These Drones Will Irritate The Neighbours


First it was US Marines in Darwin. Then it was proposals for more US Navy ships to operate out of the HMAS Stirling naval base in Fremantle — including aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines. Now it’s US surveillance drones in the Cocos Islands. America’s interest in Australia as a base for its south Asian and Indian Ocean operations appears to be growing.

The US and Australia have long shared a strong alliance, of course. It was in the dark days of 1941 when Australian prime Minister John Curtin wrote a famous article in the Melbourne Herald declaring that "Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom".

America delivered, pouring men and material into Brisbane, Sydney and Perth, and eventually stemming the Japanese advance in the Pacific. And Australia reciprocated, making the US alliance — codified in a largely symbolic treaty, ANZUS — the corner-stone of our defence policy ever since. Whenever Washington has asked (and even when Washington hasn’t asked) Australia has been there, supporting the US in an array of dubious foreign engagements, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan.

Now, after a decade of small but nasty wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US defence and foreign policy under Barack Obama is re-orienting toward the Pacific and Asia — an historic shift that will only accelerate if, as seems likely, Obama wins re-election.

The object of that strategy, although few are prepared to talk too openly about it, is of course China. Already a great power with the economic clout to act as the US treasury’s key creditor, China is also embarking on a rapid arms build-up to modernise its armed forces, particularly in terms of its navy. For the first time since the 14th century, China is acquiring a legitimate blue-water naval presence. Although it is decades away from challenging the US Navy for supremacy on the world’s oceans, China is acquiring potent anti-ship weapons (including a potential game-changer in the form of an aircraft carrier-killing ballistic missile) that will make it much harder for America to project power.

The US and China are still formally friends, but the relationship is an uneasy one. The rise of China as a great power appears to be encouraging the US and its allies to adopt an unofficial policy of containment towards the People’s Republic.

What this means for Australia is suddenly becoming quite important. As Aaron Fernandes noted here in New Matilda last year, there is a stark divergence developing between Australia’s economic and strategic policy. "China’s continued industrialisation represents Australia’s only plan for economic prosperity," he pointed out. "However, defence and diplomatic interests are dependent on US primacy remaining unchallenged."

That uneasy relationship was highlighted by the decision of the federal government to block the participation of Chinese communications technology giant Huawei from bidding for the contract to supply gear to the National Broadband Network. Huawei is a hugely successful Chinese hi-tech corporation, but its well known links to the Chinese military, and China’s known expertise in cyber-warfare, led ASIO to recommend to the government that it be kept away from supplying routers, switches and other hardware for the NBN.

The proposal for a drone base in the Cocos Islands is of a more traditional military calculation. Located way out on the north-western edge of Australia’s Indian Ocean approaches, the Cocos Islands are closer to Sri Lanka than they are to Perth, and closer to Jakarta than either. As such, the Cocos makes an ideal base for surveilling the vast empty hectares of the increasingly important Indian theatre.

With more and more of Australia’s wealth being shipped out from the Pilbara and Kimberley, the south-eastern corner of the Indian Ocean is becoming a key square on Australia’s strategic chess board. And the Indian Ocean more generally is becoming far more militarised in the new century. US foreign policy analyst Robert D. Kaplan thinks that the Indian, the world’s third largest body of water, linking Africa and Arabia to India, Indonesia and Australia, "forms centre stage for the challenges of the twenty-first century".

China has itself been active in the Indian, with Pakistan seeking Chinese finance to build a giant new naval base at Gwadar; China also has an agreement with Burma that allows its ships to dock in Burmese ports. Whether this means a more aggressive presence in the Indian theatre remains to be seen, however.

There is increasing concern among strategic analysts and defence experts about what the growing US military presence on Australian territory might mean. Hugh White — not exactly a bleeding heart — has a strong opinion piece out today in which he criticises the move. White observes that when taken, the strengthening US presence in Australia appears to be drawing us into a potentially dangerous game of Chinese containment.

"US basing proposals are not about drawing American forces back further from China, but about dragging Australia into America’s escalating rivalry with our biggest trading partner," he writes.

Nor has much thought apparently been given to what effect the increased US presence in Australia’s north-western waters might have on our most important bilateral relationship — with Indonesia. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa expressed reservations about the deal to bring US Marines to Darwin in November last year, when it was first announced. "What I would hate to see is that if such developments were to provoke reaction and counter reaction … a vicious circle or tensions and mistrust or distrust," he said at the time.

The push for more US bases also comes at a delicate time for Australian defence planners. Australian defence policy is a holding pattern while the government decides what to do about the recommendations of the 2009 White Paper, an ambitious strategy document that puts the rise of China front and centre in its calculations.

The White Paper envisages a huge arms build-up for the Royal Australian Navy: in particular, 12 new submarines that would range as far as the South China Sea and exert a significant strategic deterrent in the region. But the cost of such boats is going to be exorbitant — perhaps as much as $40 billion were they to be designed and built in South Australia. Julia Gillard and Stephen Smith, with more than enough on their plates just balancing the budget this year, have put off any decision on the submarines, and many other big-ticket purchases recommended by the White Paper. As a result, much defence planning is in limbo.

One way to get around the vast cost of building our own submarines is to buy or lease subs from the Americans. The US Virginia class is the state of the art in modern attack submarines, and would fit the specifications outlined in the White Paper perfectly. But they are nuclear. Upgrading Stirling to handle the Virginia class would therefore dovetail nicely with this line of thinking, as it would allow Australia to consider acquiring our own fleet of nuclear attack subs sometime in the future.

But the broader question — of just why we want a big fleet of subs to contain and deter our largest trading partner — is still the one no-one in Defence seems to want to answer. As the build-up of US naval assets in the Pacific and Indian continues, that question is becoming too big to ignore.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.