DARWIN (IPS) – Peace activists plan massive protests if the federal and Northern Territory governments allow a deal to go ahead between the United States and Australia to station U.S. troops and equipment in the so-called Australian Top End.
The Northern Territory, which enjoys a long familiarity and friendliness with its Asian neighbors, is branding itself as a regional gateway to attract the United States to build a major military training center on Australian soil.
Federal Defense Minister Robert Hill confirmed Monday, after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Singapore, that the United States was expected to announce a decision next month to spend tens of millions of dollars to enable the training of its troops in northern Australia.
“It’s to enhance mutual capability, ensure inter-operability and to assist a critically important ally,” Hill told a press conference.
Last February, Australia committed 2,000 troops to Iraq, just before its invasion, joining 200,000 U.S. and British troops already in the Gulf.
But Hannah Middleton, spokesperson for the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition, attacked the federal government’s support for yet another United States military base in Australia.
“We do not want another U.S. military base on our soil. Australia does not have to be a cog in America’s military machine,” Middleton told IPS.
The Territory Greens have planned nationwide protests if the facility is allowed in northern Australia.
“We will mobilise peace activists to oppose the U.S. base to be built here, or to be built anywhere in Australia. We are closely watching developments and we are ready to go on the streets to protest,” said Greens coordinator Ilana Eldridge.
“It is a critical issue for us,” stressed Eldridge.
The United States currently has a base in Pine Gap in central Australia, which is officially known as the Joint Defense Space Research Facility.
Set up by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in 1968, it is one of the largest and most important U.S. satellite ground control stations in the world which processes information gathered by Rhyolite signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites and transmits that information to the United States.
But Defense Minister Hill told reporters the U.S. would not pre-position equipment at the northern Australia center and it would not be termed a U.S. base.
No sites have been identified yet in that part of the country, also known as the Top End, which covers the Northern Territory and part of Queensland state.
While the Queensland state government has so far remained mum over the issue, the Northern Territory, however, is confident it can elbow the state out of a behind-the-scenes contest to attract facilities where thousands of U.S. soldiers, marines and air force personnel would be sent.
The Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin said there would be significant economic spin-offs for whoever hosts the base and she believes the Territory is the logical choice.
“We have a significant (Australian) defense presence here and we have land and goodwill from (federal) government and sites closer to where U.S. forces might be needed,” she told IPS in an interview.
Added Martin: “We’ve been loud and clear about saying put it (the training center) in the Territory.”
The military’s First Battalion is currently based in the Northern Territory.
The Australian Industry Defense Network also agrees there would be a multitude of benefits to the Northern Territory if the U.S. facility was built in the area.
Mike Turner, of the network, said one of the benefits to the Territory would be the influx of overseas military personnel to the capital Darwin.
“Especially if it were to be located within the Territory probably the only location where those guys could rest and relax on the way in or the way out would be Darwin,” he said.
“So from the local point of view there would be considerable benefit in accommodation and entertainment avenues for the expenditure of U.S. dollars within the town,” Turner told IPS.
The Northern Territory capital is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney, down south. Also the relative ease at which Australians, here, relate to their Asian neighbors to the north is generally not evident in other parts of the country.
But this proximity with Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, is what entices the United States to this part of Australia, especially after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the 2002 Bali bombings.
The Bali bombings, which killed at least 190 people, have been blamed on the Indonesia-based Jemaiah Islamiyah group a regional network that aims to create a pan-Islamic state in South- east Asia and which several governments have classified as a terrorist organization.
Some governments and certain intelligence agencies claim a connection between Jemaiah Islamiyah and the al-Qaeda network and allege the Islamic regional grouping’s members had trained with al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.
“This is why the United States is so keen to have a presence in northern Australia,” said an intelligence analyst, who did not want to be named.
“Being in the proximity of Southeast Asia and in a western country at the same time is something hard to find in the world,” the analyst told IPS.
Added the analyst: “The Northern Territory’s proximity to potential regional trouble spots promotes the early arrival of U.S. military forces due to shorter transit times and reduces potential problems that could arise due to late arrival.”
According to U.S. defense reports, Washington is considering moving most of the 20,000 Marines presently on the Japanese island of Okinawa to new bases that would be established in Australia.
That however has angered the Greens.
“The U.S approach to militarism is offensive rather than defensive. We don’t want the Northern Territory to become another Okinawa where people have to pay a heavy social price for hosting foreign troops,” said Eldridge.
The U.S. presence in Okinawa has aroused bitter opposition on the island since the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three Marines.