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U.S. base plan reveals obsequious Australia’s frail sense of nationhood

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“The unbreakable alliance.” That is how U.S. President Barack Obama characterized the tie between his country and Australia in a speech to the Australian Parliament on Nov. 17, 2011.

“This is the alliance we reaffirm today,” he said, “rooted in our values; renewed by every generation. … And today I can stand before you and say with confidence that the alliance between the United States and Australia has never been stronger.”

It has become the custom for American presidents to make one visit to Australia during their term of office. Obama’s brief stopover was accordingly his first, and likely his last, this term. During it, he underscored his security agenda with the announcement that U.S. armed forces would henceforth be stationed in the northern Australian city of Darwin.

Obama is right to say that the alliance is strong. Australia has followed the U.S. into every one of its wars since World War II. Even Britain, with its “special relationship,” stayed clear of the war in Vietnam. But Australia went in boots first, as it has in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the fact that there has been no substantial debate in Australia over the merits of Australia doing so.

That’s the rub of this “unbreakable” yet highly unbalanced relationship. Australians do not ask themselves what they can do for their country; they ask themselves what they can do to ingratiate themselves into the good books of the United States of America. This red-white-and-blue label on the fabric of Australian foreign policy is manufactured and affixed in the interests of the U.S. on the implied basis that those interests coincide with Australia’s.

Don’t think for a minute, though, that this is the result of coercion on the part of the U.S. Canberra has offered itself up willingly, even putting pressure on Washington — as was the case with Australia’s gung-ho participation in the war in Vietnam — to let it in on the American act.

Regarding the stationing of troops in the Northern Territory city of Darwin, Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Robert Willard said last month in Hawaii: “Australia made overtures to the United States to increase our engagement with the armed forces in Australia … and we’re very grateful for that overture.”

Australian officials have denied this proposal originated with their government. But even such an astute observer of Australian strategic policy as Peter Hartcher, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 19, was unable to ascertain “whose idea was this, anyway?” He remarked on the Australian “sense of insecurity” and the way Australia has been “courting its great and powerful friends to host more of their defense assets since at least the 1960s.”

Is Australia really vulnerable to attack and therefore in need of American protection?

Well, the notion that U.S. forces stationed in Australia during World War II (a million passed through) saved the country from Japanese attack and occupation is still popular; and it is this popularity that sustains Australian strategic obsequiousness.

In fact, during World War II the Japanese never seriously considered taking Australia. What would they have done with it had they taken it — and could they ever have held it?

However, during that conflict U.S. armed forces, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, used Australia as a base and staging post for attacks on Japanese forces in New Guinea and its environs. Once that country was secured, MacArthur wasted no time in leaving Australia to set up headquarters in Port Moresby, the capital of present-day Papua New Guinea. It was Australia, with its major contribution of troops and supplies, that saved MacArthur’s bacon and, in the process, helped the Allies win the war.

It is clear to everyone in the Asia-Pacific region that this “reaffirming” of a strategic alliance in the form of a U.S. military presence in Darwin is aimed squarely at China. But are Australians insecure vis-à-vis the Chinese? Do they see Chinese designs, real or imagined, as a threat? I hardly think so.

The fact is that Australia has been able to weather the turbulent onslaughts of recession that have struck other developed countries thanks in large part to the voracious Chinese appetite for minerals to feed its phenomenal annual growth. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest diversified resources company, announced an after-tax profit in Australia of more than A$22 billion (around ¥1.76 trillion) in the year to June. That’s only one indication of how much money comes out of the Australian earth.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences reported in April this year that capital spending on minerals and energy projects at “an advanced stage of development” stood at A$173.5 billion (¥13.7 trillion).

These statistics of after-tax profit and investment create a rosy picture indeed. But wait … Australia is no Norway, where a significant portion of profits from oil and gas revenues is spread throughout the nation to ensure that no gaps are created in the many constituencies of the community. Australian society has become increasingly lopsided due to this Chinese-growth momentum. If a Chinese bubble bursts and commodity prices plummet, millions of Australians will experience a feast-today-starve-tomorrow national destiny, as the country is left sitting on huge quantities of minerals hardly anyone will buy.

The “never been stronger” American-Australian strategic alliance has to be seen in the context of this very volatile situation.

If things go south, Australia — across a wide swath of issues that include defense, immigration, regional development and the environment — will need all its friends in the region to sustain peace and balanced growth.

The presence of U.S. troops at the northern end of Australia will only send a message to Indonesia, India and the countries of Southeast Asia that the nation is too insecure to stand on its own two feet and represent its own interests independently of its “unbreakable alliance.”

In that sense, we Australians are still citizens of a colonial country (now the U.S.) living a first-world lifestyle that may not be sustainable in the future.

Even the movement to make Australia into a republic has lost its puff. The nostalgia for the British royal family that lingers in the Australian air is symbolic of Australia’s moral reliance on its old tie to the “home country.” This curtsying nostalgia is yet another adherent obstacle to the realization of an Australia that can stand up for itself and represent itself in its region and the world.

Obama referred, in his speech in the Australian Parliament, to “shared values.” But we Australians are very much unlike Americans in fundamental ways: We have a European-model welfare system; we have no “right” to bear arms; we abolished the death penalty decades ago. Sadly, however — and this is another difference — we lack the exuberant pride in our own culture that Americans have, a pride that might have urged us to track our own way into the world beyond our borders.

Obama strategically sugared his speech with a handful of Australian-English expressions. This pleased the crowd of lawmakers no end.

All you need to do is make a single 27-hour visit once a term, say a few words in the local lingo, and we’re yours forever more.

But we should be saying to the U.S.: “Fair crack of the whip, mate.” We’re not as dumb as we look … are we?