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Author response: Pine Gap and Australia's strategic choices

Posted By on November 15, 2012 @ 12:06

I anticipated that my recent post on Pine Gap and its impact on our strategic choices might provoke some sharp responses. So it was good to hear from a leading alliance scholar like Rod Lyon. Rod presents a considered case and a frank rebuttal. However, I remain unconvinced by his counter-argument. While it’s clear that Rod thinks I am wrong, he never quite gets around to explaining why.

My argument is that by hosting the Joint Facilities, including Pine Gap, Canberra has locked itself into a commitment to support any major potential military operations by the US against China or any other Asian power for that matter.

This choice is a perfectly rational one. The nature of alliances dictates that a smaller power seeking the security of a greater power must sacrifice a degree of autonomy in exchange for protection.

Any student of the alliance will know that its history is a history of Australian misgivings over the certainty of the US commitment. Hugh White once summed this up beautifully by saying, ‘we must rely on our friends, but we can’t rely on our friends’.

What better way to ensure the commitment of those friends than by hosting facilities that are vital to their own strategic posture? The flip side of this enhanced protection is enhanced commitment. This idea is not new, Des Ball wrote about it back in the 1980’s in books such The Ties that Bind, however it’s a matter seldom considered in the contemporary debate.

Hosting the facilities is a positive because it anchors the US commitment to the alliance. However, it’s also a negative because the technical reality of hosting them limits our freedom of action. Hosting the Joint Facilities is arguably underappreciated as an alliance management tool. The focus here has tended to be on supporting US operations in the broader Middle East and West Asia.

This isn’t surprising as deployments are highly visible and the Joint Facilities are the opposite of that. Yet as the commitment to Afghanistan draws to an end a case could be made to re-focus American expectations away from Australian support of such ventures in the future and back to the role played by the Joint Facilities and expanded US basing and training. Indeed there are indications that this may be happening with Marines rotating through Darwin and various other initiatives under planning or discussion.

I was surprised to see Rod attempt to downplay the importance of the role that the Joint Facilities play. The idea that they are a Cold War relic and produce ‘arcane SIGINT’ is disingenuous. Either the facilities produce useful information that supports Australian and US forces in the field or they don’t.

I do agree with Rod on one point. The idea that Pine Gap has deprived us of choice for decades certainly would come as a surprise to many in government. I would add many in the broader policy community and academia to that list. It is precisely why I wrote the piece.

Rod argues that it ‘wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume’ that arrangements anticipating the facilities use in a potential conflict are in place. It’s an awfully big assumption to make. Perhaps such arrangements are in place. If they are, I certainly am not aware of them. Perhaps Rod is. Whatever the case leaving a matter of such importance to assumption is hardly prudent.

Rod argues that technically Australia would have a choice in a potential US-China war. Yet I did not get a clear sense of how that choice might play out. If the US and China ever do go to war then what role will the Joint Facilities play? Is it conceivable that Australia could be considered neutral while the Joint Facilities are operational? Or is it possible that Canberra could seek to disestablish the facilities? These respective scenarios would require Beijing and Washington to compromise their own security so that Australia might be free to exercise its choice. This seems unlikely.

Cam Hawker is a lecturer in Political and International Studies at the UNSW (ADFA) and president of the ACT Branch of the AIIA.


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[1] recent post on Pine Gap: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/stuck-in-the-middle-with-you-pine-gap-and-australias-strategic-choices/

[2] considered case and a frank rebuttal: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/pine-gap-technically-speaking-australia-has-a-choice/