November 15, 2011

U.S. Expanding Military Presence in Australia Without Really Expanding

How does a U.S. president faced with budget constraints at home travel halfway around the world and make new military promises to Australia? The answer -- very carefully.

"This announcement may be less than advertized," says Patrick Cronin, of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

So get ready for some polished diplomatic language when President Barack Obama talks in Australia this week about more U.S. warships and American troops coming to Australian ports and Australian bases.

Obama may be sending in the Marines to northern Australia but there aren't going to be very many of them and they will be living in Aussie barracks. As for American warships coming to call in Western Australia near Perth, they will be using already existing facilities.

So as Obama is careful to expand U.S.-Australian cooperation on the cheap, he will paint the picture of new military cooperation in broad strokes in case the details are classified or still being thrashed out. Too many specifics may rile up budget-cutters back in Washington, or incite Australian critics worried that cozying up to the U.S. military will offend the number-one customer for Australian products -- China.

"I happen to believe it is a very important step," says Cronin, who is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. "It's an important step to secure a long-term presence in an area that is important to our interests."

The Pentagon sidestepped questions Monday about the new links between the United States and Australia.

"Australia is a great ally, a terrific friend in the region, "said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby.

"The two countries routinely train and operate together, especially in Afghanistan. We certainly expect that close relationship to continue," said Kirby. "We are always looking for ways to make it better."

A similar tone has been coming from the White House, such as when Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes recently previewed the trip with reporters.

"I don't want to get ahead of any agreement," Rhodes said at the White House last week. "I'll just say that we're discussing with the Australians, again, the future of our alliance in the context, also, of our future force posture in the region."

The top U.S. military man for the region, Pacific Command's Adm. Robert Willard, said look to Australia for the origins of this week's announcement.

"It's been very much a part of the public record that Australia made overtures to the United States to increase our engagement with the armed forces of Australia and our utility of the training facilities ranges," Willard said recently. He pointed out that new links build on the already-existing relationship.

"We train in Australia on a fairly routine basis. There is a large-scale, combined arms exercise that we conduct annually, and the Australians are a very generous military insofar as access to their bases and to their training facilities are concerned."

Obama and his Australian hosts will also be sending a wider message. Bringing U.S. Marines more frequently to Darwin for training and war games will send a signal of reassurance to Japan, which has been itching for years to clamp down on Marine bases and operations in Okinawa.

Perhaps most importantly, it signals to China that the United States places special importance on maintaining a presence in the region but does so in a less confrontational way than building up bases closer to Chinese shores.

"The Chinese can squawk about it," says Cronin. But it's not like having an aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea."

The United States already has a footprint in Australia, including the super-secret Pine Gap Joint Defense Facility outside Alice Springs in the center of the country, believed to be instrumental in U.S. military communications and missile guidance since the Cold War.

But not everyone in Australia is waiting for the U.S. with open arms. There continues to be opposition Down Under to cozying up too closely to Washington.

A group called Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition is organizing a Thursday protest in Sydney, supplying "drones on sticks" but advising demonstrators to bring their own signs and banners.

"This escalation in U.S. military activity in Australia is primarily intended to strengthen U.S. efforts to contain China," said the co-coordinator of the group Australian Anti-Bases Coalition, Denis Doherty.

"The Gillard Government's decision to escalate its military relationship with the U.S. is risking bringing war to our doorstep. "It is madness for the Gillard Government to risk relations with our major trading partner for the sake of alliance with the United States," Doherty said on the group's website, referring to the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard.