When he visits Australia next week, U.S. President Barack Obama will reportedly announce an agreement between Washington and Canberra that grants U.S. naval forces “permanent and constant” access to bases such as Darwin, along the northern coast. This is welcome news.
Under the U.S. Maritime Strategy published in 2007, the United States swiveled its eye of Sauron from the oceans washing against North American shores to those washing against Asian shores. The republic in effect built a second navy starting in 1940, when Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act in preparation to fight the Axis in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Washington now considers traditional theaters such as the Atlantic and the Mediterranean safe for shipping. The 2007 Maritime Strategy declares that the U.S. sea services—the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—will station ‘credible combat power’ in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future.
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Yet the sea services are awkwardly postured to prosecute an “Indo-Pacific” strategy. Expeditionary forces are concentrated mainly at the extremes of the Eurasian landmass. The Seventh Fleet is stationed in Japan to the east, the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain to the west. A more central position would let ships, aircraft, and marines “swing” from one ocean to the other, cutting distances and thus transit times. From seaports like Darwin, furthermore, they can move back and forth while bypassing the South China Sea, a body of water that would be hotly contested during a shooting war involving China. And they can do all this while remaining out of range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles and other long-range weaponry.
Despite the advantages of such a move for U.S. maritime strategy, the basing decision burst into the American foreign policy discourse rather suddenly. Australian officials and pundits have been debating it spiritedly for nearly a year. It will be worth keeping an eye on the Obama trip, when more details about sites and forces will presumably come to light. Unencumbered access to the two oceans, short sailing distances, safe harbors—sounds like a winner to me.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.