James Holmes

America’s Pivot Tripped Up Down Under?

Canberra has a delicate balancing act to play when considering future American plans in the Pacific.

Well, don’t that beat all, as we say in the Tennessee highlands. Last week Australian officials preemptively smackeddownaproposal from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies to station a U.S. Navy carrier strike group at one of the nation’s western seaports, most likely Perth. In reality it wasn’t a proposal, just one of several options sketched in a recent CSIS report. That Canberra felt moved to rebut a think-tank report—a document with no official standing—suggests that Australians’ surroundings have them well and truly spooked.

If Canberra stands by this policy, it will rule out a force realignment I’ve been pushing in these pages and elsewhere for quite some time. The lack of a central geographic position in the Indo-Pacific region will deprive U.S. forces of easy mobility between the Pacific and Indian oceans, the United States’ two main theaters of action according to the sea services’ Maritime Strategy; of an exterior sea line of communication for bypassing the South China Sea in times of strife; and of an external staging point from which to enter Southeast Asian waters.

That’s dismal news. It will also leave the four-ship detachment of Littoral Combat Ships scheduled to commence rotating through Singapore next year dangling out there with no protector nearby. That might be all right for peacetime operations, but it would leave the lightly armed LCS squadron fatally vulnerable in wartime.

As sea-power theorist Sir Julian Corbett notes, battle fleets exist not for their own sake but to protect the flocks of lighter craft that provide for maritime security. The U.S. Navy would find itself ill-positioned to perform this basic function without heavy forces in the vicinity. In short, the fleet would remain stretched out between outposts like Guam, Japan, and Bahrain—that is, at opposite extremes of the Asian rimlands.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This all represents cause for concern. But U.S. officials shouldn’t be too discouraged by Australian demurrals—yet. I have no idea what private discussions, if any, are underway between Washington and Canberra. Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta have a habit of not keeping me apprised of such things, drat them. But Beijing would doubtless pitch a hissy-fit should such an arrangement appear to be in the offing. Australian officials know that. Why incur China’s wrath prematurely by appearing to publicly consent to a request that their American counterparts may not have made? Paying a political price for no discernible gain would be slipshod diplomacy.

Why not just remain silent? After all, the recommendation did come in an unofficial study, not some statement of U.S. policy. Australian National University scholar Hugh White explains that Australian political leaders fret that the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia may prod Australia “close to the point of having to make a choice between the U.S. and China, and that’s something we badly want to avoid.” White doubts Canberra will ever agree to host U.S. Navy forces, for fear of provoking Beijing.

If he’s correct—if Canberra has granted Beijing a tacit veto over basing decisions on sovereign territory—it sounds like Australians may have already made that choice. Not good.