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News Analysis: U.S. eyes Australian military bases

English.news.cn   2012-11-13 16:00:17            

by Christian Edwards

PERTH, Nov. 13 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now in Western Australia's capital Perth for an important annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN).

Tonight Australian and U.S. officials dine in the splendor of a State Reception, tomorrow Clinton and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr will meet to ponder the future of the alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Since 1951, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty, or the ANZUS Treaty, has bound these two countries (far better than ANZUS has bound New Zealand) in military and strategic mutual affection.

A U.S. presence in the Pacific has been the bedrock of Australia's security posture, and in return Australia has participated in every one of the U.S. foreign military adventures, from the Korea Peninsula, through Vietnam into Iraq, the "war on terror" and Afghanistan.

Officially, the U.S. describes these so-called "AUSMIN" talks, held annually since 1985, as "a valuable opportunity for Australian and U.S. officials to discuss a wide range of global, regional and bilateral issues." Unofficially it is difficult to know exactly what the U.S. wants out of Australia and even less about how it will set about getting it.

Undeniably it has been an exciting year for the moveable feast that is the Australia-U.S. military relationship.

President Barack Obama's announcement in Canberra last November of the stationing (or "rotation" as Carr emphasized to Xinhua at the time) of 2,500 U.S. marines in Darwin, caught analysts off guard.

Suddenly and startlingly for Australia, the U.S. shifted its strategic gaze from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific and has begun to scratch the growing itch produced of the rise of the twin superpowers in China and India.

AUSMIN 2012 will be an opportunity for the Americans to get down to brass tacks on Obama's "pivot to Asia," and what it means for an Australia looking to strengthen ties with its neighbors in the "Asian Century".

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says it will be money or the lack of it in Australia's defense policy that will be foremost in the mind of Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

According to Jennings, "Based on recent visits to the U.S., I can confirm that a wide range of current and previous administration officials and others watching the relationship are worried about Australian policy."

"Americans are dismayed that there has been such a quick reversal of Australian defense spending plans from 2009 to now," he said.

Jennings suggests that the U.S. is worried about the tone of Australian commentary, led by analysts like Professor Hugh White who has championed the concept of shared power within the Asia Pacific by the U.S. and China.

"They worry about Australian commentary saying we should distance ourselves from the U.S. in order to get closer to China and are concerned that the Asian Century White Paper, with its cursory treatment of the U.S., is a big step in that direction."

There is good reason for hesitation in Australia, despite a Lowy Institute Poll that almost three quarters of Australians were in favor of U.S. military deployments in Darwin, there is concern that such a deployment could become a slippery slope.

By 2016 there will be 2,500 U.S. marines at Darwin, U.S. air force elements based in Katherine, and an increased presence in Australian ports.

Just three months ago, Australia's Defense Minister Stephen Smith found himself deflecting reports of a U.S. nuclear carrier fleet basing in Perth.

Last month, it was 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.

In an unnerving development the Gillard government is reportedly considering making the Cocos Islands available to the U. S. as a base for both drones and troops. Australia's neighbors have so far chosen not to respond to what is clearly a growing U.S. military presence Down Under.

When President Obama announced the use of Darwin as a training base for U.S. marines, Chinese and Indonesian officials expressed dismay, citing that such a build up could easily trigger a regional "circle of mistrust and tension".

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called for " transparency of what the scenario being envisaged is".

The problem for Australia is that the true nature, extent and objectives of the U.S. "pivot to Asia" are largely unknown. Like the Hawk spy drone operating in Australian territory for over a decade, negotiations are held in secrecy and little has been made public about what Prime Minister Julia Gillard described as the " medium term cooperation on ships and aviation."

The Australian Greens today demanded the release of the legal agreement underpinning the increased U.S. military presence in Australia.

Australian Greens spokesperson assisting on Defense, Senator for Western Australia (WA) Scott Ludlam, said that U.S.-Australian defense deals were oblique and had been "a one-way street" for too long.

"The Americans wanted Australian soldiers in Iraq, and they got it. They wanted a defense trade controls treaty that shackles Australian research, and they got it. They wanted marines based at Darwin, and they got it," he said.

"We suspect they want an expanded presence at HMAS Stirling naval base, access to air bases in the north of WA, and basing facilities for drones in the Indian Ocean - what's next?"

Ludlum said the 2010 deal that outlines the rights, role, and responsibilities of U.S. forces in Australia is "being kept secret " from the Australian public.

"For two years the government denied it existed, now they won't tell the Australian people what's in it," he said.

"The agreement that governs this militarization is to be withheld, presumably until such time as it is leaked in the public interest - it's an extraordinary insult to Australian sovereignty. "

Meanwhile Defense Minister Stephen Smith will be preparing to face some tough questions from Clinton and her team when the AUSMIN discussions begin in Perth on Nov. 14.

According to Peter Jennings, the Australians will be expected to do their bit.

"Although they may not bluntly say so, many of the Americans knowledgeable about Australia think that we are 'off the reservation' on strategic policy right now," he said.

With the release of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper last month, Australian officials may not have too much of an appetite at tonight's state reception - between the concerns of their neighbors, the Australian public and an American ally determined to ensure things go their way in the Asia Pacific there is very little room for compromise.

Editor: Wang Yuanyuan
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