Many Australians are unaware that up to 2500 armed personnel from a foreign nation routinely occupy Australian territory. However, soon the next contingent of US marines will arrive in Darwin, writes Nick Deane.
It is extraordinary that foreign forces should be stationed in Australia in peacetime. There has been no such foreign presence here since the end of World War II. There is no threat to Australia, so there is no need for this presence.
“Give ’em the boot!” is the slogan for the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network’s (IPAN) campaign aimed at ousting the US marines from Darwin. It is a good-humoured campaign with a slightly cheeky slogan, but the issue itself is deeply serious.
US marines in Darwin
Reports that Australia might play host to US marines first appeared on November 11 — Remembrance Day — 2011.
Five days later, on November 16, then US President Barak Obama announced the “pivot” to the Asia/Pacific in the Australian Parliament. Part of this involved the stationing of US marines in Darwin. There was no parliamentary debate and little public discussion at the time. It was simply presented to the Australian people as a fait accompli.
The general public accepted it with a shrug. However, for some people this was one step too far. An alliance is one thing, but its nature is radically changed when one party stations its armed forces on the territory of the other. That effectively destroys whatever “balance” there might have been in the relationship.
Once the host nation has the armed service personnel of its ally on its home territory, it becomes inferior in the relationship and the nation supplying the forces takes on a dominant role. It is hard, if not impossible, to enter any disagreement with a nation that has its forces pre-positioned on your soil.
This is why peacetime deployments of this sort are rare. It is only in an extreme situation, such as the perceived danger of an attack from a third party, that any country will countenance hosting foreign forces. In Australia’s case, as recent Defence White Papers have affirmed, there is no threat and no reason to imagine that any country has any plans to move against us.
Under these circumstances, playing host to foreign forces is extraordinary.
Why, then, was this move taken? Was it a wise move for Australia to take?
The Australian government has described the deployment as “an extension of existing arrangements”, but it actually represents a radical departure from what had gone before.
Soon after the 2011 announcement, a network of peace activists began to take shape. Now, six years later, IPAN has returned to the matter that was the catalyst for its inception; it has initiated this campaign to get the US marines to leave Darwin.
As an organisation, IPAN is determined that Australia throw off the bonds of dependence that have been a feature of the nation since it was a colony. Australia can and should be completely independent of foreign military influences. IPAN is opposed to the establishment of any foreign, military installations in Australia, including Pine Gap in the NT and the communications facility at North West Cape in WA.
Central to IPAN’s concerns is the nature of the military relationship Australia has with the US. Australia has followed the US into every major conflict that country has initiated since World War II, fighting on the US side in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
In none of these conflicts was the nation that endured it even capable of posing any threat to Australia.
Australia has repeatedly involved itself in distant wars in which it has had no direct interest. The common denominator in these conflicts has been Australia’s alliance with the US. In each instance the main reason for Australian involvement has been that the US wanted partners.
This desire for Australian partnership in its military adventures fits neatly with Australia’s “fear of abandonment”, the deeply-rooted, residual perception that Australia needs the protection of a powerful friend. This perception is nurtured by constant references to the (exaggerated) idea that the US “saved” Australia during World War II, obliging us to give it unflinching and unquestioning loyalty.
IPAN has repeatedly asked the government to explain the reasons for the presence of the US marines. Numerous letters have been exchanged, and questions asked in Senate Estimates.
In IPAN’s view, the answers given have been consistently flimsy and inadequate. There is absolutely no threat to Australia’s security at present, so there is no need for the presence of any foreign forces.
Training together might help the two armies work together, if they have to, but that is not a sufficient reason to invite the permanent presence of US forces. Having them here might “strengthen” the alliance, but it is perfectly strong already, even without a gang of armed foreign soldiers on our shores.
No, it is not just an extension of existing arrangements — it has shifted the relationship into something decidedly unequal.
IPAN argues that there are other considerations that should have been taken into account and debated in the public arena before the decision was taken.
What about the view of Australia from beyond our borders? To the nations in our region this action can only confirm the view that Australia is subservient to the US in all matters military. From the perspective of China, the marine base in Darwin is just another link in the chain of containment that the US is trying to forge around it.
The government and proponents of the marines’ presence argue that the US has been a force for stability and peace in our region and that its continued presence is the only way Australia can remain safe. IPAN, on the other hand, sees the presence of US armed forces as increasing tensions in the region, bringing the possibility of hostilities closer and making Australia less safe than it would be without them.
The Force Posture Agreement between Australia and the US makes it clear that the arrangement is all about helping the US maintain “a strong presence” in the Asia-Pacific. Committee notes on the agreement suggest that, had Australia failed to bring it into force, this could “undermine Australia’s long-standing alliance with the United States.”
The presence of the marines in Darwin (and the other US bases in Australia), and the terms of the agreement, make it abundantly clear that Australia has devolved its most important military and strategic decisions to US interests.
If there is war over the South China Sea, the East China Sea or on the Korean Peninsula, Australia is already committed to being part of that war, on the side of the US. Australia has, by its constant military involvement with the US, already made that commitment. We could be dragged into yet another war before anyone could even say “parliamentary debate”. So much for the alliance keeping us safe! Malcolm Fraser was right: the US is a dangerous ally.
The Give ‘em the boot! campaign is being kicked off in NSW. It is led by two activists from Sydney and Newcastle, who are in their seventies and jokingly describe themselves as elders. They have been busy letter-boxing in the two cities, asking people to donate old boots to the cause. The boots collected will be “given” to the Australian government at a date and place yet to be fixed.
When the boots are given to the government, they will be accompanied by the demand that the Force Posture Agreement between the Australian and US governments, which came into effect in March 2015 granting the US marines access to a base in Darwin for 25 years, be terminated.
[Nick Deane is a member of IPAN. For more information go to Facebook.]