Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets with U.S. Marines at Robertson Barracks in Darwin (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

America’s presence in the Top End is ramping up.

On Monday, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds was forced to reject suggestions Australia could position US missiles near Darwin, citing the fact that, despite rhetoric from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the dissolution of a prohibitive Cold War treaty, the US has made no such requests.

Along with a demand to join Trump’s growing quasi war with Iran, Pompeo left the question of missiles up in the air (!) but called on Australia to sideline economic ties with China in lieu of defence ties: “You can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans or you can protect your people,” he told a Centre for Independent Studies panel at the NSW State Library.

But while they might not be hosting missiles in Darwin, the US has launched a $300 million blitz across naval infrastructure in the Northern Territory and this year hit the maximum rollout of 2,500 US marines, a significant jump since the first rotation of 200 marines in 2012.

With a Labor MP simultaneously calling to scrap the Chinese lease over Port Darwin, Crikey dives into the NT’s complex history with defence.

When did the US arrive?

“The first major use of the Northern Territory training facilities by the United States goes back to the Hawke government, when the B52s based in Guam used to fly down for some training over land,” executive director of the Australia Defence Association Neil James says. “Because if you’re based on an island in the Pacific Ocean, you don’t get a lot of practice low level flying over land.”

Historically speaking, James notes that the territory has been largely attractive for training areas — traditionally unavailable for US bases scattered throughout the Pacific — with marines based in Japan also undertaking three month rotations throughout the late ’80s and much of the ’90s. He also points out that Singapore actually has the most troops in Australia at any one point, with the Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative expected to hit a maximum of 14,000 troops training across Queensland for over 18 weeks a year for 25 years.

The NT, which regularly hosts other massive international exercises such as Exercise Pitch Black and Kakadu, benefits economically as Australia’s de facto military territory, with total defence expenditure in 2017-18 contributing to the tune of $2.1 billion, or 8.4%, of gross state product.

James, who celebrated his 45th anniversary serving with the ADF in January last year, also argues that Darwin has a cultural acceptance of defence exercises and infrastructure, both because of the historical US presence and the 1942 bombings.

“And it was bombed 59 times; there were weekly air raid drills in Darwin until 1965,” he says. “So in the culture of the city — admittedly a lot of people move in and out of Darwin — but in the institutional culture of the city, there’s a perception of vulnerability that you don’t get if you live in Hobart, for example.”

In 2011, Julia Gillard and Barack Obama announced the United States Force Posture Initiatives — US marines rotational force (consisting of six-month training exercises run during Darwin’s dry season) and Enhanced Air Cooperation activities (which consist largely of flying activities and first commenced in 2017)

There are, of course, exceptions, with the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network aiming their July 2018 “Give ‘Em the Boot” campaign against the USFPI and, in the words of former NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, Australia’s compliance with the US war machine. Go back further, and Indigenous women led a 700 women-strong, two-week long peaceful protest at the US-Australian satellite surveillance base Pine Gap in 1983.

Darwin vs China

Still, the Northern Territory has become increasingly strategically valuable in the face of China’s growing presence throughout South East Asia, specifically into what James calls a geopolitical constraint known as the “first island chain”, roughly from Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines into Indonesia.

China’s ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, political pressure to take back Taiwan (and its geographically crucial eastern ports for deep-sea submarines), and the construction of artificial islands along sandbanks and reefs in the South China Sea have all ramped up over the past five years and, according to James, constitute examples of China attempting to “neutralise” this constraint.

This leaves Western allies with the second island chain, consisting of Guam, the Marshall Islands, other Pacific Islands and arguably Darwin as an “anchor”.

While Australia has shown a willingness to pull up stumps with China on security issues such as Huawei, we’re similarly pressed by economic ties. While politicians across both sides of politics may have anonymously agreed with Labor’s Nick Champion in calling to end the Chinese-company Landbridge’s 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin, signed by the NT government in 2015 under a $500 million deal, a Coalition MP warned that:

“His concerns are spot on, but right now Beijing holds some pretty powerful economic levers against Australia, so any move that could annoy the Chinese Government is pretty dangerous.”

It’s a tension that, by any measure, will only increase in coming months and years.