An American spear

Matt Keogh, the minister for Defence Personnel, says Australia must remain “vigilant”. He doesn’t see the problem with America basing nuclear-capable bombers outside Darwin. He doesn’t believe the decision will worsen tensions with China.

“I don’t think so at all,” he said this week. “I think what’s really important here is that the more we are able to build interoperability with the Americans, growing on that very strong alliance.”

On Monday, Four Corners revealed a plan to expand the Tindal air base, south of Darwin, so it could house six B-52 bombers. The plan would also see increased troop deployments and the construction of facilities for fuel reserves and ammunition.

There is no mystery about the purpose of this. In a statement, the United States Air Force said: “The ability to deploy US Air Force bombers to Australia sends a strong message to adversaries about our ability to project lethal air power.”

Alongside the infrastructure at Pine Gap, which will also be expanded, Australia is grotesquely entwined in America’s military operations. Experts say these latest projects have painted a target on the country. They argue the base has made Australia the tip of an American spear.

For a decade, reasonable observers have encouraged Australia to develop a foreign policy that does not default to US ambition. More recently, experts have warned that America will not necessarily come to Australia’s aid but Australia will be dragged into America’s conflicts.

“And yet our government seems to have no idea how serious, and dangerous, our situation has become, and has no viable plan to fix it,” Hugh White wrote in The Saturday Paper last year. “This must count as one of the biggest failures of statecraft in Australia’s history.”

White, who was the author of Australia’s Defence white paper in 2000, warned that any war with China would likely become nuclear. That was before Australia decided to buy nuclear-powered submarines and host nuclear-capable aircraft. He noted there was no clear chance of America winning such a war.

“So what would a new approach to China look like, which would avoid the costs and risks of containment?” White asked. “It would start by recognising some things we might not like but cannot avoid. China’s rise – and the rise of other Asian powers, such as India and Indonesia – makes a new order in Asia inevitable. In that new order, America’s influence will lessen and China’s will grow.”

This is the simple truth that Australia’s leaders seem unable to grasp. The air base expansion began under Scott Morrison but is endorsed by Anthony Albanese. Both sides are unwilling to accept that dependence on America is ill-founded and unsafe.

Instead, Australia continues to grip to a world in which America’s primacy is unchallenged, in which hosting American troops and military hardware makes a country more secure rather than less.

This world does not exist and hasn’t for some time. No amount of pandering will bring it back. What Australia needs now is to start making choices in its own national interest and to accept that no matter how the question is phrased the answer is unlikely to be America.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "An American spear".

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