and South Korea to a “distributed presence” at various locations across the region. The most logical place for such military installations is, as the report makes clear, on the territory of “our most capable allies”.
As a staunch US ally, Australia is an obvious partner. In the report’s list of regional partners, it is third after Japan and South Korea, two countries in which the US currently has about 82,500 troops collectively. The report notes that US and Australian forces have fought together in every major conflict since World War I and that they share a commitment to adapting to new threats. The largest of these threats, outlined starkly and at length, is China. “It [China] seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global pre-eminence in the long-term,” the report states.
There are already signs that Australia is slotting into the US’s “distributed” presence across the region. For instance, according to an ABC report this week, Australia is now looking to develop a new port near Darwin that could be used by both US marines and Australia’s navy. The facility would be 40 kilometres from the current port, which, controversially, was leased to the Chinese company Landbridge in 2015 for ninety-nine years. The new port proposal follows the announcement last November by US Vice President Mike Pence that America will partner with Australia and Papua New Guinea to develop a naval base on Manus Island.
This is not the first time that the US has assigned a central role to Australia in its regional and global planning. Barack Obama used a visit to Darwin in 2011 to announce the marine rotations, declaring a “pivot to Asia” and a renewed commitment to America’s leadership role in the region. Standing beside then Prime Minister Julia Gillard at Parliament House, he said: “I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific.”
But Australia may not fit so neatly into Washington’s plans, particularly as its relationship with China differs so much to that of the US. Australian trade is heavily reliant on China, and the two countries are part of the same broader Asian region.
Australia has much to gain from its US ties and the public continues to strongly support the alliance. A Lowy Institute poll released today found that 72 per cent of Australians view the alliance as important to Australia’s security, though 66 per cent believe Donald Trump has weakened it. It also found that 46 per cent of Australians believe the US is in decline relative to China, and that the alliance is therefore of decreasing importance. This figure is up from 37 per cent in 2015.
Trump’s approach to world affairs has often been inconsistent and incoherent, but the new Indo-Pacific Strategy Report shows that the US remains firmly committed to maintaining a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and that it envisages a significant role for Australia. However, Canberra should not allow itself to be slotted, without forethought, into America’s vision. Rather, it should consider and debate the part it wants to play. Decisions about US bases or troop rollouts should be based on Australia’s future plans, not America’s.