US eyes Top End military build-up to combat China threat

Article by Ben Packham courtesy of the Australian.

The US wants to store munitions and defence equipment in Australia’s Top End under a bilateral force posture review to better prepare the ANZUS allies for growing strategic threats from China.

In an interview, acting US ambassador Mike Goldman said it “just makes sense to forward deploy” US war stocks in Australia, given US bases in Guam and elsewhere in the region were within reach of Chinese missiles.

The US charge d’affaires also expressed support for a more “ambitious” redevelopment of the Lombrum naval base in Papua New Guinea, subject to negotiations with PNG and Australia.

Mr Goldman said geostrategic tensions required a more “innovative defence partnership” between Australia and the US, including co-production of precision-guided weapons on Australian soil.

He said a bilateral force posture review working group, established following last year’s AUSMIN talks, had met for the first time earlier this month to discuss “a wide range of contingencies”.

Mr Goldman said it was too early to provide details on any new initiatives, but said pre-positioning US weapons in Australia offered strategic advantages.

“A lot of that just makes perfect intuitive sense, particularly when we talk about how we are going to project force in any sort of contingency,” he told The Australian.

He stressed that “any change in US force posture in Australia would be in full consultation with the Australian government”.

Mr Goldman’s comments follow the US government’s announcement last year of a $15m contract to build an earth-covered weapons magazine and munitions conveyor at RAAF Base Tindal, south of Darwin, as well as upgraded fuel storages.

The base’s runway is also being extended to 3.3km to accept larger aircraft, which could potentially include B-52 bombers.

As the US reviews its broader Indo-Pacific military footprint, Mr Goldman said the Lombrum deepwater naval base on Manus Island

– which is currently a small facility for Australian-donated patrol boats – was one the US hoped could be developed further.

“I think we would like to make it as ambitious as possible in co-operation with Australia and Papua New Guinea,” he said of the base, which has progressed slowly since it was announced as a joint PNGAustralian-US facility at APEC in 2018. Australia, which is leading the negotiations, has been unable to resolve political difficulties surrounding the base, including a backlash by local landowners.

Mr Goldman said talks were already well under way on manufacturing US-designed missiles in Australia, which Scott Morrison has thrown his support behind under a $1bn plan for a new sovereign guided-weapons enterprise.

“We are in a new geostrategic context now that requires a different set of platforms and a different force posture,” he said.

“These things aren’t instantaneous but our militaries and strategic thinkers are engaged in discussions about how best to confront these new challenges together. So I think we will see new, innovative ways that we are enhancing our partnership.”

Mr Goldman said the “unbreakable” ANZUS alliance, which has its 70th anniversary in September, would outlast current tensions with China over Taiwan, declaring it was “much stronger and more comprehensive than any one contingency”.

“We are not going to dictate countries’ self-interest here. Every country will have to make its own determination (on Taiwan),” he said.

Mr Goldman also lashed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “bellicose” disregard for the international rules-based order, reiterating US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s assurances that the US would not leave Australia “alone on the pitch” to face China’s “economic blackmail”.

He said unlike Donald Trump, President Joe Biden would not make Australia wait for years for a new US ambassador. The appointment would be “if not in the very first tranche, then in the first wave” of ambassadorial announcements, and would be a political operator of a similar stature to Kim Beazley, Joe Hockey or Arthur Sinodinos.

“We don’t have a name yet; in fact, there have not been any political appointees named for any bilateral ambassadorships,” he said. “What that suggests strongly is they are … vetting candidates with extreme thoroughness and precision.”

Mr Goldman said Mr Biden wanted to visit Australia for the September 1 anniversary of ANZUS, but “the big variable is how Covid goes in the US”.

“If Covid allows domestically and internationally, it would be something that we would really like to see,” he said.

Mr Goldman – a career diplomat who has served three times in Taipei – said the US Taiwan strategy was not solely a military approach, but one of “comprehensive deterrence”.

He said the West’s difficult relationship with China was more challenging than the Cold War with Russia because it needed to work with Beijing on key issues such as cutting carbon emissions.

Mr Goldman said the US was leading by example on climate change, and expected “real concrete ambition” from Australia to get its emissions down. Australia has sought to focus on a technology-led climate change policy, and is yet to give ground on setting fresh emissions targets.

Mr Goldman said the US was determined to work with its partners on fighting Covid across the world, and rejected suggestions that China was leading the West in its vaccine diplomacy efforts.

“(Beijing) over-promised in the very beginning but there has been a lack of transparency in the quality of data that has been presented on its vaccines, and there has been a significant underdelivery of vaccines compared to the quantities promised,” he said.

“Whereas if you look at our efforts, I think the US and Australia share a view that vaccines should be aggressively distributed to the places that are most in need.”

‘’Any change … would be in full consultation with the Australian government’

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