By Salvatore Babones*
With China on the march and incoming US president Joe Biden pledging to work with allies to counter it, no American ally is potentially more important than Australia. Australia’s Top End is a strategic location fronting the Indian and Pacific oceans. That’s why Darwin has hosted a US marine rapid-reaction force for most of the past decade. Soon it could be getting a fleet base to match.
HMAS Coonawarra, home to a dozen lightly armed patrol boats, hardly counts. But one of the last acts of the Trump administration has been to announce plans for a reactivation of the US Navy’s First Fleet, with a focus on securing south and Southeast Asia. Darwin is on the doorstep of that territory and is best placed to pitch for basing rights.
When Australians think First Fleet, they think 1788. But in the mid-20th century there was another First Fleet to visit these shores. Between 1950 and 1973, the US First Fleet was the main American naval presence in the central Pacific. While the Seventh Fleet was patrolling the Taiwan Strait and shelling North Vietnam, the First Fleet lazed about, tracking Soviet submarines and supervising nuclear tests.
Now the US Navy wants to bring it back, but with spurs: it will be an “agile, mobile, at-sea command”, in the words of navy secretary Kenneth Braithwaite. But its ships will have to be hosted somewhere.
Most of the early speculation centred on Singapore, where the US Navy has a logistics hub, but Singapore is unlikely to make the final cut. The Singaporean government is always careful not to upset China and nothing would upset China more than a US fleet based at the Malacca Strait. Perhaps more important, Singapore is also a poor location from an operational perspective.
While it may sound attractive for ships to be based at the heart of their patrol zone, Singapore’s waters are so crowded that ships often have to wait to transit the strait. Accidental collisions are common. Crowded waters also raise the risk of asymmetric attacks, as when an inexpensive fishing boat accidentally-on-purpose collides with a multi-billiondollar destroyer. Singapore is also severely space-constrained.
Military facilities (even naval ones) want land, and Australia has lots of it. If the Morrison government is willing to host a US First Fleet, the main competition to Darwin isn’t Singapore. It’s Perth. The Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Base West has the advantage of existing facilities, but it is unstrategically distant from the potential action. It may make a good temporary base, but only while a better facility is built.
Darwin would be ideal if it weren’t for that pesky port lease. In 2015, the Northern Territory government leased the Port of Darwin to the Chinese-owned Landbridge Group for 99 years. Operating from a Chinese port, even one in Australia, is unlikely to appeal to the US Navy.
But there is a Top End alternative. The Department of Defence has been busy denying that it may develop a naval port at Glyde Point, 40km northeast of Darwin. It doesn’t deny that the territory government may be encouraged to build one itself. Wink, wink.
If Australia is keen to ensure that the US remains engaged in the region (and dedicated to Australia’s defence), nothing says commitment like infrastructure.
The most attractive feature of building a naval port at Glyde Point may be its future use by the RAN itself. China has announced plans to build a “fishery industrial park” at Daru on the south coast of Papua New Guinea. With no fish in the water but Australia within sight, the planned facility presumably is aimed at threatening the Torres Strait.
China doesn’t play by the usual rules and its navy is no exception. It occupies coral reefs and turns them into island bases, sends “fishing” boats to harass guided missile destroyers and deploys non-uniformed maritime militia units to establish effective control over seas far from its shores. Its outsized ambitions can be kept in check only by overwhelming force, continuously applied.
With an American president committed to building alliances and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group of Australia, India, Japan and the US finally inching toward reality, the proposed First Fleet presents an ideal opportunity for putting platitudes into action. It even has been suggested that the fleet might be multinational in composition, operating something like an ongoing set of naval exercises or even a maritime Indo-Pacific NATO. That would go a long way toward keeping the Chinese navy in line — and far away from Australia’s shores.
*Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine.