A recent US war exercise involving US Marines landing, capturing and securing an island off the coast of Okinawa is touted as a new US military strategy to use in its challenge to China in the South China Sea. Is the imbedding of US marines in war exercises on HMAS Adelaide, which has been fitted with amphibious landing gear, part of US strategy to involve Australia in future hostile actions in the South China Sea ?
The agreement between the governments of the United States and Australia which under- pins the annual stationing of up to 2,500 US Marines in Darwin is called the Force Posture Agreement (FPA). The concept was first announced by US President Obama in 2011 in a visit to Australia and was presented as part of the new US military strategy called the “Pivot to Asia”. A clearer explanation of this strategy would be “the relocation of a major part of the US military forces including naval forces to the Asia/Pacific area to confront and contain China”. Our politicians in Canberra, including then Prime Minister Gillard, enthusiastically applauded Obama when he made this announcement.
The FPA was signed in 2014 and operates for 25 years, unless terminated by either side giving a year’s notice. Whilst the stationing of US troops in Darwin is the more visible expression of the FPA, it also includes:
- Giving the United States Air Force unimpeded access to Australia’s airfields and RAAF bases for their fighters and bombers as well as seaports for their naval vessels;
- Giving the United States military and its contractors access to and use of “agreed facilities” for training, transit, support and related military activities such as refuelling of aircraft, bunkering of ships, temporary maintenance of vehicles, vessels and aircraft, temporary accommodation of personnel, pre-positioning of communications equipment, supplies, fuel, ordnance and materials and deploying forces and materials as the parties may agree.
It seems clear that, in reality, the FPA allows the United States military to use Australia as a forward base for operations in the Asia/Pacific area. One could be forgiven for thinking that Australia must be in a state of war even though the last Defence White Paper made the point no less than three times that no military threat to Australia could be identified in the foreseeable future. Yet we have this FPA with the US underpinning the stationing of its troops annually in Darwin, defence expenditures raised to 2% of the GDP ($200 billion over the next 5 years) with pressure from some military/industry quarters to raise this percentage even higher.
Peace groups including the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) have questioned successive defence ministers regarding the purpose of the FPA and the US Marines in Darwin. The answers have always been vague and evasive, referring to the ANZUS Alliance, joint training exercises and improving the interoperability of the US and Australian forces. But the FPA has nothing to do with the ANZUS Treaty which simply requires both parties to consult if either party is threatened in the Pacific area. The FPA is a new and significant escalation of the military relationship between Australia and the US making us even more firmly “joined at the hip”.
Public statements about the role of the US Marines include:
- “Its primary role is to provide force projection from the sea, often in cooperation with the United States Navy.”
- “It is responsible for conducting expeditionary and amphibious operations with the United States Navy as well as the Army and Air Force.”
This throws no light on the reason for the stationing of the US Marines in Darwin unless it is in preparation for projection of US military power in the area to our north.
One indicator of current US military strategy in utilising their Marines was made evident this year when US Marines in a “war exercise” landed, invaded and captured an island off the coast of Okinawa called “le shima”. Alex Lockie of the Business Insider (29/1/19) said of their activity: “The U.S. Marine Corps is developing a new concept of naval warfare to allow Marines to take South China Sea islands from Beijing in the context of a massive missile fight in the Pacific.”
Global Research (22/3/19) says: “Last week, 31st MEU, backed by the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Logistics Group and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, members of the Air Force 353rd Special Operations Group, and Army soldiers with 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, conducted a series of simulated military exercises attacking and seizing Ie Shima Island located off the northwest coast of Okinawa Island in the East China Sea, reported Task Purpose. The new military strategy, known as Expeditionary Advanced Base (EAB) Operations, will allow Marine units to seize, establish, and operate multiple small bases across the Pacific Ocean, a tactic that will be beneficial in a high-end fight with China.”
The le Shima island war exercise indicates why US Marines are now embedded in joint training exercises on Australian naval ships such as HMAS Adelaide which has been fitted with amphibious landing gear.
Nick Deane, IPAN spokesperson for the IPAN campaign to end the stationing of US Marines in Darwin, responded in IPAN’s monthly publication to this report by saying: “This US Marine exercise affirms the US intent to prepare for war with China. It also reinforces the IPAN campaign to end the stationing of US Marines in Darwin. HMAS Adelaide has been modified to support amphibious landing of troops on island territories and US Marines are now embedded on HMAS Adelaide in training exercises. Clearly this is preparation to draw Australia into the US plans for hostilities with China. Every effort should be made to keep Australia out of yet another US war overseas and especially against China, our major trading partner. In such a war scenario the US Marines operating out of Darwin would also draw fire, perhaps missiles on the Northern Territory. We need, for our own peace and security, to see an end to the stationing of US Marines in Darwin and end these war exercises with the United States.”
If the US Marines in Darwin launch hostile acts against islands or countries to our north, a fair question to ask would be who actually controls the US Marines in Darwin ? This question has been asked by IPAN of Australian Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers on several occasions. Chris Pyne, Minister for Defence at the time of writing (4/4/19), has finally answered saying that the US Marines “remain within the US Marine’s chain of command at all times.” So these foreign troops on our soil are not under Australian Government control. But he also claimed that the Australian Government has full knowledge of and concurs with the US Marines’ activities. It is still not clear whether the Australian Government can effectively veto US Marine activities operating from Darwin.
The US Marines’ chain of command rests at the top with the recently formed US Indo-Pacific Command (established in June 2018). The area under its “command” embraces Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Japan, The Philippines, Guam as well as seeking to cover China and the South China Sea, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Against this background of the US Pivot to Asia, US confrontation with and containment of China, training to capture islands in the South China Sea and determination to maintain its hegemony in the Asia/Pacific area, the stationing of US Marines in Darwin and implementation of the Force Posture Agreement no longer appears as a benign inter-forces training operation designed “to assist in humanitarian emergencies”.
Peter Hartcher, writing in “The Age” of 5 March this year reminded us that: “North Korea publicly painted a nuclear target on Australia in April 2017. Kim Jong-un’s government seized on the fact that a contingent of US Marines is now in a permanent, rotating deployment in the Northern Territory.”
Australian involvement in a US-led “coalition” in hostilities against China with US Marines operating from Darwin and embedded on Australian naval vessels could well draw fire from China. And the new Chinese DF41 missiles can reach all parts of Australia including Pine Gap, the North West Cape and Darwin.
A reasonable conclusion would be that the US Marines stationed in Darwin and the FPA do indeed draw Australia into dangerous waters and place in jeopardy our peace and security.
Bevan Ramsden is a member of the coordinating committee of IPAN (Independent and Peaceful Australia Network) which has organised a national public conference in Darwin, 2-4th August, 2019 with a focus on the US Marines in Darwin and under the conference banner of “Australia at the crossroads- time for an independent foreign policy”. Booking: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/ipan-darwin-conf-tickets-56310347766