MACK WILLIAMS. When and how to say ‘no’. Darwin?

Dec 19, 2016

We cannot remain oblivious to the fact that the creeping incrementalism, which has characterised the Defence Postures relationship, is likely to slip us into positions from which it would become increasingly difficult to say No. We need a line in the sand now to prevent this happening. 

Public discussion of the need for both the government and opposition in Australia to be more independent in responding to pressure from the US to follow it down paths which may not be in Australia’s national interest is clearly widening and deepening. Efforts by the Prime Minister and others in government , along their long established propaganda lines, to label any who might share this view as tantamount to engaging in treason are proving less telling – even when supported by their usual media and Canberra elite lap dogs. It is also important to note that the main thrust of this campaign is not to break the alliance but to show that ANZUS is strong enough to cope with more flexibility and would benefit from this as it has in the past.

The timing of Admiral Harris’ contribution in his Lowy speech was of interest being both in the limbo period before President Trump’s inauguration and when the above discussion is taking place in Australia. Not unexpectedly his pep talk dwelt at length on the past strength of the alliance but could not resist :

“ Australia’s Defense White Paper is an indicator of the high degree of resolve of this country has to maintain its national interests including a commitment to increase defense spending over the long haul”.

This was a clear message to Australia about our foot dragging on defence infrastructure investment in the Northern Territory which had delayed the signing of a bilateral Defence Postures agreement for years. At the same time he provided some previously useful and unpublicised (at least in Australia) detail of hoe far our defence embedment has reached and is headed.

James Curran’s valuable paper (largely unreported in the Australian media) set out in detail how in the past we had been able to resist or strike a different policy line to the US. Ross Babbage detailed a timely and compelling analysis of how the US has proved unable to counter China in the South China Sea and even beyond. (“Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea” ) .

All this has reinforced the urgency of developing a coherent regional vision for Australia based on where we are now and before the inevitable complexities of whatever emerges from the Trump presidency or even any second guessing of it. Unfortunately exigencies will not permit the luxury of awaiting the DFAT White Paper. Babbage provides his useful assessment though he attributes blame largely to “timid” US and alliance policies rather than acknowledging the extremely comprehensive and sophisticated “soft power”strategy of China which outmanoeuvred the US. Especially the Chinese success in reading (and influencing) the developing scene in South East Asia.

US policy has been dictated by containment of China rather than understanding and working with changes in that region. It still finds it difficult to accept that the key concern of most South East Asian governments is that military confrontation of the Chinese in the South China Sea would seriously risk escalating into a war in which a declining US power could not be assumed to win. And their countries could become the major casualties. Unfortunately we too have been persuaded increasingly to see things through a US prism and not through our own independent sources. Nowhere has this been as clear as it has been in the Philippines where the US (and many Australian media and commentators) are still banking on Duterte being forced to “walk back” from his firm statements about running down US military presence in the Philippines. In common parlance they just do not get it !

There is a far more serious question for Australia. Even given that one or both major Australian parties might begin to undertake something along the lines of the above ( as unlikely as that currently looks) the real issue is “when” and “how” we might say “no”? The fact that we have now slipped so far into embedment in the US defence and security machine, which some like Kim Beasley and much of the government in Canberra consider as a major plus, and that we have degraded our DFAT assets in a period of massive increases to all the other players in Canberra, means that the scope for independent assessment of policy has diminished significantly. For example, as Harris revealed , we not only have an Australian general (in Australian uniform) serving as Deputy Commander US Army Pacific we also have another senior Australian officer serving as a senior adviser in his own Strategic and Policy Planning staff who was representing the US in a high level meeting with Japan and Australia in Tokyo. And he also provided a few details of the 2017 defence postures arrangements he had signed with CDF on this trip that had not been reported in the Australian media.

This increasingly intimate defence and intelligence relationship has steadily restricted our capability to develop our own policy options on our own national interest grounds – and all the more where these might be considered differently by the US – “saying No”. Further it also allows the US to manoeuvre us into policies from where we would find it harder to say No. One does not need to look further than WMD to see how that worked! The rapid welcoming responses of the Prime Minister, other Coalition spokesmen and Richard Marles to proposals from Trump’s team to ramp up USN assets in East Asia was another.

Since Julia Gillard’s historic folding to long running US pressure for establishing a military presence in Norther Australia, the strengthening of the bilateral defence relationship has continued apace despite the foot dragging mentioned above. It has followed largely the lines set out in several major Pentagon-related think tank reports of the time. Details of the agreements reached in the annual Defence Posture Reviews have often been hard to divine but the drift has been unmistakable. Some of the more extreme proposals seemingly have not been elevated to these annual discussions but some have – such as the possible homeporting of a US nuclear carrier group[ at Stirling in Western Australia or the basing of US drones in Cocos – and not been accepted by Australia. But most have been discussed at officials level in some form or other.

Our failure to provide adequate funding has slowed the implementation process of the facilities in Northern Territory as has the cuts to the US Marines budget. The Marine Times and Stars and Stripes have both reported that these delays mean that the size of the Marine rotational force will not reach the planned 2500 until 2020. There is an even bigger question mark about the significant expansion of Darwin Port and other facilities to accommodate even larger Marine deployments of ships and aircraft already on the planning table. The embarrassment about the long term lease of the port to a Chinese company, of course, has cast doubt on that proposal or at least who would fund it!

The main concern for us however now is that there are indications that the US is looking towards developing Darwin and the NT into a major military base to complete the containment arc from Japan through Guam to Australia if as now seems most likely that they will not be able to re-establish any significant facilities in the Philippines? Part of the sales pitch has become that Darwin is out of range of Chinese land-based missiles – not if they are based in the South China Sea !

This would prove an extremely sensitive issue for Australia with an extraordinary array of associated issues. Judged on their past record, the Australian government could be expected to restrict genuine national debate. So to ensure that we have the ability to resist such pressure we must start now to rein in any informal discussions at officials level of a “base” – especially all the semantics about what constitutes a “base”. While we continue to describe the current situation as a “rotational deployment” for the Marines such a distinction does not exist in US military media! Nor does it encompass the many other activities now taking place around Darwin especially with US aircraft – from B52’s to maritime surveillance and now the C17 freighter repair facility announced by Harris. Like wise the comments from him about the F22 Raptor and its capability to provide air cover for the USN in the South China Sea.

We cannot remain oblivious to the fact that the creeping incrementalism, which has characterised the Defence Postures relationship, is likely to slip us into positions from which it would become increasingly difficult to say No. We need a line in the sand now to prevent this happening. All the more so as we can assume that the Trump presidency will see far greater pressure on Allies to pay their way and line up in the old “ All the way with LBJ” or George Bush Jr’s “ with us or against us” coalition of the willing style.

Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. 

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