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History repeating: Australian military power in the Cocos Islands

2500 US Marines will be deployed near Darwin in coming years, but we could also see an expanded American military presence elsewhere in northern Australia. AAP/Malone

Negotiations are underway that could see some the US military’s most advanced drone aircraft based on the Australian Indian Ocean territory of the Cocos Islands.

Combined with discussions around having nuclear powered US naval craft, including submarines, regularly visiting Western Australian ports and the imminent arrival of the first company of US Marines to be based at Darwin, it is clear that Australia’s defence posture in the north is changing rapidly.

Here’s Curtin University strategic analyst Liam McHugh’s article on Australia’s military history and future in the Cocos Islands region first published in December 2011.

In the earliest days of World War I, Australia recorded its first major naval victory when HMAS Sydney sank the German light cruiser Emden off the Cocos Islands.

Nearly a century later, the remote island and atoll group off the northwestern coast is again an area of major military importance.

In late November 2011, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith confirmed that the Force Posture Review (FPR) will consider the future strategic role of the Cocos and Christmas Islands.

Mr Smith suggested that while no formal proposal existed, the Cocos Islands could, in the future, host joint US-Australian naval and air forces.

The plan has significant merit and would dramatically increase Australian power projection on the long-neglected Indian Ocean flank. This latest development, coupled with an increased American posture in northern Australia, must be accompanied by regional engagement, or risk alienating regional states.

Remote but strategically vital

The Cocos Island group consists of two atolls and 27 islands and is located in the Indian Ocean, some 2,950 kilometres north-west of Perth, Western Australia and 1,272 kilometres south-west of Jakarta, Indonesia.

Currently, the islands serve as a refuelling stop for the Royal Australian Air Force’s Orion surveillance fleet. The extended range of the forthcoming Orion replacement, the Boeing P8 Poseidon, will provide increased opportunities for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and, potentially, US Defence assets.

While requiring substantial infrastructure changes, the Cocos bases could potentially serve to meet joint strategic objectives in the region.

Claiming “our share” of the Indian Ocean?

Afghanistan is currently the focus of ADF operations, but this will soon change to northern Australia and outlying islands. AAP/Pawlenka

An increased ADF presence would ensure security for Australian interests in the Indian Ocean, particularly lucrative hydrocarbon projects, a motivating concern of the FPR. While Diego Garcia provides a strategically important garrison for the United States in the Indian Ocean, the coral atoll is too far removed from Asian Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and, more particularly, the increasingly fractious South China Sea.

An increased US presence in the Cocos would be consistent with recent trends in global US Force Posture, complementing heavy bases, such as Okinawa and Guam, with lighter facilities, similar to recently announced developments in Darwin.

While long on the periphery of Australia’s strategic considerations, the islands are of significant geopolitical importance. Defence strategist Ross Babbage, in a 1988 study titled, “Should Australia Plan to Defend Christmas and Cocos Islands?”, cited the strategic denial and power projection credentials of the External Territories. While the islands provide basing potential with which Australia could magnify its influence, their loss to foreign influence could, correspondingly, provide a base from which to target Australia’s SLOCs and the economically vital north-west.

Further, the islands’ proximity to major shipping lanes, including potential chokepoints in the Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Makassar Straits, provides an added strategic dimension to defence posture considerations.

Protecting our north-west economic interests

The Cocos Islands and Christmas Island provide Australia with significant enhancements to its Fisheries Zone and Exclusive Economic Zone. The potential fisheries, minerals and hydrocarbon reserves within these zones require security consideration, particularly in circumstances in which projected food and energy shortages play out across South and South-East Asia.

In recent years, the remit of the Royal Australian Navy has expanded to increasingly include a “border protection” style role, combating unauthorised entry vessels. While current circumstances indicate that an armed attack against Australia is unlikely, violations of sovereignty from illegal fishing and by other non-state actors, represent an existing and probably, growing, threat.

The Cocos Islands sit in a region used by people smugglers, illegal fishing craft and other economic and security concerns. AAP/Jerga

Traffic from a joint facility would go some way towards mitigating low-level, high impact, security challenges in addition to acting as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in a traditional strategic sense.

Yet, such attempts by Australia and the United States to create a more balanced posture may encounter a number of prohibitive obstacles, not the least of which is how regional neighbours may view Australia’s seemingly more aggressive military stance.

They might be Australian territory, but are they “ours”?

Expanded defence operations in the Islands could potentially have profound effects on the unique ecosystem and biodiversity. Consideration must also be given to the local population. Canberra should be prepared for local resistance from the islands’ six hundred, mostly ethnic Malay, inhabitants.

Relative isolation from the Australian mainland and a lack of exposure to large-scale defence assets, could mean that Islanders view proposals for a joint facility very differently to residents of the Northern Territory. Unlike Darwin, the Cocos Islands have not had a long military history to help prepare the community for a joint facility.

What the neighbours think

Regionally, were Mr Smith’s proposal to become a reality, South-East Asian neighbours and regional bodies would surely be wary of such a dramatic shift in Australia’s military posture. Relations with Indonesia, which has already voiced concerns over the developments in Darwin, could potentially weaken as the ADF and the US seek to ensure the security of the shipping lanes that transit Indonesian waters.

Economic considerations dictate that Canberra must also reflect on how such developments could be viewed in China, the destination of many of the merchant vessels leaving north-west Australia. While China is likely to welcome security of supply, Beijing would equally be concerned over developments that may see Australia become a southern bulwark against its own strategic objectives. To avoid potential tension, Canberra must highlight some of the strategic realities in the region that have motivated changes to force posture.

The growth in regional states’ economies and military capabilities has increased the geopolitical importance of the north-west flank of Australia. Within this context, the ADF’s historic technological sophistication, relative to regional militaries, is being eroded.

As Future Directions International noted in relation to the joint facilities in Darwin, increased military links are not in response to a direct military threat, but rather a continued commitment to the good order of the Indo-Pacific region. Equally, adjustments to ADF posture, such as the potential use of the Cocos Islands, are not brash arbitrary developments; they are consistent with Defence’s 2009 White Paper, the FPR and Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS Treaty.

An unavoidable future

Finally, Canberra has long recognised that the Indo-Pacific will become an increasingly important strategic theatre over the coming decades. Accordingly, the ADF’s doctrine and capability are projected to meet this expanded role.

It is imperative for the ADF to maximise opportunities, through the provision of infrastructure such as a Cocos Islands base, to capitalise on its potential to project power and secure Australian influence in this vital region.

If we don’t, someone else certainly will.

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