By Richard W. Teare
The agreement announced this week by President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard under which 250 U.S. Marines – and eventually, 2,500 – will rotate through Australia’s Northern Territory has been a long time coming. U.S. and Australian forces have conducted combined exercises in Australia’s rugged north – the Kangaroo series, and others – for many years, and the idea of a permanent training facility for use by the United States has been under discussion since at least the 1980s. But by the early 1990s, the Australian political climate was considered not quite ready for a dedicated U.S. base, and for the United States, under the administration of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the slogan had become “places, not bases.”
The U.S. Air Force had to evacuate Clark Air Base in the Philippines after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and to relinquish Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992 after a negative vote in the Philippine Senate on renewal of a Military Bases Agreement. Meanwhile, the United States agreed with Singapore in 1990 on the use of Paya Lebar Air Base and naval facilities at Sembawang in that country without the responsibilities of “ownership.”
Now, following the President’s visit, the United States will establish a Marine Air-Ground Task Force at Darwin’s Robertson Barracks, an Australian Land Force facility, and conduct regular exercises in the terrain of the region. Some U.S. Air Force aircraft will eventually be stationed at Darwin as well.
What accounts for the differences over the past two decades? One factor, certainly, is the complicated nature of continuing the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. But the primary drivers are the growth of Chinese military capacity and the uncertainty of Chinese intentions. Both of the latter now weigh heavily in U.S. and Australian strategic thinking.
Ambassador Richard W. Teare is former U.S. ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.