DARWIN, Australia — U.S. Marines in Darwin are using the vast open spaces to prepare for combat missions, practice disaster-response scenarios and work with Australian forces on sharing skills and improving cooperation between longtime allies.
Perhaps just as important, at least from a public relations standpoint, is what the exercises aren’t.
Officials say the U.S. presence shouldn’t be seen as an effort to “encircle China,” which Beijing already perceives as a threat, given the American pivot toward the Pacific as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.
And it’s not to share expertise on dealing with boat people, even though the U.S. has long experience there, and Australia is struggling to cope with a massive influx of illegal immigrants, mostly Muslims who have fled Iraq and Afghanistan. They make their way to Indonesia — Australia’s next-door neighbor and the world’s largest Muslim nation — then pack into rusty, often-unseaworthy boats headed for a new life Down Under.
Only about 200 Marines — one company out of Hawaii and some support personnel — are in Darwin this summer, but that’s set to grow with the deployment of a battalion next year and a 2,500-strong Air Ground Task Force by 2015.
Darwin lord mayor Katrina Fong Lim said the Marines have been welcomed by her city, adding: “All the things I have heard about them are really positive.”
Fong Lim said the Marines are also having a positive economic impact — although it’s showed up in sales of fuel and other products rather than the extra traffic in bars and nightclubs that locals expected.
Darwin, population 79,000, is a clean, modern city where a typical house costs $575,000. Residents are a multicultural mix including a large number of aboriginal (indigenous) Australians and Chinese, whose ancestors came during 19th-century gold rushes.
The isolated city — most Australians live in large southeastern cities almost 2,000 miles away — has changed dramatically since World War II, when Japanese forces bombed Darwin, sinking the USS Peary with the loss of 91 sailors. The wreck still lies on the bottom of Darwin Harbor.
Today the Japanese are investing in the city. Japan’s $34 billion Ichthys gas project there is expected to provide a massive boost to the local economy over the next few years. The Northern Territory’s outdoor attractions, including vast Kakadu National Park, make the city a mecca for tourists.
It also has become home to several of the detention centers where thousands of refugees are held while their cases are considered by the Australia government. Some are close to Robertson Barracks, the base that the Marines are sharing with their Australian army counterparts.
Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in Australia in the last few years. Most are eventually granted asylum, but first they are housed in detention centers. The Australian government has just announced construction of another 1,000-bed facility in Darwin.
Australia’s history includes parallels with America’s in that European settlers — in Australia’s case, British convicts — overwhelmed the indigenous populations. But latest immigrant influx here appears to have overwhelmed Australian security forces.
Fong Lim described the issue of the boat people is a “political minefield.” When a boatload of refugees sank off the northern coast last month, the Australian government said its Border Protection Command was too busy tracking other boats to recover 55 bodies floating in the water.
The Afghan boat people aren’t the first from their nation to come to the Northern Territory.
“The Ghan” — short for Afghan Express — is an 1,851-mile railway linking Darwin to the South Australian city of Adelaide that was built with the aid of Afghan camel trains in the 1800s.
“If they didn’t have the Muslim Afghan cameleers, it would have been a lot longer to open up the country,” Fong Lim said.
There appears to be little chance that the Australians will ask for American help dealing with the refugees.
Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum in Hawaii said it would it would “cross a line” for the Australians to have a foreign military defending their border in peacetime. It’s also not something that Marines are trained to do, he added.
Border control was the last thing on the minds of Marines in Darwin last month as they practiced martial arts and marched through the Australian bush fending off simulated attacks similar to the combat they might face in a place like Afghanistan.
The China issue also carries sensitivities.
When the U.S. announced the deployment, in 2011, officials went out of their way to dispel speculation that it was aimed at the rising dragon to the north.
That’s not how some Chinese saw it. Australian newspapers carried a report this month about an Australian citizen’s claims that he was abused in a Chinese jail in 2011 by guards angry about the announcement.
Cossa said the obvious reason for being in Australia is access to large training areas that aren’t available on a small island like Okinawa, where locals regularly complain about the U.S. military presence.
“To me, what’s driving it is mostly good training opportunities,” he said.
Capt. Jesse Gemberling-Johnson, operations officer for the Marines’ forward support element in Darwin, said some of the Australian training has been geared toward disaster response.
Southeast Asian nations just north of Darwin regularly suffer disasters that range from cyclones to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000. Darwin itself was almost destroyed by Cyclone Tracey in 1974.
Maj. Maurice Brown, the assistant officer in charge of the Marines in Darwin, said the Australians are starting to explore the sort of amphibious capabilities that are a big part of the Marines’ mission.
The Australian brigade in Darwin has equipment that most American troops would recognize — Abrams tanks, M-113 armored personnel carriers and ASLAVs — Australian versions of the wheeled amphibious troop carriers used by U.S. Marines.
The first Australian “amphibious assault ship” - HMAS Canberra, is due to be commissioned in January 2014, with the second, HMAS Adelaide, to follow in June 2015, according to the Royal Australian Navy.
“We haven’t done amphibious training yet but we will do it as the forces build up,” Brown said.
He marveled at the size of Australian military facilities. The Bradshaw Training Area, where the Marines will train during Talisman Saber in September, is five times the size of Connecticut, he said.
The sheer size of Australia creates challenges. The drive from Darwin to Alice Springs, the next large town, is more than 800 miles.
Just getting to training areas can involve long drives on straight roads that might only be paved in the center lane. “Road trains” — big-rig trucks pulling up to four trailers — are a hazard to pass.
One of the Australian officers in Darwin, Maj. Paul Graham, 33, of Perth, praised the Marines’ esprit de corps.
“We have similar … (procedures) and, particularly in the past decade, a lot of operational experience working together,” he said. Having a common language — slang notwithstanding — helps.
About 40 percent of Australian soldiers assigned in Darwin are mentoring Afghan National Army Troops in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, right now, he said.
While most Australians appear to welcome the Marines, a few — including a group of vocal academics — oppose their presence.
David Palmer, who lectures in American Studies at Flinders University in South Australia, said, in online comments: “There is no need for these troops on our soil.”
The positioning of American forces in Australia is clearly aimed at China as “the enemy,” he said.
“This military occupation by the U.S., which in reality is what is happening, is a rear guard positioning for potential conflict on the mainland,” he said.
The contradiction is that China is now Australia’s major trading partner, and immigration from China to Australia dwarfs that from the U.S., Palmer said.
U.S. strategic interests, in military terms, involve more than just hardware, bases, and troops. They also involve control of strategic resources, Palmer said, noting that Germany and Japan battled for control of resources in the Caucasus and Sumatra during World War II.
“In recent times, this doctrine has become a primary driver for US foreign policy. Both wars involving Iraq (the Gulf War and later the invasion/occupation) had oil as their primary motivation, as most now accept,” he said. “And Afghanistan is the gateway to the resource riches of Central Asia.”
Australia has massive supplies of natural resources such as uranium, Palmer noted.
Its location, bordering Indian and Pacific oceans with strategic access to South Asia, make it the key to East and Southeast Asia in military terms, he said.
“General [Douglas] MacArthur and the Americans retreated to Australia after the Philippines defeat — it was the only secure location in this part of the world — and today it is the most secure,” he said.