Next month, Australian and US officials will meet in Canberra to ponder the future of the ANZUS alliance which, since 1951, has bound the two countries as well as New Zealand. The US embassy describes these so-called "AUSMIN" talks, held regularly since 1985, as "a valuable opportunity for Australian and US officials to discuss a wide range of global, regional and bilateral issues".
It is expected that this year’s meeting will yield more than the usual affirmations of the continuing strategic importance of ANZUS.
2012 has arguably been the most interesting year for observers of the Australia-US military relationship since 2001. Just over a decade ago, John Howard committed this country to a leading role in America’s "War on Terror". Much has changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Most crucially for Australia, the US military has shifted its focus from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific in light of the rise of regional superpowers China and India. President Obama’s visit to Australia in November last year paved the way for the stationing of up to 2500 US marines on a rotational but permanent basis in Darwin.
Australians were, on the whole, not much bothered. A Lowy Institute poll released this year suggested that three quarters of the population were in favour of the deployment. The poll’s verdict on the attitude of the populace to the US-Australia military alliance more broadly was no less plain: an unequivocal thumbs up.
A US government-commissioned report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies drew the same conclusion, noting, "Australian public support for the US alliance has risen to an eight-year high, with 87 per cent of Australians regarding it as important for Australia’s security". However, the report did identify what it called "anti-Americanism" in some academic and other "elite" circles and "fringes".
What neither the Lowy poll nor the CSIS report acknowledged is the extent to which the Australian public is being kept in the dark and misled by its own government in respect of the alliance which enjoys its unprecedented levels of support. It says much about the symbolic strength of ANZUS that so many Australians are willing to unquestioningly back it even as they are routinely denied the right to know what it consists of.
In August, Defence Minister Stephen Smith responded to reports that the US was considering basing a nuclear aircraft carrier fleet in Perth with this denial: "We don’t have United States military bases in Australia and we are not proposing to". In a good example of doublespeak, the minister went on to make the usual, bland references to "greater access to our facilities" and the expansion of so-called "joint" or "shared" bases. What this means, in effect, is that if the US want to build more bases in Australia — and the Obama Administration has made it abundantly clear that it does — then Australian taxpayers will be expected to pay for them. Upgrades to Perth base HMAS Stirling to accomodate US ships could cost over a billion dollars alone.
On 21 September — the International Day of Peace — an Australia-wide organisation calling itself the Independent & Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) was launched. Its objective is to "Promote an independent Australian foreign policy that builds peace and nonviolent resolutions of conflict in our region". Member groups include the Australian Anti-Bases Coalition, the Conservation Council of Western Australia, Friends of the Earth, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Philippines Australia Solidarity Association and the Socialist Alliance.
Secret negotiations between US and Australian officials have been underway for months. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans Robert Scher has said, "We [the US]are now engaged in discussions with Australians about… what kinds of facilities would we be using within Australia". By Australians, Scher does not mean you and me, or any but a handful of the 22 million Australians whose money would be used to fund the expansion of US bases on Australian soil.
These negotiations are only the latest development in a period which has seen the US military presence in Australia quietly grow. Last month, the ABC revealed that an unmanned American Global Hawk spy drone had been flying in and out of the Royal Australian Air Force base at Edinburgh in South Australia since 2001. This story may never have been broken had it not been for the watchfulness of a group of aviation enthusiasts; in 2004, the then defence minister Robert Hill had plans to tell the Australian public about the flights scuppered by the US Air Force which insists on utter secrecy around its operations, particularly those involving its highly controversial drones.
It seems clear that the Global Hawk seen in South Australia (the flights probably ended sometime in the late 2000s) was a surveillance, rather than an attack craft, but its missions remain shrouded in secrecy.
What we do know is that the Gillard government is considering making the Cocos Islands available to the US as a base for both drones and troops. Stephen Smith has said that the Islands are not one of the government’s three defence priorities — namely, Darwin’s US marines, increased "air traffic" in the Northern Territory, and American access to the Navy’s HMAS Stirling base in Perth — but it is likely the US will look to us for support when the lease on its overcrowded base at Diego Garcia expires in 2016.
There is no question, too, that our Asian neighbours have been made anxious by the increased troop numbers in Darwin, and talk of an intensification of US drone activity in the region. Shortly after the announcement was made that Darwin would host up to 2500 US marines, the ABC reported that Chinese and Indonesian officials had expressed deep misgivings about the deal, arguing that the boost in troop numbers might lead to a "circle of mistrust and tension". Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa called for "transparency of what the scenario being envisaged is".
Australians would do well to ask the federal government the same question. A clearer picture will no doubt emerge after the US elections when the Pentagon’s budget for 2013 is released. A draft version has indicated that billions of dollars will be slashed from the budget, but that military spending on the whole will increase.
With the winding down of operations in key fronts of the War on Terror such as Afghanistan, where this increase will be channelled remains an open question. The draft, however, establishes one possibility which should concern all Australians: that, for the first time in 21 years, the US might station nuclear weapons in the Asia Pacific and ask its allies in the region to host them. The Pentagon has been spooked by the expansion of China’s military, and by what it sees as the belligerent posturing of "rogue" nations North Korea and Iran.
The question for our government is to what extent they are willing to commit us to a role in a new game of nuclear brinkmanship. Our loyalty to ANZUS will have to be measured against the importance of maintaining good relations with our Asian neighbours in the name of regional stability and, of course, trade. If a couple of thousand additional US troops in Darwin is enough to provoke alarm amidst the highest levels of governments within the region, what consequences would result from the docking of an aircraft carrier in Perth? The construction of a drone base on the Cocos Islands? The deployment of nuclear weapons on Australian soil?
The US’s path in all this is clear, and unambiguously put in the CSIS report: US military presence in Australia must be enhanced if its rebalancing towards Asia is to be sustainable. The precise nature of the part Australia will be asked to play has yet to be determined. We do not know, in short, how high our government will be asked to jump.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.