The past week of the Australian-US Ministerial Consultations (Ausmin) talks has presented the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his inexperienced ministerial team with the first serious test of how to manage the US alliance relationship. Despite the very difficult contemporary problem of coping with the most dysfunctional US administration in recent history we should not fail to recognise that the fundamental issues for our alliance remain as they have been for years. The “Swamp” is still very much alive.
For years before Julia Gillard agreed to the rotational arrangement for a small US marine contingent in Darwin and better access to our airfields in Northern Australia, the Pentagon and the then US Indo-Pacific Command (PACOM) had been pursuing an extensive agenda for locking Australia into a more comprehensive military relationship. Apart from what Gillard agreed about the marines in Darwin, in order to ensure a visit to Australia by President Obama, the list of US military aspirations included:
- home porting of a nuclear powered carrier at Stirling in Western Australia and its requisite support ships,
- use of Cocos for drone operations over the Indian Ocean and beyond,
- extending and strengthening of northern Australian airfields to handle US heavy bombers and cargo planes transiting to Diego Garcia and the Middle East,
- expanding port facilities in Darwin to accommodate regular rotation of US Marine mobile task forces (7500 men plus ) .
One senior Marine general also publicly called on Australia for the formation of a joint US:Australian “expeditionary force” which could be quickly deployed into trouble spots in Asia. During this time we also seconded an Australian senior general to the position of Deputy Commander US Army Pacific which was widely publicised by the Americans but never officially announced by Defence in Australia.
While the Australian Government resisted some of the above, the big bilateral issue became the tardiness of the Defence Department in Australia in meeting the funding for the extensive amount of infrastructure which was required to host this expanded US military presence in Darwin. One result of this tardiness explains why it took so long to get the full Marine rotational program up and running until earlier this year. There has also been the revelation from the US Defence Budget this year of funding for developing a new port in Darwin to handle US military needs – and for which doubtless we will be pressured into contributing!
The logical extension of the US military aspiration in Australia of course was protection from “enemy” missiles targeting US facilities. This emerged in the media debate around Ausmin with comments by Secretary of State Pompeo and seemed to refer to the Marine and USAF assets in northern Australia. Surprisingly, the Australian media has ignored the far greater threat to the US facilities at Pine Gap. In a recent Pearls & Irritations article Richard Tanter provided an excellent analysis of the importance of Pine Gap to the US and probably more importantly its vulnerability to Chinese and potentially North Korean missile attack. Despite the extraordinary lengths to which Defence Minister Reynolds and even Morrison went to scotch the Pompeo inspired story about protecting US facilities in Australia from enemy missiles, they did not deny that the matter had been discussed. Given past history and the US perceived need we must expect that this will be on the agenda for some time to come.
This is the context in which the US pressure to join the coalition of the less than willing against Iran must be regarded.The government claims that the US request is still under serious consideration but its words are all too familiar for decisions already taken with the main issue being how to dress them up for public consumption. Hopefully that is not the case because :
- the New Iran crisis is much of the US’s own making at the behest of its Israeli and Saudi urgers
- US efforts to strangle Iran’s economy if not secure regime change after trying to scuttle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear facilities have not proven successful despite the damage it has caused
- US military deployments to the Gulf and surrounds have been provocative and the reported intelligence about some incidents presented as cover have not been fully compelling
- Trump and his cohorts have been remarkably unconvincing in asking many EU leaders to join his coalition of the less than willing. Spain withdrew its naval vessel on joint Gulf patrol. And the British efforts to drum up a rival non-US coalition are facing heavy going as all its complexities sink in
- while dressed up by the US as international maritime shipping protection it is all too obvious that it will also be a blockade of Iranian shipping as well as international shipping trading with Iran. The latter will contain shipping between Iran and China, India, the ROK and others who do not fully accept the US imposed sanctions. The entanglement of any coalition ships into that highly sensitive arena would bring a whole separate raft of bilateral controversy with those nations. Just take China as a case. The Chinese and Iranians have already carried out joint exercises in shipping protection in the Straits of Hormuz.
- maybe the US is more interested in flags rather than ships but the symbolism for Australia’s relations with not only Iran need serious contemplation
- over and above all those considerations, Trump’s coalition runs a very high risk of sliding into outright military confrontation with Iran. Despite his histrionics about wiping Iran off the map the reality (as internal US military studies have shown) is that Iran would be a totally different proposition to Iraq because of its missile capability. Iran could never beat the US of course but nor would the US be able to win a ground war in Iran. Iran would become a massive quagmire with Russia located at the back door. In the process the US could lose some of its big ships if they do not exit the Gulf in time with devastating domestic political implications for Trump.
The very real concern is that the Morrison government might feel compelled to make what they might see as a small concession to Trump in Iran to fight off a more aggressively anti- China stand in the SouthChina Sea for example or even the deployment of US missile defence in northern Australia.
Mack Williams is a former senior Australian Ambassador and attended the Royal College of Defence Studies.