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Plans for more American troops to be based in the Northern Territory have stalled as battlelines are drawn over who should foot the bill. By Karen Middleton.

US and Australia in stalemate over NT defence bases

The vice-president of the United States, Joe Biden, speaks at Admiralty House, Kirribilli, last week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

At Sydney’s Paddington Town Hall last week, United States Vice-President Joe Biden recounted how the US 1st Marine Division always deploys to the strains of “Waltzing Matilda”.

He reminded his audience that in the face of an advancing Japanese enemy, then Australian prime minister John Curtin had declared in 1941 that “without inhibitions of any kind … Australia looks to America”. US Marines had answered that call, Biden said, in what became the 1942 battle of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands.

Afterwards, the Marines came to Australia for rest and recuperation and, when the ships arrived, a band was playing Australia’s famous ballad. Out of gratitude, the 1st Marine Division has deployed to the tune ever since.

“But,” Vice-President Biden told his audience, “I didn’t fly all the way from Washington to revel in past glories.”

In fact, exactly why Biden did come has been the subject of some discussion in Australian defence circles.

It seems it was somewhere the vice-president wanted to visit before his term was up.

But it’s understood the US ambassador to Australia, John Berry, had hoped some more contemporary business regarding US Marines in Australia might have also been concluded in time for the VP’s arrival. It wasn’t to be.

Five years after President Barack Obama announced plans to base up to 2500 Marines in Darwin and have the US Air Force share Australia’s Northern Territory aviation facilities, the two countries are still arguing over who will pay for it.

The cost of upgrading Robertson Barracks and extending runways and building aircraft parking bays and fuel storage in Darwin, and at Katherine’s RAAF Base Tindal, is $2 billion, on top of which sits the ongoing operational costs. But the US and Australia have been unable to agree on whose tab should cover the last $20 million or so.

Each defence administration is accountable to its own legislature and the public for how its money is spent. Each believes the other side should pay more.

Both sides “playing hardball”

A former national security adviser to prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard, Andrew Shearer, suggests the two countries would do well to get on with it.

“The force posture initiatives announced by President Obama in the Australian parliament were, at the time, the centrepiece of the US rebalance to Asia,” Shearer says.

“It reflects badly on both sides that implementation has stalled, and it’s important that both governments focus on the long-term benefits of the US marine rotations, particularly in light of the rising maritime tensions in the region.”

Now senior adviser on Asia-Pacific security at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, Shearer also alludes to the uncertainty surrounding the US presidential race and the fact that Republican nominee Donald Trump has queried some of his country’s international relationships.

“At a time when the future of alliances is being openly questioned in Washington, Australia and the US should redouble their efforts to reach agreement on cost-sharing.”

John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, says both sides are “playing hardball”.

“Australia has politically gone as far as it feels it can and they really feel this is something the US can pony up on,” he told The Saturday Paper.

Blaxland believes the issue won’t undermine the alliance, but that it’s fair for Australia to stand its ground on cost.

“I’m all for the American alliance, too, but I don’t think it’s at all inappropriate for Australian government ministers and officials to be driving a very hard bargain,” Blaxland says. “This is something we’ve learnt from the US. They drive a hard bargain.”

He says it will come down to who blinks first, and he suspects it will be Australia.

But Australian officials are asking why that should always be the case.

The Saturday Paper understands there have been robust conversations between Defence Department Secretary Dennis Richardson and ambassador Berry, who has led the on-the-ground push from the US side.

Australian officials complain privately that the US tends to take a “cookie-cutter” approach to the status-of-forces agreements with its allies covering the legal and practical arrangements for US forces based offshore.

The Australian government argues one size does not and should not fit all.

In a report in January last year, the US State Department’s independent International Security Advisory Board appeared to acknowledge the difficulty with this approach in its analysis of what the US administration called its “global status-of-forces template”.

“The defect in the [template] model is that it ignores the awkward reality that in negotiations, it is sometimes necessary to consider the views of the other party,” the board’s report says. “When the [template] is proposed to a host country, that nation’s negotiators regularly raise sovereignty and other objections in part due to its extremely broad scope and the absence of reciprocity.”

The American report also highlighted the confusion that can emerge over the fine print, detailing how a US contractor handling express package delivery to its forces in Australia was wrongly charged customs duties.

Umbrella force posture agreement

Two months before the report was produced, the Australian parliament’s joint standing committee on treaties tabled its analysis of the umbrella force posture agreement, noting it provided that “the United States substantially meets the costs of any facilities that are built specifically for US requirements and the operating costs of US rotational deployments”.

The agreement says: “Where facilities are jointly used by Australia and the United States, the Parties will share the development, construction, operation and maintenance costs on the basis of their proportionate use of the facilities.”

But the parties are now arguing over exactly what that means. While the agreement overseeing the arrangement has been finalised, the implementation details have not.

When the announcement was made that US Marines would be stationed in Darwin, President Obama and then prime minister Julia Gillard envisaged the contingent would expand from an initial 200 to 2500 by 2016-17.

But it is stuck at 1250 because the cost dispute is holding up the barracks renovation that would allow for the rest.

Such things routinely take time. When Tony Abbott’s government took office in 2013, the incoming prime minister was told it would take up to 18 months to finalise the overarching agreement. He pressed, successfully, for it to be concluded in time to be signed off when he went to Washington to visit Obama six months later.

Berry sought to achieve the same for the underlying details in time for Biden’s Australian visit.

But the Australian government refused to be pushed.

The former head of the Australian implementation team for the US Force Posture Review in the Defence Department, Michael Krause, says the 2011 announcement was made without any decision on how the arrangement would work in practice, including who would pay.

“It was just never spelt out,” Krause says. “Both sides approached it in good faith but from their own perspectives.”

Disagreement on precedents

Those perspectives were – and are – quite different. The US looked to its other arrangements in the region, primarily in Korea and Japan, where the host nation covers the whole cost of basing US forces. But the Australians don’t accept the same should apply here.

“We didn’t attack them at Pearl Harbour,” one Australian observer says. “We didn’t declare war on them in the Second World War.”

Another involved in the issue says similarly that the US bases on Okinawa were part of Japan’s surrender agreement. “The Americans had either forgotten that or they were ignoring it,” he says. “…We won, we didn’t lose. We’re actually on their side.”

Some Australians point to a different example – the arrangements to base and train some Singaporean forces in Australia, for which Singapore pays handsomely.

It’s understood the Americans don’t consider that an adequate model either, because Australia relies on access to US firepower for defence far more than it does on Singapore.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Canberra declined to comment on negotiations.

A pattern of mutual annoyance is beginning to form in the defence relationship, following what Australia argues was a US breach of protocol in the way it issued a request for more Australian military assistance in the Middle East earlier this year, and what the US argues was an Australian breach of protocol in leasing the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company without first consulting the US.

But serving Australian bureaucrats are not alone in advocating standing up to the US. In the wake of the Biden visit, respected former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott, is also proposing greater independence.

“I am certainly not a pacifist but I do believe Australia should only go to war when it is under attack, as it was by Japan in World War II, or under actual, not imagined, threats,” Woolcott wrote in an online newsletter this week, published by former diplomat and head of the prime minister’s department in the Whitlam and Fraser governments, John Menadue.

“Our relations with the United States are of great importance,” Woolcott wrote. “But I consider that we should tell our larger ally when we consider that a conflict is not in our interests, as distinct from those of the United States, as prime minister Whitlam did in 1973 in respect of the Vietnam conflict. In the world of 2016 and beyond, our foreign, security and trade policies should have a more updated and appropriate balance than they have now, especially in respect of the United States and China.”

Meanwhile, on “who pays for the toilet blocks”, as one official described it to The Australian newspaper recently, negotiations continue – without inhibitions of any kind.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "US and Aust in stalemate over defence". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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