5 Lessons of U.S. Plan for a Permanent Military Presence in Australia

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What Obama's plan to build a marine base here means for China, Japan, Afghanistan, and global politics

oz nov10 p.jpg

An Australian naval officer watches a frigate arrive in Darwin / Reuters

The U.S. has arranged with Australia to install a permanent military presence near the northern Australian town of Darwin, a move that signals shifts in President Obama's foreign policy and the U.S. vision for its role in the world. Obama will formally announce the new base with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during his visit to Australia next week, the Sydney Morning Herald reported this morning.

Why is the U.S., at time of economic trouble and declining military deployments abroad, creating an all-new marine base in the land that Australians call Oz? Australia is a small-ish country by any measurement except for acreage, which is actually a poor way to understand the relative strength of nations. The World Bank ranks it 15th by GDP, between South Korea and the Netherlands. It's ranked 52nd by population, less than one tenth the size of its northern neighbor, Indonesia. Its military spending is about on par with Spain.

So this is probably not about protecting Australia itself. But repositioning U.S. forces in this way reveals how Obama sees the world -- and America's place in it -- as changing. Here are five immediate lessons from the plan to build this new permanent base, something that suggests a significant change in long-term U.S. foreign policy.

(1) Yes, it's about containing China's military reach. 
As China rises, the U.S. is attempting to either manage or contain that rise (which you believe depends on whether you see Chinese growth as necessarily threatening to the U.S. -- given how close U.S.-China economic ties have become, it's probably more about managing than containing). But, whatever the overall U.S. strategy on China might be, the U.S. has appeared more eager to deter China's sometimes aggressive behavior in naval disputes with its neighbors, mostly over disputed islands and shipping lanes. These small-scale conflicts, especially if they escalated, could be incredibly damaging to global trade, much of which goes through the South China Sea. A greater U.S. military presence in the region, it's hoped, will deter Chinese aggression against its neighbors (which become relatively weaker as China becomes stronger) and maintain stability in this increasingly important region. "Australian strategic rationale is that we are also hedging against increasing Chinese military power and their capacity to destabilise maritime trade routes," a former Australian senior defense official told the Sydney Morning Herald. Putting troops in Darwin will expand the U.S. military reach in the Pacific, and more importantly it will establish a western Pacific troop presence that is close enough to deter China but far enough away to not have to worry about Chinese missiles.

(2) U.S. focusing away from Middle East to East Asia. 
Obama has been saying for a while that the U.S. should shift its attention away from the Middle East and Central Asia, regions that have often suffered from U.S. involvement and where anti-Americanism persists, toward East Asia. Our clients in the greater Middle East often seem to be more trouble than they're worth. Meanwhile, U.S. alliances in East Asia have been reliable and profitable. So why, Obama seems to be wondering, has the U.S. been investing so much in a part of the world where its returns are so low? This move suggests Obama's administration may be turning its attention away from the Middle East -- withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan -- to set America's military emphasis in East Asia.

(3) Obama wants out of Afghanistan. 
Though the U.S. has tentative plans to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, it's easy to imagine that the U.S. military will push the White House to push back that schedule (as they've done, successfully, with previous drawdown plans there and in Iraq) or at least elongate it. A number of analysts are understandably skeptical about the fuzzy withdrawal plans, which could suffer as U.S. progress slows. But this suggests that Obama is serious about ending the war in Afghanistan. After all, these new troops in Australia have to come from somewhere.

(4) U.S. concerned about tension with Japan over military base. 
The U.S. marine base in Okinawa has been politically controversial in Japanese politics for years. No one seems to be crazy about the idea of a few thousand foreign troops on their soil, and a handful of scandals regarding bad behavior by some marines has worsened the tension. Last year, the Japanese Prime Minister resigned after Obama pressured him to renege on his promise to close the Okinawa base. It doesn't take much to make a Japanese prime minister resign, but it was a sign of how much tension the base brings into U.S.-Japan relations, an alliance that both countries badly want to keep positive for economic and military reasons. There is a movement in Japan right now to relocate part the base someplace less populated, which the U.S. has resisted. But the Darwin base might take some of the pressure off Okinawa and allow the U.S. and Japan to move the base without sacrificing security interests.

(5) Could Australia be the new Saudi-style U.S. client? 
If the U.S. wants to build the kind of presence in East Asia that it could be closing out of the Middle East, it will need a reliable and pliant client state in the region. Japan is too powerful on its own and too independent; Indonesia might worry about a domestic backlash if it moves too close to the U.S.; South Korea is too worried about North Korea; and the nations of Southeast Asia are still not quite stable enough. But Australians are democratic, speak English, don't have ideological reasons to oppose the U.S., and could really use a powerful sponsor, especially as China becomes more dominant. "Australia is like [the Persian] Gulf, cant possibly defend itself, relies on US protection. Politically can't rock the boat, just like Gulf," Australian journalist Tom Gara wrote on Twitter. This explains why Australia has joined every single American war, including Vietnam, which even the British wouldn't touch." Australia, like the nations of the Persian Gulf, might be willing to hand its foreign policy over to the U.S. in exchange for the implicit security guarantee of a large military base.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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