Chinese strategic thinkers, who previously did not pay much attention to far-off Australia, now want to know more about the 'Darwin decision'. Was it directed at China, they ask? And how does the 'Darwin decision' figure in US strategic plans to re-balance in Asia?
Today, 'Darwin' is nearly a synonym for 'Australia' in the vocabulary of Chinese strategists. It has put Australia on the radar of Chinese security analysts in a way it was not before Barack Obama's visit in November 2011.
Media attention has focused on the announcement that US Marines will be based in Darwin for parts of the year to train with the Australian Defence Force. However, Canberra and Washington also agreed that the US would be granted greater access to Australian bases, particularly airfields (for US jet fighters and B-52 bombers); would be allowed to preposition fuel, ammunition and spare parts; and would develop plans with Australia to increase the use of Western Australia's Stirling naval base by US vessels.
On the basis of three visits to Beijing this year, I do not think China's security establishment is convinced that 'this is not about China'.
Since the Obama-Gillard visit, Darwin has been the scene of another high level meeting, the Australia-Indonesia leaders summit in early July. As Peter Hartcher notes, Darwin was the meeting place of choice for Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Of course, by choosing Darwin, SBY saved on flight time, but could there also have been symbolism in choice of host city?
Hartcher suggests it was tacit signal of SBY's approval of Washington's commitment to a continued US presence in Southeast Asia. Immediately after the 'Darwin decision' was announced, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that the US deployment plan risked creating a 'vicious circle of tension and mistrust in the region' unless its purpose was made transparent. Hartcher implies that, by his presence in Darwin, SBY was subtly distancing himself from the criticism made by his Foreign Minister.
Darwin needs to be demystified. So why not start by a symbolic step and have the next meeting between the Australian prime minister and visiting senior Chinese leader in Darwin?
In a recent Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I recommended that China be invited to participate in the planned humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) joint exercises off Darwin involving Australia, the US and Indonesia. The PLA might initially refuse, and even if it accepted, it would probably first send merely a handful of observers. But the invitation would send a signal to Beijing: the 'Darwin decision' was not (all) about China. Darwin could be made into a regional HADR base for bilateral and multilateral exercises including with the PLA. It could also be used more often as a venue for summits focusing on regional security.
Visiting VIPs would get a feel for Australia's multi-ethnic population in this city of 127,000 inhabitants. The present Lord Mayor of Darwin is Katrina Fong Lim, a fourth-generation Chinese Australian. Her father, Alex Fong Lim, was Australia's first Lord Mayor of ethnic Chinese descent and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1986 for his services. His grandparents arrived in the Northern Territory from China during the 1880s.
Australia should use the Darwin aura to its advantage.
Photo by Flickr user Julia Gillard.