Why are there US marines in Darwin?
If one country plays host to the armed forces of another, it has either been invaded or invited the second country in.
If the latter, this is indicative of some level of inadequacy on the part of the first country; an inability to fully take care of itself — the classical colonial situation, in which the superior country offers an inferior one “protection” from some third power presenting a threat.
Does Australia need protection? The northern coast of Australia was attacked during World War II, so the nation is clearly vulnerable to a military offensive.
However, the most recent Defence White Paper and other experts seem to agree that Australia is under no threat of invasion by any foreign power, near or distant. Indeed, Australia’s geography makes it a remarkably safe place.
It was invaded in 1788 — but it took the invaders nearly 100 years to fully dominate the continent, despite the enormous technological advantage they had over the Indigenous inhabitants and the extraordinary cruelty the invaders inflicted on them.
During World War II, there did appear to be a threat from Japan — but the Japanese rejected any plan for a full-scale invasion. The Australian authorities did use the supposed threat in propaganda that served to unify the nation behind the war effort. However, unlike many other countries, Australia has seldom been over-run by foreign conquerors.
So the question “Why are there US marines in Darwin?” is particularly baffling.
The NSW chapter of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) has done its best to get an answer through formal channels. Since April last year, it has put the question to three prime ministers: Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.
The best the government has offered as explanation is a letter to IPAN-NSW from the Department of Defence, which said the presence of the US marines is “an extension of our existing defence cooperation and defence arrangements”. It is argued that the initiative will support regional peace and stability and better position the two countries to respond to contingencies in the Pacific — including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Publicly, the Department of Defence describes it as “only” a “rotational presence” and of symbolic, rather than strategic, significance.
These “reasons” do not provide enough justification for the nation surrendering any degree of its independence. Rather than a simple extension of the existing, close relations with the US, to have actual, armed personnel in our territory is a big departure from what went on before. It is going one step too far in the eyes of many, including such figures as ex-PMs Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating.
Besides, while providing disaster relief may require organisation and discipline, this does not mean that only military forces can provide it. Civilian organisations are better suited for the job. In any case, the US marines are not even in Darwin during the cyclone season.
It is worth recalling that the deployment of the marines was announced jointly by PM Gillard and US President Barack Obama at the same time that the US “Pivot to the Asia Pacific” was also announced in November 2011. Under the pivot, 60% of US military assets are being stationed around the Pacific. The centre of gravity of US military power is shifting out of Europe and the Middle East and into this region.
To explore the connection between the marines’ deployment and the “pivot”, sources on the other side of the Pacific are more informative than the Australian government and reveal other reasons for the Darwin presence.
Last year, the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a US policy research institute, issued a report, Gateway to the Indo-Pacific, Australian Defense Strategy and the Australia-US Alliance.
Contrary to what has been written in Australia’s Defence White Paper, the report says: “Indeed, China has emerged, almost simultaneously, as both Australia’s greatest trading partner and as its greatest, potential military threat.”
No justification for describing China as a military threat to Australia is given, but it remains the premise for all that follows. Readers of the report can be in no doubt that the authors view China as a potential enemy of the US, and much of the document rests on the assumption that conflict between China and the US is a real possibility.
The report presumes Australia would be an ally to the US in a conflict, describing it as a “bridging power”. “Australia’s strong ties with America provide it with the means to preserve US influence and military reach across the Indo-Pacific,” the report says.
The underlying message is that the US is preparing for war with China — and that Australia is readying to provide back-up for the US to maintain its regional power. The report goes into some detail in outlining four main roles that Australia could play in this scenario.
The report quotes Australian Strategic Policy Institute authors Andrew Davies and Benjamin Schreer: “For Australia, the presence of US forces is about much more than their physical presence. It is about declaring our strategic intent in the burgeoning Sino-US competition in the Asia Pacific.”
The CSBA report says this means: “Australia has already crossed this strategic Rubicon, providing the US Marine Corps access to Darwin and sharing intelligence, communications and space surveillance facilities at Pine Gap and Exmouth.”
Australia and the US are mostly concerned with extending “influence and military reach” in the region.
It is fair to conclude that the true reason for the presence of the US marines in Darwin is to advertise the fact that, in the “competition” between the US and China, Australia’s government and military would be the ally of, and provide support to, the US.