Pine Gap – technically speaking, Australia has a choice
24 Oct 2012|

Cam Hawker’s recent Strategist post, ‘Stuck in the middle with you’, suffers from five major fallacies. First, it assumes that Australia–US joint facilities predetermine the strategic relationship between Canberra and Washington. Second, it assumes that the facilities’ predetermination of policy is automatic—meaning, as Cam puts it, that ‘there is no choice and has not been for decades.’ Third, it argues that the pre-eminence of the joint facilities ‘hardwires’ Australian decisions about the use of force to US decisions—that once the US goes to war, Australia must follow. Fourth, it insists that in the typical rush to war, Australia would in any case have no time to think through possible constraints on the use of the joint facilities in a conflict to which Australia was not a party. And fifth, it suggests that recent signs of innovation within ANZUS, like the stationing of the US marines in Darwin, are largely irrelevant because our strategic policy is already a prisoner of Washington’s.

These are big, meaty assertions. Cam’s piece is one of the strongest examples I’ve seen in recent times of what’s called ‘the dependency thesis’—that Australian strategic and defence policy is dependent upon that of its great and powerful ally. But on all five points the article is fundamentally wrong-headed. The Australia–US strategic relationship is a broad one, and its character and content is not predetermined by the existence of the joint facilities. True, the facilities began their life as actual US bases, but evolved into joint facilities during the 1980s. As joint facilities, they serve both US and Australian defence forces, and US and Australian national interests. Changing US submarine deployment patterns have, over the years, made the Northwest Cape communication facility less relevant to the US and more relevant to us. And technological innovation meant the functions of the Nurrungar defence satellite support facility could essentially be fulfilled from the Pine Gap site. Pine Gap remains an important facility, but thinking that the arcane SIGINT relationship runs the broader strategic one is simply mistaken.

The notion that the joint facilities have deprived Australian governments of choices for decades, as Cam asserts, would probably come as a surprise to a whole range of Australian governments elected over the years. This notion of automaticity of decision-making, paralleled by the claims of hard-wiring in decisions about use of force, overstates the case. Cam argues, for example, that Australia would have no choice but to follow the US into a war over Taiwan—because of technical reasons more than alliance ones. That’s not true. ANZUS itself isn’t clear about what role we might have in a conflict over Taiwan. But there’s certainly nothing that technically ‘hardwires’ us into going to war just because the US chooses to do so.

The joint facilities are governed by a set of arrangements that both governments have devised over the years. As Defence Minister Smith observed in a speech in Fremantle last November, ‘All activities at Pine Gap are managed to ensure they are consistent with Australian interests. The activities take place with the full knowledge and concurrence of the Australian government.’ So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume those arrangements anticipate the facilities’ possible involvement in future conflict. Australia wouldn’t be attempting to play catch-up once a war had already broken out—or at least we wouldn’t be trying to catch up on the core understandings of when and how the facilities might be involved. Could Pine Gap be a target during any conflict involving the US? Perhaps. But it isn’t an easy target to hit. And it’s merely one of a string of important US facilities across the region. Moreover, some of its functions could be transferred to other US facilities around the world, so weakening an attacker’s incentive to target it anyway.

Finally, it’s wrong to devalue new steps within the alliance on the flawed belief that the joint facilities are already the be-all and end-all of the Australia–US strategic relationship. The new steps reposition the alliance for an Asia in which strategic weight is gradually but steadily shifting south-west from its traditional northeast Asian centre of gravity. Indeed, once we move away from the idea of technical automaticity at the heart of our strategic relationship with Washington, the more important the willingness of both parties to explore new forms of cooperation becomes. The bilateral relationship is one where choices matter very much. The reality is the exact opposite of the one Cam portrays.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.