Thursday, June 23, 2011

Domestic instability obscures big strategic changes By Greg Sheridan

 It is a long time since Canberra has been this neurotic, febrile and distracted. There is a sense that the status quo is unsustainable, but no sense at all of how it will change.

Rudd's future distracts from moves to put US bases here and sell uranium.

 A surprisingly large number of Labor party figures believe Julia Gillard has definitively lost the carbon tax debate. Unless her poll figures recover remarkably it is, in this view, inconceivable she will run full term as Prime Minister.
 It is completely unprecedented for a prime minister in office less than a year to be massively outpolled as favoured leader by the predecessor she knifed, not to mention having reduced Labor's primary vote in the polls to its lowest level in history.
 Many recent, often anonymous, attacks on Kevin Rudd are completely unreasonable. He damages Gillard only by being there, and by doing his job conspicuously well.
 Some see a conspiracy behind the attacks on Rudd. If Gillard is already doomed and Rudd can be further damaged, this may pave the way for a third candidate.
 But the very desperation of these attacks reflects a dawning realisation on senior Labor figures that the only possible alternative to Gillard is Rudd.
 However, rest assured that underneath all the surface cacophony, certain long-term, serious changes are taking place.
 Later this year, the Gillard government is likely to take two very big decisions affecting relations with the US and India. It will provide much greater access for US military forces to northern Australia. This could ultimately lead to US ships being based in Australia. And it will likely lift the ban on selling Australian uranium to India. Both decisions should be seen against the backdrop of China.
 At the last Australia-US ministerial meeting in Sydney in November, Canberra and Washington set up a joint group to provide input into the US global force posture review.
 The US hasn't completed this review yet. But from everything we know, and everything we heard from retiring US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Washington is determined to maintain its military presence in Asia at the level it has now. Gates has even talked of extending its capabilities in Asia.
 At the Shangri-La Defence Dialogue in Singapore a couple of weeks ago, Gates said: "We have taken a number of steps towards establishing a defence posture across the Asia Pacific that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable" In particular, Gates said, the US wanted to "enhance our presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean."
 In his specific comments about Australia, Gates referred to "expanding opportunities for our two militaries to train and operate together . . . more combined defence activities and shared use of facilities".
 While there are many polite and sweetly multilateral formulations, many of them valid enough, for what the Americans are doing, underlying it is one hard strategic reality. The US forward military presence in Asia is too dependent on two islands, Okinawa and Guam. These are susceptible to pre-emptive Chinese attack, especially given the vast, gigantic naval attack and missile capabilities the Chinese are building.
 As a result, the US is looking for a more dispersed force presence throughout the region, one that is harder for the Chinese to hit and has more guaranteed survivability and flexibility. Discussions between US and Australian officials are at a relatively early stage.
 Defence Minister Stephen Smith, also at the Shangri-la dialogue, said Washington and Canberra would work to "increase US access to (Australian) training, exercise and test ranges; consider the pre-positioning of US equipment in Australia; and develop options for greater use by the US of Australian facilities".
 So far the discussions have focused on three Australian bases: Darwin, HMAS Stirling in Western Australia, and the army base at Townsville. Something concrete will be announced at the next AUSMIN meeting, likely to be in September, in San Francisco or San Diego.
 I have become sceptical of the benefits of stationing so much of our army in northern Australia, to defeat the mythical invaders of the imaginations of previous defence planners. But there is surely a valid question as to why so much of the navy is located in southeastern Australia, where the only strategic threat is from New Zealand (which has been peacefully invading these many decades anyway).
 This thinking seems to lie in part behind the government's announcement of a Force Posture Review, which should ultimately result in more of the navy being based in northern Australia.
 The first announcement won't be for a US base, or even home porting a US ship in Darwin. But that is where the process is logically heading.
 This is a very good development for Australia. It emerges out of a decade's intimate joint action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ever deepening Australian co-operation with the US Pacific Command. The Rudd and Gillard governments, whatever their problems, have been solid stewards -- more than that -- of the US alliance. An enhanced US military presence in northern Australia is good for Australian security, good for the Americans and good for the region.
 On India, earlier this year Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said on the record that Australia should export uranium to India.
 At the moment Australia has a policy of not exporting uranium to any country that is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India has nuclear weapons and therefore cannot sign the treaty. But the US has signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with India and secured support for this from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. All big nuclear nations now offer nuclear trade with India.
 I now believe senior ministers within the Gillard government will make a serious attempt to change this policy at Labor's national conference in December.
 A resolution could take one of two forms. It could simply allow an exception for India, with appropriate safeguards. Or it could allow federal cabinet the authority to make an exception where it wants to, provided various safeguards were met.
 This is not an issue about the security of uranium supply for India. Rather, it is a determination to make the leap to real strategic partnership with India. New Delhi is too proud to make a public fuss about Australia's uranium policy, and the hypocrisy of our selling uranium to China while we refuse to do so for India. But the Australian position is a huge road block to a real strategic partnership.
 This is of first order importance for Australia. Commercially, India is our next China. Indian investment is already making a big difference in our resources sector.
 But even more importantly the US-India-Indonesia-Australia relationship is essential to our ability to manage successfully the growing power of China.
 The only way we can become of genuine strategic consequence to India is through fulfilling a historic role of providing energy security, and in particular uranium.
 Such a policy reform would mean a big fight for the Gillard government with the Greens and with the far Left of its own party.
 But as Bob Hawke used to demonstrate time and again, such a fight only enhances the standing of the government. The community would see the government as putting the national interest over ideological interests.
 It would also be a good pro-mining message for the government, which will need such a message whatever is happening with the carbon tax.
 If these two policy initiatives go ahead, they will be supported by Tony Abbott's opposition, and they will demonstrate the deep continuity and common purpose that characterises Australian strategic policy at its best.
 If they don't go forward, you can draw the opposite conclusion.



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