Australian policymakers could not be getting a clearer picture of what our US ally expects of us. Nuclear weapons and joint military bases aimed at containing our largest trading partner will, sooner or later, be put in our backyard — and we’ll be expected to pay for the privilege.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies report making headlines over a proposal to establish a US base in Perth to host nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and manned and unmanned ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) drones is but the first report commissioned by this Congress. The second — as revealed by Crikey in May — will focus on positioning nuclear force in the Pacific.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s denials overnight were revealed as word trickery by the comments of the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans Robert Scher in Congressional hearings early this morning, who pointed out that “no US bases” really means they expect Australia and other allies to share the costs of hosting large numbers of American troops at these so-called “shared facilities”:

“We are now engaged in discussions with Australians about what that would look like, what kinds of facilities would we be using within Australia. To be clear, we are not looking to establish a US base in Australia or anywhere outside US territory. We are looking to share facilities as we have in Australia for a number years under the overall approach of shared knowledge and concurrence.

“We do not know the full extent of our requirements or what Australia has to offer for what we are looking to do. So it’s premature to talk about cost sharing, because we honestly do not know the measure of cost. We are very close, we expect to have developments between now and the AUSMIN consultative talks in November. We would have a better idea of costs then and we would obviously be cost sharing with Australia.”

This is not a new idea, although it is perhaps unsettling given the historical context. The US has extracted ongoing payment from the losing nations in World War II for the privilege of hosting US military bases. In April it was announced Japan would pay US$3.1 billion in cash to have most of the US marines stationed in Okinawa removed to Marine Air-Ground Task Forces in Guam and Darwin. In an earlier era we may even have called it colonisation.

It is also important to note that none of these negotiations have been shared with the Australian public. Indeed, any substantive negotiations have been largely denied when raised directly by Australian journalists during ministerial visits to Washington.

The report’s authors don’t anticipate any resistance in Australia, citing Lowy Institute polling, aside from “non-mainstream anti-Americanism prevalent among some elite circles”. But CSIS senior advisor Dr Michael Green had one note of caution when testifying before Congress this morning:

“We have to be careful not to ask for access or commitments where the answer will be no. Because if the answer is no, we lose influence and the ability to shape the environment.”

If the idea of several populated “floating city” aircraft carriers and the word “base” scared the horses in Perth, then both the US and Australian governments should start preparing now for the reaction when next year’s report to Congress proposes nuclear weapons on the soil of a near neighbour, if not on our own.

The Obama administration has opposed any redeployment of nuclear weapons to the Asia Pacific, but the idea has found solid support with the Republican majority in Congress. Since taking control of the House, the GOP has dropped most of the previous grudges like the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell gay ban or Afghanistan troop numbers in favour of a substantial rethink of US military positioning and deterrents against ideological enemies.

The Tea Party ascendancy in the party hasn’t diminished the influence of the Defense Hawks either; indeed they’re often one and the same, like Republican Allen West, who makes Senator John McCain appear almost dove-ish. Or Republican Trent Franks, who argued the nuclear-arming proposal would be welcomed:

“It just asks if our alliances would be strengthened with the use of nuclear weapons in the region. If China is concerned about our presence in the region it is very simple, they can stop supporting North Korea and get tough on the Kim Jong-un administration.”

Congressional Republicans upon taking control of the House even named their military policy newsletter “The Drumbeat”.

The Republican House has commissioned several studies effectively showing they have the backing of much of the Military-Industrial complex and are ready to implement this new approach when they next win the White House. It may not matter who the Republican candidate is when that happens.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey