The United States is increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific area with new navy military construction in the North of Australia, which will serve as support for its Marine contingent stationed in that area. The US base is the Robertson one in Darwin and at about 40 kilometers north of the Australian city, in Glyde Point, a new port will be built that will be capable of harboring the American wasp-class amphibious naval units.

The news was leaked for the first time this past June, when the Australian news network Abc News reported it, but only now has it been confirmed thanks to a provision from the US Congress, which has allocated 221.5 million dollars (305.9 million Australian dollars) to the construction of the new infrastructure.

US presence in Australia

On Australian soil, the United States uses the Marine communications and intelligence station in Pine Gap, which is not far from Alice Springs in the center of the Northern Territory desert. The US has exclusive use of the location even if access is formally guaranteed to Australian soldiers as well. Washington also has two bases that it shares with Australia: Kojarena, a land satellite station of the Australian FFAA, and the Robertson base in Darwin. Then there are several Australian military infrastructures that Canberra makes available to the US: two air bases (in Tindal and Darwin), two naval bases (again in Darwin and on the Cocos islands) and a certain number of training sites and shooting ranges scattered throughout the country (Bradshaw Field, Delamere, Mount Bundey, Shoalwater Bay, Townsville Field, Cowley Beach).

The Robertson base in particular is able to house a fully equipped contingent of 2,500 Marines according to agreements established with the Australian government during the Bush administration. The base in Kojarena, on the other hand, falls under an agreement for implementation of the satellite communication systems and is home to a MUOS station (Mobile User Objective System) and the shared WGS system (Widebrand Global Satcom). 

The military alliance between Australia and the United States goes back to 1951 with the signing of the Anzus treaty (which also includes New Zealand) for anti-Soviet purposes, but the ties didn’t stop with the end of the Cold War despite experiencing highs and lows. During American intervention in Afghanistan, it had military support from Canberra, even though there were voices of dissent that lead the two nations to rediscuss their cooperation. Nonetheless, Australia has continued to guarantee its support in American exercises in the Indo-Pacific area.

A common enemy: China

Relations between Washington and Canberra have been reinforced in recent years thanks to the rise of China as a regional power. Australia, who up until then trusted in the distance between them as its safety net, began to look worriedly at Chinese expansionism towards the South, which manifested in the militarization of the islands in the South China Sea. 

These archipelagos provide an outpost that allows Beijing to expand its range of military action by thousands of miles, reaching the shores of the Australian “continent.”

However, this has not prevented Canberra from giving Chinese company Landbridge a 99-year lease for port infrastructure in Darwin with a contract signed in 2015. This created a massive headache for Washington since it is one of the nerve centers of the West Pacific and one of the most important stopovers in Australia.

The decision, made by the then Liberal Party government, was considered sinister by Australian and American analysts. Transfer of the infrastructure to the Chinese company led by billionaire Ye Chen will give Beijing an important stopover for the New Silk Road (One Belt One Road), even though the two countries didn’t sign any sort of agreement, unlike what was done in Italy.

The decision to build a new base for the American Marines has not yet been confirmed by Canberra. The Australian Minister of Defense continues to deny that any sort of agreement has been established with Washington, stating that “there is no plan for the development of a new port infrastructure in the Northern Territory.” Even the local governor, Michael Gunner, denies knowing anything about its development.

This attitude is not surprising though. Australia has historically always denied the presence of US bases on its soil, going as far as to claim that the placement of Pine Gap, for example, was exclusively used by the Australian armed forces. The motive is simple: although Canberra watches Beijing’s moves suspiciously and apprehensively, it has no intention of scaring one of its biggest commercial partners. A third of all Australian exports, equal to 78.6 billion American dollars, are directed for China. 

Chinese military activity, however, is nonetheless understood as a threat and Australia has not loosened ties with the US at all, carrying out various military drills together (the “Talisman Sabre” is taking place at the moment) to demonstrate to China that it has no intention of overlooking its rearmament and desire to expand its power in the Indo-Pacific area.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal Party) has clear ideas regarding such. In April of last year, during a press conference in which the Chinese attempt to construct a naval base on Vanuatu was discussed, he said that “we watch with great apprehension the construction of any foreign military base on those Pacific islands and in all countries around us.” It is not only a clear reference to the incident itself, but also to what is occurring a bit everywhere in the Far East, where China is openly building “dual use” infrastructures. An emblematic case is that of Cambodia, where China plans to build new commercial and touristic ports, which can easily harbor military ships.

Although the Australian government is trying to juggle both support for the US’s political dispute against China and commercial agreements with Beijing, the situation in the Far East requires that a clear decision be made because of the unique nature of the ongoing conflict between the two powers, a commercial, economic and even military dispute – although not war – that is defining a fiery front, which requires choosing one side or the other.