| American Strategic Re-balancing: The Response to Asia
|Dr. Süreyya Yiğit, ORSAM Advisor, Eurasia
| This past week has witnessed an important development that could have significant repercussions concerning the global military and political centre of gravity. The development referred to is the deployment of American Marines to Australia. The reason why 200 or so soldiers being stationed in Northern Australia is so significant is not due to their numbers, especially not so due to the fact that the United States has many other allies and bases in Asia and the Pacific. This particular development could well be regarded in the future as the first tentative step by the world’s military hyperpower to engage fully with Asia and concentrate greater military capabilities, time and diplomatic effort on this continent.
The transferral of American soldiers to Australia is not unprecedented. Almost exactly seventy years ago, in March 1942 during World War II, the first American troops were sent to Australia from the United States with General MacArthur appointed as the Supreme Commander for the South West Pacific Area. That was during wartime seventy years ago, whereas this deployment is taking place in peacetime.
This enhanced American military presence on Australian soil was not a surprise as it had been planned for as early as November 2010. Australia and the United States - as well as New Zealand - have been military allies since the 1951ANZUS Treaty. Under the treaty arrangements annual meetings to discuss ANZUS defense matters have taken place between the United States Secretary of State and the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (AUSMIN). At the November 2010 AUSMIN meeting, deepening military co-operation on Australian territory between the two allies had been foreseen.
Just under a year later in September 2011, Panetta the U.S. Secretary of State for Defense stated that “the goal here is to strengthen that relationship as best we can to send a clear signal to the Asia-Pacific region that the U.S. and Australia are going to work together to make very clear to those that would threaten us that we are going to stick together”. Whilst the identity of the threat was not explicitly mentioned, the consensus of opinion clustered around China.
When President Obama paid an official visit to Australia five months ago in November 2011 to reiterate the importance and vitality of the bilateral ANZUS alliance, he declared alongside Australian Prime Minister Gillard a three-pronged new development.
1- Up to 2,500 American Marines would be stationed in Northern Australia
2- There would be increased rotations of U.S. Air Force planes in Australia
3- Greater access to the U.S. Navy would be provided for in Western Australia.
It is the first step that has been witnessed this week, with the Australian Minister of Defence Stephen Smith stating at a press conference on the day the Marines arrived that it would take five or six years before the American force would reach the desired level of 2,500. As for the Air Force and Naval components, Smith openly declared that progress had been slow in that “since the announcement in November our priority has been to bed down those arrangements and we’ll review those and learn lessons as we go. The truth is that we haven’t advanced all that much further the Air Force access and the Navy access. We’re talking here in terms of years rather than months. The Air Force arrangements will be the next cab off the rank, and HMAS Stirling [naval facility] down the track”.
He gave a specific explanation for the location and rationale for the naval dimension by referring to the “reason for HMAS Stirling in the west is the growing importance of India, the Indian Ocean Rim, and the Indian Ocean as a strategic area of the world. And it just reflects the fact that Australia is a two ocean continent, not just the Pacific but also the Indian Ocean, and Darwin is very reflective of that, touching both of those oceans”.
The selection of Darwin for the concentration for American marines was highlighted by the American Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, who acknowledged that the region in general was a vital one due to it being “the fastest growing economic area, and also the one that is enduring the greatest demographic change. And we want to make sure that it continues to be a peaceful, prosperous and stable area. The way that we accomplish that is by ensuring that trade routes are open and that we’re prepared for any issue that could come up. And so the opportunity to train here in Darwin is ideal for having the ability to do that. You have access to the Pacific Ocean, to the Indian Ocean, to the East Timor Sea, and the trade routes all around”. Stephen Smith put the day’s developments into context by proclaiming the welcoming of 200 Marines to Darwin to be considered as a “historic day, it is an historic day which is wedded deeply in the United States Australian Alliance, forged over 60 years ago”.
The Defence Minister set the background and gave the reasons for why such a deployment had indeed been taken that day. “Whilst this is an historic day because this is the start of what will see a rotation of 2500 Marines through our bases, and training areas in the Northern Territory, it is also the precursor to the other two initiatives announced during President Obama’s visit, namely an increase of United States Air Force access to Australian Air Force bases in northern Australia, and also subsequently greater access to United States naval vessels in HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port in my home state of Western Australia. This is occurring of course because in this century the world is moving in our direction, it is moving to the Asia-Pacific. It is not just the rise of China, it is the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, the emergence of Indonesia not just as a regional influence but as a global influence. And as the world moves in our direction, Australia, our region, the international community has to adjust and accommodate to that”. He openly declared that a shift in the global balance of power or a gravitational shift was taking place and that the United States and Australia were acting in concert to meet the challenges that were being created by this new development. As Asia had become the ascendant continent, realignment of capabilities and strategy had been necessary, all of which was being implemented.
In the final analysis, the deployment of 200 American Marines in Northern Australia does not alter the military balance in the region, let alone the continent. Such a small deployment is only significant when bearing in mind that it will vary the options available to the U.S. within the region where it already has bases in Okinawa, South Korea and Guam alongside good relations with its historic partners Singapore and the Philippines. Even the maximum number envisioned for the Marines - that of 2,500 - would possess a very limited force projection when viewed from the perspective of the whole region. Its importance, therefore, lies not in its military importance, but as a diplomatic signal declaring that the United States remains an Asian power and is in no respects thinking of diminishing its vanguard role in the region.