Debate over US base


May 25 , 2012

Plans to host US-operated aircraft carriers and submarines at Stirling Naval Base, on Garden Island offshore from Rockingham, could damage Australia’s relations with Asia or uphold an important treaty depending on which expert you talk to.

Perth-based Defence Minister Stephen Smith said in November 2011 the rise of China and India highlighted the need for an increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean, with HMAS Stirling to be the subject of more traffic from the US.

However, Melbourne University professor John Langmore says increased defence relations with the USA could compromise Australian independence in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It will certainly contribute to increasing antagonism in Asia including [with] China,” Professor Langmore told InkWire.

“It is most unwise.

“It suggests that the Defence department is in a silo and is not taking adequate account of the foreign policy implications of their actions.”

Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Curtin University Chris Hubbard said Australia’s allegiance with the US should not get in the way of trade.

“I think Australia and China can walk both sides of this street – the economic one of mutual benefit from trade, while maintaining Australia’s alliance relationship with America in its own national interests,” Dr Hubbard said.

“China will understand that in some facets of trade with Australia there are few viable alternatives, and that Australia is the best all-round bet.

“Iron ore is one of these, I think.

“So unless things get really bad, China will take quite a pragmatic approach which does not threaten its long term well-being economically.”

An officer from HMAS Stirling who did not wish to be named revealed there had been no formal proposal from the US government for the use of the base but there had been several high-level US visits to explore options.

The officer said that if the proposal went ahead the pluses would far outweigh the minuses.

“Benefits perceived by the commercial precincts around Rockingham and Fremantle are housing, and all of the retail issues of having an extra thousand personnel parading out of here,” he said.

“The costs of supplying fuel [and] support services like security [and] food is quite expensive for the US Navy, but beneficial to the industries that support them in WA.”

The officer said a Garden Island base would give the US Navy a toehold on Australia’s side of the Indian Ocean.

He said Australia’s relationships in Asia were very strong.

“Indonesia is a very good ally,” he said.

“We have strong military relationships with them, and we exercise with them regularly.

“We exercise with Singapore, Malaysia, many of the South Pacific island nations, as well as the Americans.”

The officer rejected China’s rise as a superpower as the reason for US interest in Australian bases, but conceded the force capability of China had increased over the past few years.

“China has spent considerably many more millions than most countries in the world, including America, over the last 10 years in new submarine fleets, blue water fleets, so their ability to get out there is a lot more,” he said.

An editorial on a Chinese news website has warned Australia could become caught in the Sino-US crossfire.

Dr Hubbard believes this is a risk Australia must take.

“If ANZUS is to continue, this is the insurance premium Australia has to pay for the security it gives us,” he said.

But Professor Langmore said this was not the way to go.

“We should work at every stage to strengthen harmonious relationships through diplomacy, economic cooperation, tourism, scientific and educational exchange and so on,” he said.

“[The Defence Department] needs to think far more rigorously about Australia’s national interest rather than immediately putting everything into an exaggerated conflict framework.”

The Department of Defence was contacted for comment.

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