"It’s a convenient cover, making it look less aggressive and more benign. I think these arrangements could be used for a range of different purposes, if the contingencies arose," says Michael Wesley, director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Wesley is sceptical about the nature of the US deployment to Robertson Barracks, Darwin. Although it lacks permanency, it is close enough to the South China sea to ship marines out quickly if required. In any case, the deployment remains a controversial issue for voters, but is uncontroversial in terms of America’s current strategic push in Asia, defence analysts say.
According to Wesley, the Americans are for their part worried about the security of their Northern Pacific bases, especially given China’s advance in missile technology. From Australia’s perspective the deployment is an expression of concern for the growing power and military build up of China.
"Australia is simply doing as other countries in the region. It’s a fairly cost free way to strengthen the alliance — both monetarily and politically," Wesley told New Matilda.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, agrees, adding that the forces deployed to Darwin lack operational significance.
"But its political and strategic significance is very high. The emphasis on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is not honest at all," White said.
Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser calls the marine presence "a mistake", and the retired diplomat Richard Woolcott lists it as one Australia’s recent failures in recent foreign policy decisions in Australia. Both have made submissions to the government’s white paper Australia in the Asian Century.
"We need to build up a habit of regular improved consultation, particularly with the main Asian countries, on a wide range of policy issues in advance of major policy decisions, especially those which affect them," Woolcott writes in reference to the newly arrived troops in Darwin. "Our future lies in our geography. Australia needs to decide whether it wants to cling to the past, or be part of Asia’s future."
Professor Baogang He is a specialist on the trilateral relationship between the United States, Australia and China, and believes the marines have damaged Australia’s diplomatic relations with China more than we know.
"From a Chinese point of view Australia has destroyed its relationship with China by hosting marines in Darwin," He told New Matilda from Deakin University.
On a recent tour of China, analysts told He the prevailing view was that Australia has been used by the US and is incapable of practicing an independent foreign policy. But low opinions are unlikely to become action.
"China won’t be challenging the United States in the near future. U.S. primacy in the Asia Pacific will last at least a decade, while China is gaining on it with minimal steps at a time," He told NM.
Although the Chinese leadership asserts "the time for cold war alliances is long since past", the US is rebuilding relationships in the region. The US secretary of defence Leon Panetta recently visited Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, the most senior official to do so since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, to strengthen military and diplomatic ties between the countries.
US forces already conduct military exercises with the Philippines and Vietnam, but a confrontation in the Asia Pacific is unlikely, according to Baogang. Flashpoints do exist however, such as the quarrel over territory in the South China sea between the Philippines and China. Wesley thinks that the most severe outcome could be a stand-off of some kind. White is more pessimistic.
"Unlike in the Cold War, there is a lack of discipline among the allies. And if there was a confrontation between the Philippines and China, the US might feel compelled to engage in order to maintain its credibility", White said.
The US is already trying to extend its alliance with Australia, eyeing the Cocos Islands as a potential base for surveillance drones. Wesley doesn’t see a reason to why Australia should say no.
"I don’t know what the probabilities for the Cocos Islands are, but it’s quite possible. It doesn’t seem to bother Australia that some countries in the region are uncomfortable about that", he said.
But White suspects that new developments in the US-Australian alliance probably won’t remain restricted to hosting troops, materiel and drones.
"The next logical step in intensifying the relations would be for the US to ask Australian forces to deploy further north, for instance in Guam. This is just a hunch I have," he said.
Domestic political and social issues may be an issue if further integration of US forces is pursued, for instance if there was an incident involving US servicemen and local women. At this stage the Greens are the only party considering the problem.
In late April, the US announced that it would be moving out about 9000 marines from Okinawa in Japan to other locations in the Asia Pacific, from a regular population of closer to 20,000. Crimes committed by US soldiers have been the focus of Okinawan activist groups — the most famous case being the gang rape of a 12 year old girl in 1995, for which president Bill Clinton had to address an official apology to the Japanese government.
Senator Scott Ludlam cites statistics from activist group Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence, which allege least 200 women have been raped by US military personnel between 1972 and 1997, according to local police records.
Another concern is the legal status of the American troops, which is based on the old Status of Forces Agreement from 1963. According to the agreement, the United States exercises primary jurisdiction over its own troops regarding "offences arising out of any act or omission done in the performance of official duty".
An demonstrative incident occurred in Queensland last year. On 24 July a cyclist died in a collision with a US navy officer in Willowbank. Attorney-General Robert McClelland ceded the original Queensland Police charge of "dangerous operation of a vehicle causing death" to US authorities, who prosecuted the officer themselves.
Darwin Basewatch activist Justin Tutty visited Okinawa in January, and sees parallels between American expansion in Asia and the messages of protest at local deployments.
"I think one of the protesters expressed it well on his sign, saying ‘relocation is expansion’. It is not going to lighten the burden of the people."
Tutty described Okinawa as a place very similar to Darwin with its mangrove forests, turtle habitats and laid back atmosphere.
"The difference was that fighters and jets were reminders of the military base, every day."
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