US base in Australia: China on notice
The news was announced jointly by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama, who is on a nine-day diplomatic tour of the Asia Pacific.
“This region is of great strategic importance to us” said Obama. “We will make sure we are able to fulfill our leadership role in the Asia Pacific region.”
“Our alliance has been a bedrock of stability in our region, so building on the alliance through this new initiative is about stability,” said Julia Gillard.
The agreement comes against the backdrop of a rapidly-militarizing China that also figures to be a major player in the region.
Although Obama said he welcomed China’s rise, he also issued a warning: “We will send a clear message to them that we think they may need to be on track, in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities of being a world power.”
Although the Chinese defense budget is notoriously opaque, experts guess that the country has tripled its spending over the last decade, and now trails only the US in its military expenditure.
The Chinese navy is now in possession of its first aircraft carrier – an old Soviet vessel purchased from Ukraine that has been refitted with modern weapons. It also presented a new stealth fighter – the J-20 – on the eve of a visit by US defense officials earlier this year.
Although the US has voiced no plans to construct its own base in Australia, and the initial marine contingent will be only 250, the agreement includes plans for a greater presence of US Navy and Air Force.
The marines are also expected to provide combat training not just for Australian soldiers, but those from other countries from the Pacific Basin.
In an interview with the Sidney Morning Herald, Hugh White, the former Deputy Defense Secretary labeled the deployment “very significant and very risky” for Australia.
But former Defense Minister Kim Beazley has refused to countenance alarmist scenarios. “The Chinese have gotten used to the fact that Australia and the United States have a very close military relationship. They expect nothing different,” he told the local media.
Nonetheless, after a decade where US attention has been absorbed by the Middle East and Afghanistan, this is yet another sign that the country is turning its eye to the Pacific Basin.
Obama has pushed for a greater role for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade alliance of mostly Western-leaning economies that has aroused the suspicions of China.
It has also beefed up its existing bases and naval presence, largely in anticipation of ever-growing disagreements around the lucrative shipping lanes in the South China Sea, which are subject to wrangles between China and other regional powers.
The marine deployment is merely the latest step in a strategy that has been termed the “Comeback to Asia.”
Whether the policy will be anything other than a symbolic show of support for US allies is another question. Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment told the Washington Post that “The US has no ability to keep China out or to keep China down.”
Shannon Van Sant, a news correspondent based in Beijing, says that the US decision was met with concern in China, both by the country’s leaders and the Chinese citizens. The latter believe that this is a US policy of containment, of an attempt by the United States to encircle China both economically and militarily.
“That perception of the United States’ influence in the Asia Pacific has existed for several years and alliances like this one between the United States and Australia will only serve to strengthen that perception,” she said. “This sort of alliance, US military and diplomatic endeavors in the region is covered by Chinese state press and that influences popular opinion. It really fits into the Chinese sense of victimization at the hands of Western powers, so there is a common feeling among Chinese citizens that the United States and the Western powers may not want China to rise.”