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Gunboat diplomacy

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 21 November 2011


In view of the sycophantic nature of Australia's relationship with the United States over the past sixty years I guess it was inevitable that Australia, in the absence of tough minded governments, would eventually come to host a US military base. The North West Cape, Pine Gap and Geraldton communication facilities and joint exercises were incremental steps along that path, not to mention Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf war, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As announcements go relating to major policy change this one was a shocker. Whilst the rest of the world called it for what it was, the establishment of a US base, the Australian Defence Minister said it was merely an enhancement of joint exercises. Then to make matters worse few other details were provided. We have been told that in mid next year, 250 US Marines will arrive on a six month posting to undertake training. Over five years that commitment will rise to 2,500 Marines. That figure represents a stripped down brigade. Also hinted at, alluded to, mumbled about, are B52s and other aircraft, including perhaps fighter aircraft operating out of/based at Tindal for unspecified periods of time, perhaps permanently. Then the most important mumble of all, there will be more US naval visits, including capital ships to Darwin – soon.

Pathetic, absolutely pathetic; it has been an exercise in gutless avoidance on the part of our fearless sycophants. This is a democracy, where are the facts, where is the debate?

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The media led by giving a voice to Australian right wing commentators, who had few facts but were prepared not only to endorse the deal but also act as spokesmen for the US. This Gillard/Abbott folly has a long way to run yet, the commentary is only just beginning and it is not going to be managed by the Australian Defence Association or The Lowy Institute.

The decision to put a US base in the Northern Territory, centred on Darwin, has to do with the containment of China's growing naval power.

From around 2001 China embarked on an ambitious ship building program, including the Type 094 and 093 ballistic missile and nuclear attack submarines, based near Sanya, the most southern city in China. The base and pens have been built underground; two hundred kilometres north at Zhanjiang is the base of China's South Sea Fleet. Attached to that fleet are two marine brigades.

China has 10 nuclear submarines and 50-60 diesel-electric submarines. In September of this year it commissioned into service, after an eighteen month refit, a former Russian aircraft carrier. In 2009 China said it intended to construct its own aircraft carriers. This would have taken some time. China apparently decided it was short of time and time concerns now seem to be driving both China and the United States.

The US views the expansion and modernisation of the Chinese navy as a matter of deep concern; it believes it is the only power capable of confronting the Chinese particularly with respect to disputed territorial claims by China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

It is said that China is expanding its naval capabilities in order to defend and assert maritime claims, freedom of navigation and protect energy imports from the Persian Gulf. China is particularly worried about taking vital supplies through the choke point of the Straits of Malacca. They fear a US blockade in the event of deteriorating relations. Opening a base in Australia would help the US in that regard.

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China also seeks, through the use of aid, development projects, and the presence of its navy, to have influence over littoral states that impact or could impact upon its lines of communication. To this end it is constructing port facilities at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar on the southwest coast of Pakistan and at Sittwe in Burma.

All are being constructed as trading and economic facilities but are capable of transformation to naval use. China financially assisted the Government of Sri Lanka to defeat the Tamils, in exchange it gained a great deal of influence and the right to develop Hambantota, which will give China a strategic reach into the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. Britain and the US have a joint base on nearby Diego Garcia.

Gwadar will provide China with a capacity to monitor and match US naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Indian naval activities, including US/Indian naval co-operation in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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