Author: Peter Hartcher INTERNATIONAL EDITOR
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
AUSTRALIA had an attack of last-minute “cold feet” about the historic announcement that US Marines were to be based in Darwin and suggested a delay until after Barack Obama’s visit last year.The incident produced serious concerns in the Obama administration, throwing planning for the presidential visit into confusion. The delay was firmly rejected by the US.”It was squeamishness on the Australian side,” said a USofficial involved in the discussions. The arrangements had already been fully agreed and thoroughly planned. An Australian official involved in the talks said it was “political nervousness” as the Gillard government contemplated the possible reaction of the Labor Left. A US participant said it was a case of “cold feet”. “As you get closer, you realise the momentous nature of it.”One reason for the US surprise and concern was that Canberra first proposed the idea of US troop deployments in 2010.
The permanent rotating deployment of up to 2500 Marines was announced jointly by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the US President, Barack Obama, as planned, on November 16 last year.Australia’s tremulousness struck between September and November.The deployment was a hallmark of the Obama administration’s “pivot” away from the Middle East toAsia. “We are here to stay,” the President told a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament after announcing the Marine decision.
The winner of the US presidential election on Tuesday will make decisions on the second phase of the new intensification of the Australian alliance, which will be decided in 2016.
The US did not explicitly threaten to cancel Mr Obama’s visit but a US official said it was made clear that “the President was not going to Australiato announce some temporary measure or 250 Marines. “It was pretty clear that it would not be good for anyone for the President to have that sort of visit. This was very important to the White House.”
A separate illustration of Australian political nerves arose when a US official suggested the Pentagon send 7500 Marines to Australia, three times the number ultimately agreed. Deployments were discussed in multiples of 2500 because this is the minimum size of an independent Marine fighting force, defence officials said. This idea was eventually killed off by both sides, officials said. The Gillard government was concerned it would look “too big” politically, that the government would be seen to be conceding too much to the US. And the US Defence Department dismissed the idea as operationally undesirable: “It was too many in one place. We’ll have four sets of these forces, two in Japan, one in Guam, and one in Australia. It’s a better dispersal than having three inAustralia.”
Australian governments have been suggesting more US military use of Australia since the 1980s, chiefly to secure US commitment to the defence of Australia.
But when the Obama administration agreed to send Marines permanently, it was the first time since World War II the US had taken up an Australian offer to base its forces here. TheUS remains keen to do more inAustralia in the next phase, including basing big combat navy vessels inWestern Australia. Although both governments say the US presence has nothing to do with hedging against the possibility of an aggressive China, a US expert on Obama foreign policy, James Mann, writes in his book The Obamians: “The administration did not hide the fact that China’s growing assertiveness had prompted the new policy” of the Asia pivot.