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Is Australia Cool With the Growing Number of U.S. Marines in Darwin?

Eleven hundred marines just landed in Darwin for a six-month rotation. That number will increase to 2,500 by 2017. We break down some of the concerns raised by locals.
April 15, 2015, 2:30am
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The dry season in the Northern Territory has begun and a new rotation of 1,150 US Marines is trickling into Darwin from all over the world. They make up the fourth six-month rotation since former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and US President Barack Obama struck a deal in 2011 as part of the US military's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region. The number of marines rotating through Darwin began at a few hundred and is set to gradually increase to 2,500 by 2017.

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Four years in, few if any of the initial debates surrounding the agreement and its repercussions have been resolved. This is partially by design. The gradual build-up has been just one element of a careful campaign to acclimatise locals to the US presence that's also involved community-focused regulations and outreach programs. These include such things as volunteering for meals on wheels and blood drives with the Red Cross, engagements with Primary schools, and stringent guidelines and restrictions on how and when US marines can have leave.

Last December VICE talked at length with Justin Tutty of Basewatch, a small group with numerous concerns regarding the US military presence, and asked him for his read on local feelings.

"Pretty relaxed. There's been a really tight propaganda campaign around it. And people up here are pretty relaxed to begin with," he explained, "And I guess the scale and the scope was talked down. The people who are worried are the people who are tuned into past experiences of sexual assaults and the social problems that come associated with other rotations and other visits."

Justin Tutty (center) with representatives of Basewatch. Photo by Bruce Gagnon

A well-reported instance of a sexual assault allegation against US servicemen occurred in 2001, before the rotation of US Marines began. It was covered by the Weekend Australian in a story with the headline, "Oversexed and over here". It involved the alleged gang rape of two teenage girls in Darwin by US sailors. At the time the girls parents and supporters claimed this was part of a pattern, and there was concern about where the sailors would be tried as the Federal Attorney-General had the discretion to decide whether they face justice in Australia or court martial in the US. Ultimately no arrests resulted from the allegations.

The other widely reported instance, again not related to the Marine presence, was a case of aggravated rape before Darwin courts last year. It involved a 22-year old US serviceman who came to Darwin as part of a ship visit of 2,000 sailors for the biennial Talisman Sabre war games. The US embassy had applied to have the case removed from the Northern Territory's jurisdiction and handled by the US Navy but that application was rejected.

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A study into the social impact of US rotations conducted by Deloitte Access Economics for Australia's Department of Defence in 2013 examined the impact of initial rotations in Darwin (of about 250 marines), and of US bases overseas. Examining the US Marine rotation in Okinawa, the largest rotation outside the US, the authors found that the data there implies "that there is around a one in eight chance that a rotation of 1,100 US Marines for six months could lead to any chance of sexual assault (reported or unreported)." However "more recent data from Okinawa that is Marine-specific suggests much lower likelihood (a 1 in 20 'best' estimate)".

Sexual assault may be the most immediately troubling issue to locals but it seems likely that longer term concerns will shape how Darwin and the rest of Australia views the presence of the US Military, particularly because there's a decent chance it's set to expand to include a naval base.

"I think most people in Darwin don't realise it's an issue yet," Tutty offered, "A lot of people don't even recognise what a significant change this is from what's happened in the past."

It is possible Australia could one day find itself opposed to a US operation whilst unintentionally providing logistical support.

Apprehensions have already surfaced overseas. The ABC has reported on the worries shared by China and Indonesia regarding the Marine rotation and on similar reservations about the potential of a naval base, and this has triggered local political concerns. Such as, given the vast difference in power between the allies, is Australia fully in control of the situation?

Indeed, geo-politically the base could have far-reaching and unintended ramifications. It is possible Australia could one day find itself opposed to a US operation whilst unintentionally providing logistical support via the US forces based in Darwin.

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On the other hand there seem to be no immediate foreign policy consequences resulting from the US Marine rotation. While China would prefer it if Australia didn't agree to host US forces on a continuing rotational basis there is little to suggest that it has found the move either surprising or particularly galling. Last year Australia successfully concluded a free trade agreement with China in spite of the developments.

Another, more immediate anxiety expressed by the Basewatch spokesman is the possibility of controversial weapons being hosted on Australian shores, "We haven't been satisfied by the answers we've got about cluster bombs, depleted uranium, and nuclear weapons."

Cluster bombs and cluster munitions have faced widespread criticism because they kill too indiscriminately and because a proportion of the bomblets have a tendency to not explode on impact. This results in the areas they fall in essentially becoming minefields that affect local populations long after a conflict is over.

Australia is part of a global convention against the use of cluster munitions but when parliament ratified the ban into law in 2012 we left loopholes that allowed our forces to maintain 'interoperability' with US forces. In other words, we won't use cluster munitions but we reserve the right to fight alongside a nation, such as the US, that does.

As for nuclear weapons, in an op-ed he penned for Fairfax media, former UN disarmament official Richard Lennane expressed his opinion that Australia's policy toward them is at odds with itself. We were strong proponents of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative while relying on nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

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In a document disclosed under the freedom of information act that contains talking points about Australia's official stance on nuclear weaponry the possibility of Australia hosting US ships or aircraft that carry such weapons is addressed. Essentially, while Australia have been advised that it is not US policy to have nuclear weapons on aircraft and ships, especially those used for training, it is also US policy "to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any location."

So the US is not bringing nuclear weapons to Australia. Why would they? There's no reason and the diplomatic fallout from doing so without our consent, and any public awareness, would be dire. But they also wouldn't tell us if they were. This situation is not a problem in New Zealand.

Depleted uranium, which has a wide range of military applications as well as a host of potential health hazards, also exists in a kind of limbo. Though not illegal in Australia our military policies dictate that we will not use depleted uranium, but we do not require allies share this policy.

U.S Marines and Darwin Locals aboard the USS Boxer in 1997. Photo by Flickr user Ken Hodge

It's likely the reason there has been little public pushback against the US military presence in the Northern Territory is the long, robust, and storied alliance Australia has had with the United States. There's an implicit trust between the two nations.

Basewatch is suspicious of that trust. They're not opposed to the US alliance. But they see it differently, as explained by Tutty, "I suppose the challenge is whether we want to allow our future to be dictated by a particular view of that history. Or whether our friendship with the US is strong enough to allow us to insist on having a say in the way the alliance grows into the future."

Basewatch's read of the situation — that people in Darwin will become more concerned with time — is by no means certain. The Deloitte Access Economics report on the social impact of the rotation found that, ever so slightly, Darwin residents believe the presence of the Marines would reduce the amount of anti-social behaviour in the city. The Marines are are only allowed to take leave in small groups and most are subject to a 'Cinderella' curfew (back in base by midnight) - making potential incidents much less likely.

Deloitte also produced a report on the expected economic impact of the Marine rotation and found the Northern Territory's GDP, full time employment, and wage rate should expect a small uptick. These are the kinds of trends that receive the most attention.

Concerns about the US presence in the NT belong to the politicians, and the activists — women and men anxious about a myriad of potential futures. The people, of Darwin and Australia, are pretty relaxed.

Follow Girard on Twitter: @GirardDorney