100 Years of Mateship
For over 100 years, Australia and the United States have been military allies. Recently, however, this rapport has been complicated by rising tensions between the US and the Indo-Pacific superpower, China. These tensions, accelerated in the wake of COVID-19, may force Australia’s hand in choosing between its biggest investor, the US, and its biggest export destination in China. Based on recent events, Australia looks to be moving towards an accord with the United States. Last month, it announced a $270 billion military spend that included a weapons buy directly from the US Navy. To comprehend such an escalatory spend, we need to analyse the continued US military presence in Australia and how it has contributed to what the Australian Defence Force now dubs “The First 100 Years of Mateship”.
A little over a year ago I was at the “Bank on Collins”, a bar in Melbourne, Australia built in 1876 and now a heritage site to the defunct Bank of Australasia. My castmates and I were celebrating the conclusion to a season we had performed as part of that year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We chatted and laughed while admiring, what was described by the bar’s own website as, the “two storey classical building constructed of imported Omaru stone, a rusticated base, prominent cornice and grouped corner pilasters.”
Before long, a stranger joined our group. A young, smiling, American man no older than thirty years old, politely introduced himself to our rowdy band. “I’m staying in the hotel upstairs” he told us, “I always like to come down and check out what’s happening … you guys looked like you were having fun, so I thought I’d say ‘hello.’” After sitting him down at our circle of chairs, we quizzed our mysterious guest with all the necessary questions - the length of his stay and whether it was for work or leisure. “I’m in Mel-born for two weeks” he informed us, phonetically. “I’m with the U.S Army.”
Thankfully, there are no wars currently being fought on Australian soil. This is in part due to its geographic isolation and its footing as a reliable trading partner within the Indo-Pacific region. So, why had I just met an active-duty US army member under the ornate, metal balustrades of a bank-turned-bar in Melbourne? At the time I was shocked and puzzled. One year on, I know that I really shouldn’t have been.
A Little Context
According to a spreadsheet published by the US Defence Manpower Data Centre or DMDC (a subset of the Office of the Secretary of Defence), the US has 296 permanent active duty service members stationed in Australia. This comprises 31 Army, 66 Navy, 126 Marines and 73 Airforce personnel. It is also worth noting that Australia has the 19th largest military in the world with 60,000 active personnel. This statistic contributed to my feeling at the time that the extra 296 American soldiers stationed on Australian soil seemed a little unwarranted.
Our new friend was working as part of the communications team in an information technology unit - working behind a computer screen essentially. He was passing through Melbourne to another US military base in Australia and had been put up in the very ritzy Treasury on Collins Apartment Hotel above the bar we occupied. For the two weeks he was there, the hotel would’ve cost the American taxpayer about $250. Per night. No expense was spared.
The Special Relationship
Flash forward to 2020, and the US military presence in Australia is still very much present, though it could be argued that it is hidden in plain sight. Australia’s Northernmost capital city of Darwin, with a population of 130,000 people, has become somewhat of a hotspot for US-Australian military co-operation. In mid-2019 it was discovered that the US congress was looking to spend USD $211.5 million on a new naval base near Darwin. Despite that ostensibly eye-watering price-tag, the diplomatic precedent for a military infrastructure build of this magnitude has been in the works for a nearly a decade.
In 2012, the US and Australian defence forces began Darwin’s “Marine Rotational Force.” The “Force” is a 6-month cycle during which 2,500 US Marines participate in combat exercises alongside the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In the neighbouring state of Queensland, a similar program called “Exercise Talisman Sabre” runs every two years. This involves the joint training of 30,000 US and Australian soldiers with the 2019 iteration being the eighth in history.
The ADF, much like our group of 10 friends in the bar, appears charmed and somewhat beguiled by their American military counterparts. The ADF’s website features a gushing endorsement of US-Australian military alignment, which began a century prior following the 1918 Battle of Hamel in France. The subsequent period has since been dubbed by the ADF as the “First 100 years of Mateship,” with a promotional video to boot.
Australia to the Rescue?
With strong cultural, historic and diplomatic ties between the two nations, it is easy to see why the US is planning to incorporate the “land down under” into its regional military strategy. This reliance will be spurred-on by the Trump administration’s failed military expansion programs. In 2018, Trump increased the national yearly recruiting target from 68,000 to 80,000. While this goal was quickly revised to 76,500, a post-mortem Government Accountability Office report stated that actual figures still fell 6,000 short of the new target.
Before the pandemic, the US military cited the low unemployment rate of 4% as a reason for a decline in the annual number of citizens enlisting. Military insiders asserted that low-skilled Americans who might have otherwise joined now felt as though they were able to find work elsewhere. In 2020, with the pandemic ravaging the US, the military is having an even harder time signing up members. In an interview with the New York Times, Professor Nora Bensahel said that “the (US) military has not been able to recruit as effectively since the pandemic began, because so much of the recruiting process involves developing good personal relationships … the Army, for example, enlisted 5,500 fewer people in March than expected.” For the first time in a long time, America’s capacity for military growth is now restricted, making the tactical allocation of its available resources all the more important.
This speedbump in US military history has coincided not only with the ongoing trade war with China, but also increased tensions in the South China Sea (SCS). The SCS is currently contested by a swathe of Eastern nations including China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam. To assert its authority in the region and to curb US naval presence in the area, China has built artificial islands to house their fighter jets and anti-aircraft guns. Tensions nearly reached boiling point earlier in July 2020, when in a show of military force, the US sent two aircraft carrier groups into the SCS for the first time since 2014. The move represented a significant departure from the regular, more modest Freedom of Navigation Operations conducted in the SCS by the UK, Japan, France and Australia. Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times responded to the drills in an article, describing the US aircraft carrier group drills as a “mere show to make up for its loss of face regarding epidemic (sic) control, and indicated it knows it has lost its Hong Kong card following China's national security legislation.”
These blurred timelines began to converge into a clearer portrait when in late June, Australia’s Prime Minister announced a $270 billion increase in military spending. In an interview, Prime Minister Morrison told Channel 7 that “the strategic competition between China and the United States means that there's a lot of tension in the cord and a lot of risk of miscalculation.” Morrison warned Australians of the need to prepare for a “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” world.
Morrison and Trump, both leaders of their countries’ respective conservative parties, share a relationship that is either tempestuous or harmonious depending on who you speak to. Morrison has described Trump as a “straight talker (who) is easy to get along with” while other reports have claimed that Trump has repeatedly “bullied and disparaged” international leaders via phone calls, including Morrison. Whatever the relationship between the two men, the shared history and strong institutional links between the two countries might be enough to outweigh any interpersonal discord.
A look to the future
The US still maintains a number of military footholds throughout Asia. According to the same DMDC spreadsheet Washington currently has over 55,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, 26,000 in South Korea, and 6,000 in the nearby US island territory of Guam. As far as developed countries in the East go, Australia can be seen by the US as a sort of “last frontier” in its quest to defence-proof itself should a conflict arise in the Indo-Pacific. At this stage, Australia seems eager to play along and is extremely well-positioned to do so off the back of their re-affirmed AAA credit rating. Compared to many other countries who will be forced into austerity measures to financially recover from the pandemic, Australia’s strong credit rating enables massive lending power. Aside from supplementing the payrolls of its domestic workforce, this lending power also permits Australia to upgrade its military force in a time when other nations could be forgiven for cutting back.
Rising tensions in the SCS combined with an ongoing US-China trade war may finally force Australia’s hand in picking a side. Either, its biggest investor and strongest military ally in the USA, or its largest export destination in China. Whatever the next few years may hold, Australians might expect an increase of bump-ins with US military personnel around heritage-listed, metal-balustraded bars with ritzy hotels attached.
Sweeney Preston is a 22-year-old comedian, cinema worker and anthropology student at the University of Melbourne, Australia.