Region: No US Bases in Australia, Says Myers


Dr Alison Broinowski

On 17 January, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B Myers, indicated that that US and Australian officials were considering building a joint training area in Australia. However, he stressed that the United States was ‘not even thinking about basing American troops in Australia’. This came after the Australian media reported on at least three occasions in 2003, that United States troops, who appeared to be out-staying their welcome in Northeast Asian countries, might be destined for Australia. In November 2003, it was reported that US officials had begun talking about a ‘logistics and training facility’ that might act as a staging post in a regional conflict. Not explicitly called a base, it would apparently be located in the Northern Territory, close, of course, to Indonesia. (Suddenly, even the newly opened Adelaide to Darwin railway began to make more sense.)

When the idea of basing US troops in Australia surfaced in May 2003, it was sharply questioned by Indonesian diplomats, and there were warnings of possible Australia-China and Australia-Malaysia frictions. When the proposal was renewed in November, after the retirement of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir, who has often been critical of Australia, and following a successful visit to Australia by China’s President Hu Jintao, it appeared to be timed to go down better in the region.

Certainly, the winding back of the US military presence in Japan and South Korea would be popular in Okinawa and Seoul. The Governor of Okinawa, aware that Thailand, the Philippines, and now Saudi Arabia have all managed to get rid of American bases and still get on with the Americans, bluntly asked US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld to shrink Camp Courtney, where 20 000 US marines operate on scarce land. As well, Governor Inamine objected to noise pollution and the contamination of local fisheries. The formal occupation of Japan after World War II lasted seven years. But in 2003, some 58 000 Americans were still there. Okinawans have long been outraged by rapes, robberies, and traffic accidents, for which, in many cases, American servicemen have not been made to face local courts.

Half a century after the Korean War, the United States military presence in South Korea also continues. In 2003, some 37 000 active duty American military personnel were on the Korean peninsula, nearly half of them stationed on the Demilitarised Zone. The recently announced US decision (on 17 January 2004) to move troops away from the border and out of Seoul, to an enlarged facility about 45 miles south of the capital, is unlikely to be welcomed with much enthusiasm by those South Koreans, who already protest that US bases are targets for North Korean attacks. Many Koreans see annual joint military exercises as needlessly provoking Pyongyang and setting back prospects for re-unification. The US ‘refusal to confirm or deny’ policy means that Japan and South Korea have no control over the possible entry of American nuclear weapons into their territory, harbours, and airspace. What’s more, the US presence, for so long accepted by Tokyo and Seoul as deterring the communist threat, now explicitly confronts the DPRK as part of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’, which is a different matter.

Whilst no immediate mass evacuation of US troops from the region is anticipated, the announcement of the withdrawal of an undisclosed number of US 2nd infantry division troops from Korea (for possible redeployment to Afghanistan and Iraq) is an indication of a change in US thinking. Throughout 2003, the Pentagon was considering how to make global US military operations less static and more manoeuvrable; hence Rumsfeld’s visit to Japan and Korea.

When Australia’s Defence Minister, Senator Robert Hill, met the Defence Secretary in Washington in mid-November, their private agenda included the US ‘training facility’ proposal, which sparked speculation that this could result in the actual presence of military personnel in Australia for the first time since World War II. The timing of this contentious move, as the Parliamentary calendar wound down, may not have been coincidental.

The Australian public knows this much:

(a) In May 2001, American and Australian officials discussed basing forces and combat aircraft in Australia.

(b) In 2002, a ‘sea-swap’ arrangement, using Fremantle as the transfer point for crews on the US Pacific fleet, was met with public opposition.

(c) In February 2003, Senator Hill said strategic missile defence (‘Star Wars’ or NMD) would become increasingly important in Australia’s dialogue with the US.

(d) The Prime Minister said in May 2003 that reports about proposed American bases in Australia were pure speculation, and ‘absolutely no approach’ had been made about them to him or Senator Hill. However, he indicated that Australia would be willing to consider such a proposal.

(e) The US issued strategic defence papers in May 2003 stating a need for military bases to the south of East Asia. Possibilities under discussion include basing US F16s at Tindal RAAF airbase near Katherine, and transferring US Marines from Okinawa to an unnamed Australian army base.

(f) In June 2003, US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz said permanent basing of US troops in Australia was unlikely, but Senator Hill anticipated an increase in US exercises and training in Australia.

(g) On 18 November 2003, US defence sources were reported to have proposed staging large numbers of Abrams tanks, ammunition, and artillery at Robertson Barracks near Darwin, but Australian sources said that no formal request had been made.

(h) On 4 December 2003, Australia announced that it had signed up to the US National Missile Defence (NMD) program and it had also joined the US Joint Strike Fighter program to develop an advanced stealth fighter-bomber, with Australia pledging at least A$204 million toward the project.

(i) On 17 January 2004, Alexander Downer told Tom Plate of the Los Angeles Times that neither Australia nor America had plans to establish a US base in Australia. Recent discussions, he said, had been about joint training programs in Australia.

(j) On 26 January, following reports that the ‘bases’ proposal had been discussed on 16 January by General Cosgrove and General Myers, Senator Hill’s office denied that there were plans for US military to be based in Australia. The ‘only proposal being discussed’ was for a possible storage facility.

There’s much more Australians need to know. Exactly what would a ‘training facility’ involve? Or is it only a ‘storage facility’? Will any US presence or an enhanced defence relationship make Australia more of a terrorist target than it already is? How will Australia’s neighbours react?

WATCHPOINT: What will be the ramifications of America’s examination of ‘the "footprint" of American forces worldwide’ for Australia and for the Asian region as a whole?


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