A recent war exercise involving United States Marines seizing an island off the coast of Japan is being touted as part of the US military strategy to challenge China for control of the South China Sea. But little attention is being given to the potential role in this strategy of the US Marines stationed in Darwin, writes Bevan Ramsden.
The Force Posture Agreement (FPA) signed between the US and Australia underpins the annual stationing of up to 2500 US Marines in Darwin.
When first announced by former US President Barack Obama in a visit to Australia in 2011, the proposed agreement was presented as part of the US’s “Pivot to Asia”, involving, among other things, the relocation of US military forces to the Asia-Pacific region to contain China.
Obama’s proposal received enthusiastic and bipartisan support, including from then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The FPA was signed in 2014 and is set to operate for 25 years, unless 1 year’s notice of termination is given by either country.
While the stationing of US troops in Darwin is the FPA’s more visible expression, the agreement also gives the US military unimpeded access to Australia’s airfields, army air force bases and seaports.
The FPA also grants the US military and its contactors access to and use of “agreed facilities” for training, transit, support and related military activities.
Such activities include, among others: refuelling of aircraft; bunkering of ships; temporary maintenance of vehicles, vessels and aircraft; temporary accommodation of personnel; pre-positioning of communications equipment, supplies, fuel, ordnance and materials; and deploying forces and materials.
In sum, the FPA allows the US military to use Australia as a forward base for operations in the Asia-Pacific region.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the reason for all this is that Australia is in a state of war. Yet the government’s latest Defence White Paper made the point — no less than three times — that there was no identifiable military threat to Australia in the foreseeable future.
Peace groups, including the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN), have questioned successive defence ministers regarding the purpose of the FPA and the US Marines in Darwin.
The answers have always been vague and evasive, involving references to the ANZUS Treaty, joint-training exercises and improving the interoperability of the US and Australian military forces.
But the FPA has nothing to do with ANZUS, which simply requires both countries to consult if either is threatened in the Pacific area.
Instead, the FPA is a new and significant escalation of the US-Australian military relationship.
This is occurring in a context in which, according to Alex Lockie writing in Business Insider on January 29: “The U.S. Marine Corps is developing a new concept of naval warfare to allow Marines to take South China Sea islands from Beijing in the context of a massive missile fight in the Pacific.”
As part of this push by the US military, US Marines landed, invaded and captured an island off the coast of Japan in a “war exercise” held in March.
Business Insider’s Ryan Pickrell wrote on March 21 that US Marines, with support from US air force and army personnel “conducted a series of simulated military exercises attacking and seizing Ie Shima Island located off the northwest coast of Okinawa Island in the East China Sea”.
The le Shima Island war exercise may indicate why US Marines are embedded in joint training exercises on Australian naval ships such as HMAS Adelaide, which has been fitted with amphibious landing gear.
Nick Deane, IPAN spokesperson for the campaign to end the stationing of US marines in Darwin, said: “This US Marine exercise affirms the US intent to prepare for war with China. It also reinforces IPAN’s campaign to end the stationing of US marines in Darwin.
“The HMAS Adelaide has been modified to support amphibious landing of troops on island territories and US Marines are now embedded on HMAS Adelaide in training exercises.
“Clearly this is preparation to draw Australia into US plans for hostilities with China.
“Every effort should be made to keep Australia out of yet another US war overseas, and especially against China, our major trading partner.
“In such a war scenario, the US Marines operating out of Darwin would also draw fire, perhaps missiles on the Northern Territory.
“We need, for our own peace and security, to see an end to the stationing of US Marines in Darwin and an end to these war exercises with the US."
[Bevan Ramsden is an Independent and Peaceful Australia Network coordinating committee member. IPAN is organising a national conference in Darwin from August 2-4. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.]