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Stuck in the middle with you: Pine Gap and Australia’s strategic choices

Posted By on October 23, 2012 @ 13:51

Pine Gap

Australia has less room to maneuver in balancing between Washington and Beijing than many analysts suppose.

Much of the commentary on Australia’s management of its relationships with the United States and China is framed around the idea that having to choose between our traditional ally and our largest trading partner would be against our interests. Books such as Hugh White’s China Choice are premised on the idea that Canberra can act as an ‘honest broker’ between the two powers, lest their relationship deteriorate to the point that we are someday forced to choose between them. Back in 2004 the then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer indicated that Australia would not necessarily choose to join the US against China in a war over Taiwan should the dispute ever escalate that far.

More recently, the decision to rotate a small force of Marines through Darwin, prompted business leader Kerry Stokes to accuse Canberra of ‘taking sides’, while the respected analyst Michael Wesley queried the decision on the grounds that it may limit our strategic choices.

In fact there is no choice and has not been for decades. If the US and China were ever to go to war over Taiwan, or indeed any other matter, then Australia would automatically find itself a belligerent on the American side. Canberra firmly aligned itself as long ago as the 1960s when it decided to host American intelligence gathering and missile tracking capabilities. Now known as the Joint Facilities, these more than the ANZUS Treaty itself, hardwire Australia into America’s global defence posture and essentially mean that when the US is at war Australia is also at war. Only the degree of involvement is in question.

Pine Gap in the Northern Territory plays a vital role in intercepting SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) such as radar transmissions, thus supporting US and Australian forces around the world. The station also reportedly intercepts communications such as emails and long distance phone calls. Many of these intercepts are from Chinese sources. Since the closure of the Nurrangar Station in 1999, Pine Gap has also been part of America’s Satellite Early Warning System. The facility is able to detect the heat signature emanating from the launch of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The ability to detect a launch is a vital component in America’s ability to defend both itself and its allies from nuclear attack and to launch retaliatory strikes.

In the advent of war, the US would quite justifiably regard the facilities as part of their arsenal of strategic assets and use them accordingly. Beijing would understandably regard them as enemy instillations. Indeed, sources in the PLA have previously stated that it would regard even logistical support from America’s regional allies such as Australia as an act of war. The facilities are online now. If the US and China were to go to war we would have little opportunity to consult with Washington on how the facilities would be used or to negotiate with Beijing on how their role should be interpreted. They cannot be easily taken offline. Indeed in a worst case scenario this would be unacceptable to the Americans, just as their continued presence would be unacceptable to the Chinese.

The fact that Canberra can’t avoid involvement in a potential US–China War doesn’t negate us having an interest in such a conflict never taking place; indeed it strengthens it. However, it does limit our credentials as an ‘honest broker’ as far as Beijing is concerned, since we are seen to be irrevocably aligned to their rival through the word of ANZUS and the deed of the Joint Facilities.

Far from being a radical policy departure, last year’s decision to rotate Marines through the top end sits comfortably within the established practice of alliance cooperation. It does not impact on Australia’s strategic choices in any meaningful way as these are largely pre-determined. There is a startling lack of discussion of the impact of the Joint Facilities as a policy determinant amongst the Australian public let alone the strategic and defence community (although Andrew Davies and Ben Schreer made a similar observation in an ASPI publication last year).

The US Studies Centre’s Tom Switzer recently pointed out that Canberra does not face ‘a hard or stark choice’ between Washington and Beijing. He was right to do so. However, the fact remains that if things between the US and China themselves were to ever become ‘hard or stark’ then Australia would find that it has no choice in the matter at all.

Cam Hawker is a lecturer in Political and International Studies at the UNSW (ADFA) and vice-president of the ACT Branch of the AIIA. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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[1] Image: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/1280px-PineGap-sign.jpg

[2] ASPI publication: http://www.aspi.org.au/publications/publication_details.aspx?ContentID=307

[3] Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PineGap-sign.jpg