Reinvigorating ANZUS: Should the US deploy more troops in Darwin?

US President Barack Obama inspects members of the Australian armed forces on arrival in Australia | Source: ABC News

Mitchell Goff – Opinion

With the inaugural visit of Barack Obama to Australia as President of the United States, a number of significant announcements surround him.The first of such announcements was deliberated in the weeks earlier at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation’s 23rd meeting in Honolulu. APEC, which has long been criticised by a number of groups including Australia’s own Lowy Institute in a 2005 report assessing its practical usefulness, which it determined to be indeterminate. While criticism is always welcome and is no doubt undertaken in good faith for positive outcomes, APEC, I’m afraid, serves first and foremost, a political purpose. This is why it frequently, and accurately, is derided for its lack of coherent outlook.

The latest announcement from certain members of APEC regarding the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) was a deliberate move to riposte the increasing diplomatic grandeur of the People’s Republic of China in ASEAN. The announcement from the TPP of the expansion of a free trade agreement will see member states including the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Chile and a number of other Asia-Pacific nations, enact policies which liberalise trade regimes and economic interaction between signatory countries. The member states of the TPP frequently hold sideline discussions at APEC meetings revealing a deeper political purpose for the annual talkfests. This contrasts, of course, with the ASEAN+3 trade arrangements heavily sponsored by the PRC which seeks to bolster the currency stability of member states indicating moves which are reminiscent of a similar approach taken by the Eurozone. It is no secret that US treasury officials and lawmakers have consistently voiced in strong terms their irritation with China’s devalued yuan and the manner in which is serves to protect Chinese economic interests from foreign competitors. Arguments aside for the merits of either approach, it is clear that they are fundamentally incompatible and the US with the TPP and the PRC with ASEAN+3 represent significant economic and diplomatic divergences; the recent developments around the TPP endorsed and APEC hosted free trade agreement indicate a calculated decision to leave out the PRC until such a time that it agrees to calls made by the United States, and agreements it is party to at the World Trade Organisation and other bodies.

At the press conference held jointly with Prime Minister Gillard, Barack Obama was quick to disclaim that the decision regarding the FTA reached by the negotiations at APEC were not designed to ostracise China but rather further integrate the US in the liberalised economies of the region so that both regional and American domestic outlooks can benefit. America is currently facing a crippling debt issue that goes on unresolved. This combined with the ever present reminder that, through a healthy trade surplus propagated by currency manipulation, China is eating up US debt like a kid in a candy shop. Obama will be looking for any and all economic frontiers to shore up finances at home. There is no doubt that this is a large factor in what has informed the latest agreed, multilateral FTA.

The second big announcement, or not so big depending on your take, was the moves indicated by the US to station Marines and USAF personnel in the Northern Territory starting from next year, to a land and air capacity of around 2,500 by 2015-16. Troops, while stationed in Australia, will engage in joint military exercises, training operations and will have greater access to RAAF bases than ever before. Of course such a decision, particularly when it concerns the deployment of military assets, is never one which is done merely for the sake of it. ANZUS alliance or not, this is a decision by the US which has implications for the region’s international relations. Of course the usual suspects emerge as the justification for such a deployment and of course there is no greater suspect than China and ‘containment’. However even a casual examination of the geopolitical realities makes it clear that a base in Darwin, while certainly serving a peripheral strategic purpose, is not particularly earth-shatteringly relevant when couched in bipolar terms. Darwin, of course, is a static area; air power projection from Darwin is significant but limited. Bases in an around South East Asia and particularly the Japan based Seventh Fleet and Fifth Air Force serve much more of a realistic military threat to the PRC. That’s not to suggest, however, that the Darwin announcement is not militarily significant, but rather that it is not as significant as many commentators will no doubt suggest. Given that both the geography and America’s commitment to the long-honoured, values-shared ANZUS alliance both detract from the suggestion that Darwin is some sort of operationally ready military base, it is perhaps not entirely foolish to disregard Obama’s remarks that it serves, in a broader more multilateral sense, to update the security framework of the region for the 21st century.

Although certainly fashionable to bash America at every chance, it is not the case that its post-Cold War military expeditions have only served narrow realist interests. It is quite possible, and indeed should be argued, that a US presence in the region can be used, as it was earlier in the year with the Japanese earthquake, so serve humanitarian or interventionist purposes. China certainly breaches many human rights set out in the UN and should indeed face some sort of diplomatic or economic consequence for such flagrant disregard, but anyone who claims that a war of such a scale is likely, even in liberal terms, is kidding themselves. Given America’s propensity to, both in word and deed, adhere to the newly emerging paradigm of liberal or humanitarian interventionism, it should not be so readily discarded that the United States is, and can still be, a force for human good. The more bases, the better.