US bases in Australia: A step too far

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, EAF There is a palpable nervousness in the security communities in countries around the region about China’s rise and what it means strategically. To those who have lived through the early phases of the Cold War, the mood is frankly a mite scary , and without substantial rational base. It is a nervousness based not so much on ignorance of China’s strategic potential in the long term, although there is undoubtedly some of that too, but on ignorance of the interaction between economic, social and political development and, simply, just what is going on in China. This is not, of course, entirely the fault of outside observers, but there is no doubt that they are hugely under-invested in readily available and accessible knowledge of what is actually going on in China, and without excuse. One of the more hairy ideas that have been put on the table in recent years is that the United States should enhance its defence capacities already in Australia, by deploying forward marine and other forces there. This week’s lead essay by Ron Huisken provides a critique of the latest salvo that urges this course. The suggestion is that the US should opt for a string of bases and facilities in the East Asian littoral beyond the range of current and prospective future Chinese conventional military capabilities. This is what makes Australia strategically attractive. Moreover, bases and facilities in Australia would have a sense of permanence or strategic depth that is lacking with alternative, or rather supplementary, locations like Guam and Diego Garcia. The argument acknowledges that Australia’s attractiveness is qualified by its distance from the regions of primary strategic interest. Surges in US military interest in Australia in the past have foundered on the question of costs and the poor response time given the distances to places of probable interest. The contention, however, is that the China factor has changed the balance of costs and benefits. As Huisken suggests, what’s wrong with this idea is really beyond the scope of conventional military analysis. Specifically, this choice would risk ‘conveying what at this time would be precisely the wrong political signals. If Washington conveys the impression that it is circling the wagons and building a fall-back perimeter beyond the reach of projected Chinese military power it will set off reassessments by allies and friends within the perimeter that will prove very difficult to contain. The H W Bush and Clinton administrations discovered this when the US simultaneously left its bases in the Philippines in 1992 and announced major reductions in its forward-deployed forces as a post-Cold War peace dividend’. The idea of US force bases in Australia is absolutely unnecessary at the present time. China’s power and influence appears to be surging relentlessly and that is no illusion. But there are many constraints upon how it may morph into and be deployed as military power any time soon. As Huisken says, ‘the US, China and the other regional states have scarcely begun to test the opportunities to adjust the rules of the game in East Asia to suit the interests of all’. The US has a fistful of friends in the broader Asian region that want it to remain comprehensively engaged. China does not have such partners. There are conflicting signs of whether it wants ‘to nurture international relationships characterised by genuine and broad rapport’. ‘The key point’, Huisken argues, ‘is that we still have the opportunity to try to establish the peace and stability of East Asia securely on a new and broader power structure. An enhanced US presence is essentially more of the same and at this point is likely to exacerbate not ameliorate security costs and concerns. Instead, conveying a sense of something qualitatively new — like a watershed in US thinking about its posture toward Asia — could be sensible’. China may be learning that it cannot separate its international persona from the shadow of its arrangements for internal governance. And it should be encouraged in that direction, not locked out of the process. It is in Australia’s deep national strategic interests to take this opportunity to forge a new strategic environment, together with China, the US and or regional partners, in East Asia. That was the substance behind former Prime Minister Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community idea . The US and Russia joining the East Asia Summit process is one small step towards its fruition. It could still go seriously awry. But it is worth every effort building on this initiative as one element in setting a new strategic course in East Asia. Peter Drysdale US military bases in Australia: Don’t circle the wagons yet Australia has a valuable role in the “great balancing act” Gillard-Obama meeting gets into alliance management

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, EAF

There is a palpable nervousness in the security communities in countries around the region about China’s rise and what it means strategically.

To those who have lived through the early phases of the Cold War, the mood is frankly a mite scary, and without substantial rational base. It is a nervousness based not so much on ignorance of China’s strategic potential in the long term, although there is undoubtedly some of that too, but on ignorance of the interaction between economic, social and political development and, simply, just what is going on in China. This is not, of course, entirely the fault of outside observers, but there is no doubt that they are hugely under-invested in readily available and accessible knowledge of what is actually going on in China, and without excuse.

One of the more hairy ideas that have been put on the table in recent years is that the United States should enhance its defence capacities already in Australia, by deploying forward marine and other forces there.

This week’s lead essay by Ron Huisken provides a critique of the latest salvo that urges this course.

The suggestion is that the US should opt for a string of bases and facilities in the East Asian littoral beyond the range of current and prospective future Chinese conventional military capabilities. This is what makes Australia strategically attractive. Moreover, bases and facilities in Australia would have a sense of permanence or strategic depth that is lacking with alternative, or rather supplementary, locations like Guam and Diego Garcia. The argument acknowledges that Australia’s attractiveness is qualified by its distance from the regions of primary strategic interest. Surges in US military interest in Australia in the past have foundered on the question of costs and the poor response time given the distances to places of probable interest. The contention, however, is that the China factor has changed the balance of costs and benefits.

As Huisken suggests, what’s wrong with this idea is really beyond the scope of conventional military analysis. Specifically, this choice would risk ‘conveying what at this time would be precisely the wrong political signals. If Washington conveys the impression that it is circling the wagons and building a fall-back perimeter beyond the reach of projected Chinese military power it will set off reassessments by allies and friends within the perimeter that will prove very difficult to contain. The H W Bush and Clinton administrations discovered this when the US simultaneously left its bases in the Philippines in 1992 and announced major reductions in its forward-deployed forces as a post-Cold War peace dividend’.

The idea of US force bases in Australia is absolutely unnecessary at the present time. China’s power and influence appears to be surging relentlessly and that is no illusion. But there are many constraints upon how it may morph into and be deployed as military power any time soon.

As Huisken says, ‘the US, China and the other regional states have scarcely begun to test the opportunities to adjust the rules of the game in East Asia to suit the interests of all’. The US has a fistful of friends in the broader Asian region that want it to remain comprehensively engaged. China does not have such partners. There are conflicting signs of whether it wants ‘to nurture international relationships characterised by genuine and broad rapport’.

‘The key point’, Huisken argues, ‘is that we still have the opportunity to try to establish the peace and stability of East Asia securely on a new and broader power structure. An enhanced US presence is essentially more of the same and at this point is likely to exacerbate not ameliorate security costs and concerns. Instead, conveying a sense of something qualitatively new — like a watershed in US thinking about its posture toward Asia — could be sensible’.

China may be learning that it cannot separate its international persona from the shadow of its arrangements for internal governance. And it should be encouraged in that direction, not locked out of the process.

It is in Australia’s deep national strategic interests to take this opportunity to forge a new strategic environment, together with China, the US and or regional partners, in East Asia. That was the substance behind former Prime Minister Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community idea. The US and Russia joining the East Asia Summit process is one small step towards its fruition. It could still go seriously awry. But it is worth every effort building on this initiative as one element in setting a new strategic course in East Asia.

Peter Drysdale

  1. US military bases in Australia: Don’t circle the wagons yet
  2. Australia has a valuable role in the “great balancing act”
  3. Gillard-Obama meeting gets into alliance management

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US bases in Australia: A step too far