A more permanent US presence no baseless rumour
There has been plenty of diplomatic semantics around the American presence in Darwin but many including the Chinese are still not satisfied. The United States has long wanted a permanent military base in northern Australia.
But they are not stupid.
So when Australian officials conveyed that a fixed establishment would not be politically palatable here they saved us the embarrassment of having to say no in a high-level bilateral meeting if the request was made.
Instead, we will now find ourselves with the more politically convenient ‘rotational presence’ of 2,500 Marines eventually. But not even this would not have been possible under President Obama’s predecessor.
The joint facility will become the third biggest deployment of American troops in the region behind the 40,000 based in Japan and the 28,500 in South Korea.
And while the figure on our shores pales into significance it is still much larger than the couple of hundred a piece roughly based in Diego Garcia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, as well as the couple of dozen based in Malaysia and Jakarta that make up the rest of the regional presence.
So it is hardly surprising the newfound home of what was two-and-a-half battalions in the old currency, that is likely to be commanded by a 1-star Admiral, has inevitably raised a few eyebrows in the region.
But just how do you separate the semantics from the substance?
Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that most countries in the region would in fact welcome a heightened presence by the United States. Washington’s membership of the East Asian Summit – which met for the first time with the United States at the table last month – was in large part a product of a long diplomatic campaign waged by the region to increase the superpower’s regional involvement.
For their part, the United States – with the help of Australia – have tried to dampen the confrontational nature of the presence by focussing its mission on disaster recovery in the region. This will no doubt play a role – and a noble one at that – but it would be naïve to assume this is the motivating factor.
China’s immediate response – through a spokesman at the Foreign Affairs Ministry – was stock standard as diplomacy goes. It was not possible for there to not be a response at this rudimentary level. Indeed, had a response been communicated via a Minister – which is unusual for the Chinese – this would have raised alarm bells.
However, Beijing for its part knows that Darwin (which will only consist of troops) is further from the South China Sea than the home of the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet in Japan which comprises over fifty ships. This would be the force called into action during any heightened tension around the much praised sea lanes of commerce that flow through the South China Sea.
Ultimately, the presence of American Marines in Darwin represents nothing more than what many have termed a “tripwire” to Beijing. It is no more of a strategy of containment than China’s own “String of Pearls” strategy of building military bases and shipping dockyards all the way from Hong Kong to the port of Sudan.
And this is certainly how Beijing views it.
A fortnight ago following military talks with the Americans, an official explanation for the Darwin presence was demanded from Washington. One renowned hardliner, Major General Luo Yuan from the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, even went so far as to say “Australia is just a pawn in this arrangement”.
But Indonesia’s reaction has perhaps been more surprising.
While President Yudhoyono said on the eve of President Obama’s visit that an American military presence in Darwin did not bother him – a view that was reiterated following their bilateral meeting in Bali – his Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, has been less consistent.
Despite Natalegawa having been briefed personally on the plan by Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd almost a week before the announcement (China, India and New Zealand were also delivered briefings by different officials) he subsequently proclaimed the proposal could upset the regional balance only now to suggest this may now pave the way for joint exercises with the Chinese.
With so much of the region’s reaction to the announcement hinging on Beijing it is possible that Jakarta’s comments were little more than chest beating designed to reiterate their role in the region and immediate proximity to Darwin.
For his part, President Obama has received largely positive coverage back home for the announcement, though it has been minimal. While some in Congress were upset by his ring fencing of funding to deliver on his military strategy in the Asia Pacific (particularly only months after the possibility of withdrawing troops from the region was suggested as a means to save money) they were pleased to see the first self-described ‘Pacific President’ putting a down payment on that promise.
While the Americans might not have got everything they wanted they have certainly paved the way for that to occur in the future. Upgrading a ‘rotational presence’ to a base is much easier than the outright establishment of a base in the first instance and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has already lent his support for this to occur under his watch.
So all this begs the question, when is a base a base?
Thom Woodroofe is an associate fellow of The Asia Society. Follow him on Twitter @thomwoodroofe.
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