November 16th, 2011
06:39 PM ET

America's clever base move in Australia

Editor's Note: Raoul Heinrichs is Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, ANU, an editor at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and Deputy Editor of Pnyx. This is an extended version of an article published by the Lowy Interpreter. This piece is reprinted with the permission of The Diplomat.

By Raoul HeinrichsThe Diplomat

U.S. President Barack Obama’s sheen may have worn off somewhat in the United States, but not in Australia. Yet amid the handshaking and backslapping, the photo opportunities and exultations of shared values, interests and history, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Obama’s trip “down under” is driven by cold strategic logic: to sell Australians on accepting a greater burden on behalf of their alliance with the United States.

That process has begun with a major enhancement of military cooperation between the two countries, to be concentrated in Australia’s North West. The arrangement grants the U.S. military greater access to Australian bases, particularly airfields, as well as providing for more extensive training, ship visits and exercises, and the forward deployment of a small detachment of U.S. Marines. It also covers the prepositioning of materiel – fuel, ammunition and spare parts – creating the foundations of a latent staging point for the U.S. military in the Indian Ocean.

For many Australians, an enhanced U.S. presence in Australia is a beguiling prospect. Not only is it seen as a welcome symbol of Washington’s enduring strength and resolve, but also as a more tangible expression of U.S. strategic commitment.

The reality is somewhat different. In fact, Washington’s sudden interest in Australian real estate says less about its resilience than its relative decline. In particular, the quest for new bases reflects the way in which China’s growing power has already begun hollowing out U.S. military dominance, pushing back the boundaries of U.S. primacy.

North Korea’s Other Weapons Threat

Indeed, while the United States has spent the past decade losing wars and squandering power, China has been studiously undercutting U.S. advantages across virtually every sphere of policy: economic, diplomatic and strategic. No longer the quiescent child it was when the United States took its eye off the ball, China has grown into a boisterous teenager – and has plenty of growing still to do.  With the transformation of Asia’s security order well underway, Washington now finds itself trying to reinvigorate its strategic presence in the face of a putative rival over whom its leverage has been greatly diminished.

Still, why the specific interest in Australia? Three reasons predominate.

The first reason is largely technical: over the past two decades, China has accumulated a formidable array of precision guided strike capabilities, namely long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, which can be launched from sea, air and land. These have been woven into an offensive war-fighting doctrine that places an operational premium on their use early and en-masse – and not just against U.S. ships at sea. Since U.S. bases in Japan, Korea and even Guam are increasingly at risk of being saturated by Chinese missiles at the outset of a conflict, they no longer constitute an indefinitely reliable basis from which the United States can project power.

Why Australia Needs Nuclear Subs

The countries of Southeast Asia offer no viable alternative. They also lie within range of Chinese missiles. And though their governments clamor for U.S. support whenever China plays rough, they remain unwilling to be prematurely enlisted in U.S. military plans at the risk of becoming a target or arousing Chinese antipathy. Thus, U.S. interest in Australian real estate reflects a simple desire for a more flexible, dispersed posture. U.S. military planners recognize in an Australian staging point the potential to restore the kind of time and space they’re being deprived of in Northeast Asia, as well as options for an operational sanctuary beyond China’s striking range. But what kind of operations do they have in mind?

As U.S. strategists reckon with the scope of Chinese military progress, they are developing an Indo-Pacific war plan for fighting China. In the Pacific, the U.S. Air Force and Navy are fleshing out the AirSea Battle concept, a war-fighting doctrine aimed at countering China’s area-denial strategy head-on. It’s a problematic concept, as I’ve written elsewhere. Nevertheless, by denying China’s capacity for sea-denial, theUnited States intends to preserve its options for sea-control and power projection in the Western Pacific, reinforcing its credibility and role as the region’s dominant player.

The second, more unspoken aspect of the strategy involves exploiting China’s substantial vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean. Numerous factors combine to make this possible: China’s geographic dislocation, which make it an external power; its dependence on the Indian Ocean for a great proportion of its seaborne trade, including energy imports from the Middle East; and, between the U.S. 5th and 7th fleets, a skewed balance of naval capability that will be hard for China to redress, even by asymmetric means. Taken together, this suggests an approach that would involve crippling China’s economy by blockading or destroying its commercial shipping in war, and, in peacetime, holding it at risk to encourage Beijing’s ongoing acquiescence.

Is China’s Africa Safari Faltering?

It’s a strategy out of Washington’s World War II playbook. Indeed, the mere presence of a powerful allied naval contingent along China’s sea-lines will require Beijing to divert considerable resources away from its immediate maritime periphery, much as it did with Japan in the 1940s, diluting the singularity of Chinese efforts in the Western Pacific.

This is where Australia comes in: as a central point between the two theatres, and, more importantly, as a base that can be made ready at relatively short notice to support an expanded commerce raiding or blockading campaign against China, most likely in the western reaches of the Indian Ocean.

The third motivation for an expanded U.S. presence in Australia is political. Washington is keenly aware of China’s centrality to Australia’s economic wellbeing. American strategists also recognize the extraordinary geographic advantages that Australia enjoys – a shoulder each in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, its back to Antarctica and shielded in front by a long archipelago. They understand what many Australian fail to see: that Canberra could, with some clear thinking and a substantial yet sustainable increase in spending, strike a more independent strategic posture, defending itself without becoming entangled in the power-politics of Northeast Asia. And they are determined to prevent Australia from becoming the ally that got away.

In this regard, Washington is being clever. It is taking full advantage of Australia’s current strategic dependence, locking in Canberra’s political and military support further, thereby minimizing the potential of any future Australian realignment.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Raoul Heinrichs.

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Topics: Australia • East Asia • Military • United States

soundoff (199 Responses)
  1. Humble Man 12

    Will Russia stand by or join the game? like dejavu all over again.

    November 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  2. Queenslander

    The move makes perfect sense. Australia is the ONLY country to fight alongside the US in EVERY war since WWI. Google 'Pine Gap' and you'll see that the US has had a presence in Oz for a long time and there's about 1000,mostly CIA, employees in the middle of Oz. We have been one of your best buddies for a very long time. Australia also has a good relationship with China as she is reliant on a lot of our resources...natural gas etc. I hope the relationship grows. I've been Stateside for 22 years and there's not two similar naitons on the planet in many ways.

    November 17, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
    • ting tong

      what would the aussie,s do if the chinese cancelled there cole and iron ore conrtacts, over the u.s sending in the will have no jobs i supose you can go back to making rotary clotheslines but i think the chinese have got that tied up ,with there new lighter and stronger model.we will see who is the best buddie then

      November 20, 2011 at 10:58 am | Reply
  3. Yaksun

    For all you anti-US posters: I say forget Australia and S Korea and anyone else who trusts the Communist government in China and let em fend for themselves. When you are overrun with Communists, as you are now being overrun with Muslims, don't come crying here. Further, the US hasnot lost any wars in the last decade, having crushed the Iraqi army and routed the Taliban militarily. We accomplished in Afghanistan things the mighty Russian army could only dream about while it was getting its a** kicked. You don't like US, deal with them yourselves. Good luck.

    November 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Reply
    • Queenslander

      Up your Yaksun! You need to do some research son. You'll find that even in Iraq, it was Australian forces that went in well before the US did. You'll find ASIO did the dirty work for the CIA in Chile and you'll find we've been the only one's helping you all the way. So watch you mouth son or you'll have no friends've hardly got any now. Australia is under threat from no-one. You need to take a look at a map boy. Everything in Australia is at the bottom. To get to it, you not only have to make it to the top, but then you have cross thousands of miles of red dirt just to reach anything. Moron!

      November 17, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Reply
      • Yaksun

        Back at ya, Queenie old girl. My a** yer lips. We DON"T NEED YOU. Or S Korea. Or Phillipines. Save the world – use yer mouth, girl. We love ya, but we don't need ya. Queen: I am not yer son,and don't want you as a friend. *I mean dat personally. No offense to Aussies who are not gay like dis pair of lips.

        November 17, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
      • Queenslander

        you're an idiot yakhead. Please get a shirt made with yaksun on it so If I ever see you I can teach you a lesson. I live over here.

        November 17, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
      • Yaksun

        In yer dreams, queenie. We realy must raise our entry standards.

        November 17, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
      • Elvis

        Well said and absolutely corrent Queenslander!

        November 18, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  4. Curt

    I think Australia is behind occupy wall street 😀

    November 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Reply
    • glenn robert

      Nobody is behind Occupy Wall street that is why it is clever.

      November 18, 2011 at 2:06 am | Reply
  5. dbcouver

    Sounds like the same maneuvers we were making 60 years ago with many of the same strategies and economical arguments to what wound up being strategic philosophies and military placements. I think we're naive to believe we know how China will react to the obvious strategic moves being made under the guise of strengthening international economic ties with countries who China doesn't consider a threat at the moment. The reaction may involve 'victimized' governments who may find themselves in need of 'support' militarily as a result of our perceived aggression through overt diplomatic programs. We would then either supply that support, and therefore, escalate; or not supply that support, and therefore abandon our partners after inferred protection.
    This is the kind of action that has led to disaster in history and should be stopped immediately.

    November 18, 2011 at 1:22 am | Reply
  6. Me

    ....I can't help but think Obama has played Risk and knows how badass Australia is.

    November 18, 2011 at 7:35 am | Reply
  7. Elvis

    I love the way President Obama is promising all these great and wonderful military interactions with our partners while at the same time making drastic cuts in our military forces and military budget. True, defense spending does need to be trimmed, but with the cuts required by Obama, and more if the "super committee" does not come up with more solutions, there will be no military left for these interactions.

    November 18, 2011 at 7:51 am | Reply
    • Steady Eddy

      Regardless of what size the military is they must train and practice to maintain and develop skills and preparedness for any contingency. With a friend the US can invade and the Australians can defend, then change that around. Just outside of China the US has a large force which trains and practices in that area. In the asian region they also can go to friends in Australia for that and which offers different things, including vast expanses of different terrain and climate which tactically can make a difference in exercises and wars. China may not like what that large US force is doing and has been doing for decades.

      November 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Reply
    • Will

      Obama put way too much faith in congress when he came up with that idea. He never wanted the automatic cuts to go into place, he was trying to motivate congress. He should know by now that congress really is that incompetent.

      November 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  8. matt

    "the United States has spent the past decade losing wars and squandering power"

    Squandering power maybe, but which wars has the US "lost"?

    November 18, 2011 at 9:22 am | Reply
    • Steady Eddy

      Have you heard of Vietnam.

      November 18, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Reply
      • Will

        Have you heard of the last four decades?

        November 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  9. frank

    "The last decade loosing wars'. Hmmmm - lost me after that.

    November 18, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  10. john summers

    As I understand it from my Aussie marine friend, the Aussies wont voluntarily fight with Americans in the field because they "talk" and give their positions away. I have heard the same from other Australians too.

    November 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • Steady Eddy

      The US brings a Carrier Battle Group that has Planes and Marines. They attack Australia whilst Australia defends and in the process the US might loose or win. Some of the exercises are joint where they work together in attack and defence. Its all planned so both gain experience and practice from the exercises. It takes time to prepare and clean up afterwards, so some US are allways here to help Australians to do that till the next Carrier Battle Group and Marines arrive.

      November 19, 2011 at 12:18 am | Reply
      • Steady Eddy

        To add. Australia is getting the new F-35 Stealth Fighter and they might give the US Fleets a warm reception when they arrive for future exercises. Well it's no good having exercises against someone you can easily walk over. Think about it and these exercises with Australia have been going on for decades.

        November 19, 2011 at 12:56 am |
      • Steady Eddy

        To add. The US wants the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap in Australia to keep on functioning. Beside the US NSA and CIA are the equivalent in Australians working beside them. There is only a handfull of such facilities in the world and Australia is a prime location for one. The US certainly do want Pine Gap to keep on functioning and well defended.

        November 19, 2011 at 1:22 am |
  11. koedo

    pmcdonald, it's clear that you and Raoul Heinrichs are not military strategists.

    Having a forward deployment serves many purposes, not just singularly intended as a buttress against China.

    Because China has money and largess' does not mean countries feel comfortable being too cozy. especially considering China's penchant for ignoring rules and taking what they want.

    November 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  12. Will

    Isn't it all academic anyway because both sides have nukes? Any war would last only a couple of hours.

    November 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  13. Will

    What wars have we lost in the last decade? Iraq is now a democracy, sure it was a mess for a while, but we destroyed all the military opposition pretty darn fast. Same with afghanistan. And look how long Gadhafi lasted.

    November 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  14. Michael

    "In Australia the arrival of the Great White Fleet on 20 August 1908 was used to encourage support for the forming of Australia's own navy"

    November 21, 2011 at 1:11 am | Reply
  15. toby

    This article is a painfully immature and poorly thought out emotional piece. The author, with all due respect, has done no research and clearly has never read any detailed military history written. He doesn't understand what is going on, and makes the quite incredible claim that:

    "In this regard, Washington is being clever. It is taking full advantage of Australia’s current strategic dependence, locking in Canberra’s political and military support further, thereby minimizing the potential of any future Australian realignment."

    So, agreeing to accept 2500 marines is an irrevocable act of alignment. I don't think so. In fact, the way this is likely to be seen in china is that the US is panicking about losing influence in Australia after the coming sovereign default crash, and is doing its best to win political party support in Australia by providing 2500 marines worth of US government funding to Australian party members who can do as they wish with such money.

    The chinese are likely to think that if 2500 marines is the number, then two things are certain:

    1. America is REALLY broke, and trying to buy their existing friends.
    2. Australians are REALLY cheap, and for sale.

    It is a cascading blunder, because it shows a supreme contempt for the doctrine that economic power is military power.

    November 21, 2011 at 7:33 am | Reply
  16. toby

    By the way, let me tell you all how it will go down in Australia, if push comes to shove over the USA.

    Our politicians would certainly sell the USA out to the chinese, if the price was half way right. In a flash. For a dime. We have A grade politicians.

    But even if they did, the ordinary australians would soon enough shoot em, and end up fighting alongside ordinary Americans.

    November 21, 2011 at 7:37 am | Reply
  17. Ying Ding

    The US bombs China's coastal cities and occupies Shanghai and the US homeland has been attacked – how this all got started – have a look at

    November 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • Ying Ding

      November 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  18. Global Whopee

    I like Toby's view. The US Hill would sooner sell out to Chinese interests then take any meaningful steps to fixing the US. Truth be told, this has already happened on the debt issue. Do you think the US DoD spending hounds are going to get a vote during the debt negotions? The Hill has turned into a dreamland where spending favors are the sole currency used to buy and retain power.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  19. Simon Wilby frauds

    One adjective that defines Simon Wilby is smart. He is the CEO of Smart Power, Inc. He developed The Smart One, a revolutionary lithium battery powered by solar for cell phones and The Smart Juice which is energy with the same principle for lap tops.

    May 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
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