November 18, 2012

Slowdown in US Basing in Australia covering Indian Ocean

Australian Defence Minister Smith visits USS Michigan (Ohio Class SSGN (154 Tomahawk cruise missiles) temporarily docked at Australia's major Indian Ocean naval base: HMAS Stirling. Australia and the US have agreed on a slower increase in US docking at HMAS Stirling.

The Australian, November 16, 2012 reports:

"WEST Australian Premier Colin Barnett this week took Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta to Perth's Cottesloe beach to remind them that WA's "long and exposed coastline" looks not to America but to Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa. 
But the US Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence hardly needed a geography lesson from an enthusiastic premier to understand the strategic significance of this friendly corner of the Indian Ocean.

A report to the US Defence Department earlier this year and presented to congress said one option for President Barack Obama's plan to boost the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific was to base a US aircraft carrier group and nuclear submarines at HMAS Stirling, south of Perth.

But the message from the Australian-US Ministerial Consultations in Perth this week is that any such plan is a pipedream for now. Not only will there be no US military bases such as this on Australian soil, but there has been a go-slow placed on plans foreshadowed last year to allow US military planes greater acces to airstrips in northern Australia and US warships more access to HMAS Stirling near Perth.

"This is very much a consolidation, business-as-usual AUSMIN meeting," Defence Minister Stephen Smith said yesterday. "There is nothing that will surprise anyone." By "anyone", Smith was really talking about China, which had been so surprised by the closer military ties announced during Obama's visit to Australia last year that China's state-controlled press warned that Australia was at risk of being "caught in the crossfire" between the US and China.

During that presidential visit Australia agreed to the rotation of 250 US marines through Darwin, eventually building up to 2500 in addition to plans for more US aircraft and warships visits.
At the time it was described by The New York Times as "the first expansion of America's military presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War".

A year on, the tepid outcome of this week's AUSMIN meeting -- which contained not a single big announcement -- underscored the fact the Gillard government wants speed limits placed on the move towards a greater US military presence in Australia. Although it will not admit this publicly, Canberra was wary of antagonising China again by making sweeping new gestures less than a year after the plan for the Darwin marine rotation was announced.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr betrayed this fear when he volunteered twice during the final AUSMIN press conference yesterday that there was no need for China to be concerned because the AUSMIN communique "contained no language of containment". When asked about China's likely reaction, Smith said this week: "None of this is aimed at any one country. It is not aimed at China or any one country."

The Gillard government's caution about being seen to move too fast on US military presence in Australia is mostly driven by concerns about how it would be received in Beijing, although it was also wary of public opinion and the reaction of its own Labor Left faction.

The softly, softly approach at AUSMIN this week was driven more by Australia than by the US.
The strongest statement on China this week did not come from Australia but from Clinton, who said it was up to Australia and the US to show that their partnership was good for China and the region.
"The Pacific is big enough for all of us," she declared. The subtext was that China needed to get used to a strong and robust Australian-US military alliance.

As she was speaking, former Labor prime minister Paul Keating in Melbourne was accusing the government of being too eager to follow America's lead on Asia.

"Our sense of independence has flagged and as it has flagged we have rolled back into an easy accommodation with the foreign policy objectives of the US," he said in his Keith Murdoch Oration. "Our respect for the foreign policy objectives of the US has superimposed itself on what should otherwise be the foreign policy objectives of Australia."

Not surprisingly, Carr took exception to Keating's comments, saying the relationship with the Obama administration was "relatively comfortable because they share so many of our objectives".

The carefully stage-managed AUSMIN communique was framed to minimise scaring any horses in Beijing on the eve of China's momentous once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

The seven-member politburo, announced yesterday, led by China's new, more outward-looking leader, Xi Jinping, will be closely monitoring the US pivot to Asia, including its plans to make use of its strategically located ally, Australia.

One of the most repeated mantras of the Gillard government in recent years is that while Australia has agreed to host more US marines and also plans to host more ships and planes in Australia, there will be no bases. "Places not bases", it says, even if the distinction is sometimes a little blurry.
The government denies it is slowing down or speeding up the previously announced moves for marines rotations as well as greater access for US planes and ships.

But consider the evidence. Almost a year after the Obama visit, Smith said in Perth this week that preliminary discussions for greater access for US planes to Australian airfields in the north was "just starting", with no clear timeframe for concrete results.

The notion of more visits by US warships or nuclear submarines -- or even the semi-basing of such vessels at Perth's HMAS Stirling -- was an even a more distant prospect. This idea, Smith said, was a "third cab off the rank", which was "years away".

"In both these instances, particularly with HMAS Stirling, you are talking years rather than weeks or months. It will depend upon the way in which people start to appreciate the significance of the Indian Ocean."

Julia Gillard described the plans for more access for US planes and ships as nothing more than a "medium-term" plan, saying this week's AUSMIN was about "stocktaking" where the military co-operation was at. This is not the rhetoric of a government in a hurry.

The first rotation of 250 US marines through Darwin this year was an enormous success, with no embarrassing incidents, a warm welcome from local community in Darwin and benefits for the local economy.

Even so, the government has chosen a holding pattern, agreeing to have only another 250 next year, although it vows this will grow to the 2500 "over a period of five or six years".

The eventual increase in US marines in Darwin will also be subject to a social and economic assessment study, which gives the government cover to slow down the program if it feels uncomfortable.

Taken together, these things make it difficult to conclude anything other than that Australia is choosing to build up the presence of US forces here without fanfare, without headlines and, in the words of Smith, "step by step".

As the US seeks to reposition its forces in the region, the attractions of being allowed to use safe, friendly and strategically positioned facilities in Darwin and Perth are obvious.

As the report to congress noted this year: "Australia's geography, political stability, and existing defence capabilities and infrastructure offer strategic depth and other significant military advantages to the United States in light of the growing range of Chinese weapons systems, US efforts to achieve a more distributed defence posture, and the increasing strategic importance of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

"HMAS Stirling offers advantages including direct blue water access to the Indian Ocean and space for expanded surface ship facilities, including potentially a dock capable of supporting aircraft carriers."

Smith has been sensitive to China's poor response to the rotation of marines in Darwin, and has tried, somewhat optimistically, to turn it into a positive for the Chinese.

He says that China would be invited to observe, then eventually participate in, Australia-US-Indonesia joint exercises beginning next year.

One complicating factor in the plans for more US forces using Australian facilities is that the US does not yet know how bad its defence budget cuts will be across the coming year and what it will be able to afford to do in the region.

After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US, similar to Australia, is reducing its defence spending as a means of trying to improve its budget bottom line.

Unless the newly re-elected Obama can strike a deal by the end of this year with Republicans in the congress to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, a deal that would trigger massive spending cuts including in defence, the US defence budget cuts will be felt across the world.

"Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta is currently managing half a trillion dollars in defence spending over the next decade," Smith says. "And if the fiscal cliff problem is not solved or resolved, then he's looking at the prospect of $1.2 trillion over the next decade -- so that's an issue which all of the world is now watching."

In this climate, while some senior officials in the Obama administration are disappointed with Australia's steep cuts in the defence budget -- which will fall in real terms by 10.5 per cent next year, the largest year-on-year reduction since the 1953 Korean war -- the US is in no position to point the finger.

The cautious approach taken by Australia at AUSMIN this week will only fuel critics who argue that the government is too preoccupied with not offending China in its alliance arrangements with the US.

The government complains that China does not adequately explain its fast-moving military modernisation program, but beyond that Canberra is all but silent about Beijing's aggressive missile programs, its global promotion of cyber-espionage and its meddling in space security.

This week the Gillard government displayed a meekness in Perth at odds with the boldness it showed in signing up to the plan to rotate marines and welcome US warplanes and ships to this country.

That this agreement was struck by a Labor government was remarkable and a sign of the growing maturity in Australia's relationship with the US. The fact it has now been placed on the long-term "to do" list shows that the government is still spooked by China when it comes to enacting the next phase of the ANZUS alliance."

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