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Issue #1498      20 April 2011

Military bases v independence

Late last year the Australian government announced that a new agreement had been reached between the United States and Australia for a major build-up of United States military forces in Australia.


Yokota Air Base-8 – a United States Air Force base located in the city of Fussa, Western Tokyo. (Photo: Kelvin Song)

The first we heard of this was on the media on October 30 when we were told that Australia would become a key partner in the international battle for space supremacy and host a new multi-million dollar US defence base to spy on foreign satellites. The top-secret Harold Holt Naval Base at Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia would play a major role in the emerging Cold War in space.

This announcement is another alarm – because it severely restricts our own independent foreign and defence policy and ties us closer to the foreign and defence policy of the United States.

No doubt this announcement would be alarming to other countries as well – the United States makes no secret of the fact that they view China and its military with suspicion, so our relationship with China has been compromised as China cannot help thinking that our view must be similar. Foreign military bases in any country cannot help but have an effect on that country’s foreign and defence policy.

During the time of the so-called “Cold War” and the existence of the Soviet Union, United States bases concentrated mainly on the European countries and were found around the Eastern Bloc. When the Soviet Union collapsed and that particular Cold War was over – these United States bases were not reduced in number but the push was on to establish bases in the former Eastern Bloc countries and bring them into the United States-led NATO.

In the year 2001, and after the terrorist attack on the United States, another re-alignment of US military forces began. This was for rapid projection of US military power all over the world to combat terrorism, hostile states and potential adversaries. Today there are between 700 and 900 United States military bases in the world – some quite small, others are gigantic, but all are extremely powerful.

Biggest base

The biggest base is Camp Bondsteel, established in Kosovo, previously a province of Yugoslavia. Camp Bondsteel is located close to vital oil pipelines and energy corridors that are now tapping the energy resources from the Caspian region. Immediately after the bombing of Yugoslavia, the United States seized 1,000 acres of farmland in Kosovo near the Macedonian border. Camp Bondsteel is not popular with the local population: as well as the farmland that has been confiscated, hills have been flattened and forests have been cut down. The whole province has been altered to cope with and protect the huge base. It is said that there are two things that can be seen from space – one is the Great Wall of China and the other is Camp Bondsteel!

United States military bases are expanding all over the world and all of them are meeting resistance by the local population of that country. The United States has always had military bases in South Korea, but now these bases are undergoing major expansion. Bruce Gagnon, the coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, visited the country last July and learned of these massive expansions. Several farming communities and fishing villages have been absorbed in the takeover for military purposes. The local population is resisting but their protests have been ignored by the right-wing South Korean government; scores of residents have been arrested for sit-ins and other non-violent protests which attempted to block construction equipment from beginning work.

The local people were doing all they could to protect their livelihood and the unique flora and fauna of their country. UNESCO had named part of the sea coast near Grangju – one of the villages – as one of the world’s environmental jewels with its fishing and soft coral reefs, but the United States is building a naval base there to serve as a port for their Aegis destroyer fleet. The village of 2,000 people had held a referendum and 94 percent of the residents voted against the navy base. The United States wants to deploy the Aegis destroyers there because of its proximity to China. It would also give the US the ability to control the vital shipping lane in the Yellow Sea through which China imports 80 percent of its oil.

Opposition in Japan

Then there is Japan where the United States bases are coming in for a lot of criticism by the Japanese population, especially those on the island of Okinawa where most of the US troops are stationed. The island of Okinawa makes up 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory but hosts 75 percent of the US military bases there. The population of Okinawa has been trying to move the US bases for years to other parts of the island, but now they want them removed altogether. The Governor of Okinawa won the recent election with his promise to block a move to establish another Marine Corp air station and the previous prime minister of Japan was forced to resign over his inability to get rid of the bases in Okinawa. However, the present prime minister has not made any reference to the bases and seems to fall in with all the United States’ wishes. There is a lot of resentment too about conditions.

The Status of Forces Agreement with Japan gives United States’ servicemen extra privileges – it also stipulates that Japanese authorities cannot enter a US base without permission and the United States’ authorities are not required to hand over their servicemen to Japan’s authorities in cases of suspected criminal activities – and there have been numerous crimes, especially rape, committed by United States’ servicemen.

Then there is the cost of maintaining the United States’ military bases in Japan and the cost mainly falls to Japan. It costs about US$4 billion a year in direct or indirect support!

There was talk about moving some of the US servicemen to Guam, but that has faded now and would not be welcomed by the people of Guam either. The ethnic Chamarro people who live on the US island of Guam are also protesting about the military build-up on their island. In October 2006, a coalition of Chamarros travelled to New York to address a special United Nations’ summit on decolonisation and about their plight. This got a positive response by most countries but the United States refused to listen to the plea from the local population of Guam.

Bases being enlarged

The last year or two the United States has concentrated on their military presence in Asia. There are bases all around China and North Korea. There are also bases in the Middle East and circling Iran and in Central Europe and South America – and still the establishment of US bases continues – Yemen and Somalia, Sudan and Ghana are next. Also, many of the already established bases are being enlarged – the United States military base in Bahrain is doubling in size and is scheduled to be complete in 2012 – it will massively increase the military capabilities of the US Fifth Fleet which will oversee operations in the Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean and probably a lot of bases in the Middle East are now on alert because of the people’s uprisings.

When talking about military bases you can’t help concentrating on United States’ military bases because no other country in the world has so many bases and no other country in the world has bases in so many foreign countries. You also can’t help noticing that nearly all the US military bases are located near key facilities. There is very little difference between the strategic security and the national interests of a country. The United States sees itself as waging a strategic and global war on terror but the world’s natural resources are of vital importance to national security.

Natural resources targeted

The recent release of WikiLeaks diplomatic cables confirmed this – the list of instillations whose loss would critically affect United States’ national security included oil and gas pipelines, communications and transport hubs. Also listed were the cobalt mines in the Congo, pharmaceutical plants and medical facilities in Australia and Denmark and other industries. Iraq was no threat to anybody, but it had oil, and now that oil no longer belongs to the Iraqi people to fund their living standards, it has all been privatised.

Afghanistan – after nine years of war, is no nearer to disengagement – but now Afghanistan has a vital oil pipeline through the country which the Taliban government wouldn’t allow. Some weeks ago it was reported that the Taliban factions had agreed to unite to fight the foreign invaders! Perhaps that explains why the war seems to have no end, plus the fact that there has been the recent discovery of many more minerals.

The capitalist world is in deep financial crisis – and the United States is effectively bankrupt. It has lost some respect because of its actions, but it hasn’t lost any of its military might. United States’ spending in that area is extraordinary and accounts for roughly half of the global military outlay – and while traditional military threats against the United States have largely disappeared, the domination and concentration on the world’s natural resources could be an added danger in these times. The cost of maintaining foreign military bases is a drain on a country’s economy; also war exercises are a drain on a country’s economy – and in Australia these have been expanding every year.

US bases and Australia

United States’ bases in Australia have always been a major part of CICD’s (Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament) work. One of our first leaflets on the bases was early in 1972. Then there were 39 foreign-owned and operated bases in Australia: 33 of them were United States bases and 25 of them under total US control – we were told – the others were supposed to be under “joint” control or “consultation” although these two terms were meaningless because the US had said in 1969 that “consultation” does not impinge on total US control and “joint control” did not mean access to all areas. The rest were Australian/UK bases.

Actually, I could read the whole leaflet out now because it is still up to date – nothing has changed – except that we now have more US military bases! For instance, part of the leaflet says that “The bases are part of an electronic communication network which can be likened to a nerve system stretching over the whole world with the Pentagon as its head”. Today this nerve system has been added to and it has become more sophisticated and all embracing.

The November announcement last year of the new agreement for a major build-up of US military forces also said that one of the actions in West Australia would be for Very Low Frequency Radio Waves. This is a navigation system that allows submerged submarines to receive radio signals without having to break the surface with their periscopes. This reminds us of the Omega system which was proposed for Australia all those years ago and cited in the 1972 leaflet. It was to be the southern pivot of eight such stations throughout the world to aid the United States Navy.

In the ’70s the campaign to “Stop Omega” was pursued by the ClCD and was one of our biggest because the Omega station was to be built in Gippsland, Victoria. In 1968 the New Zealand government had rejected Omega after a critical report by the New Zealand Royal Society. So you see, things haven’t changed. Military events are still very secretive and we probably won’t hear very much more about the recent dangerous developments.

It was the bases issue that brought me into the peace movement and I had firsthand experience of their secrecy. In the decade of the ’50s I lived in Alice Springs and worked for the government and later for the local paper the Centralian Advocate. I was there when a team of engineers attached to the United States Air Force came. They consisted mainly of technical and electronic personnel. They did not live in the town but established a camp to the north of Alice, somewhere off the Stuart Highway. They did not wear military uniforms or drive military vehicles. They had brought with them a large caravan bristling with electronic equipment. At first it was housed in the yard of the Department of Works and Housing. The caravan was “out of bounds” to Australian government employees. The townspeople were a bit curious as to why they were there but they didn’t upset life too much, so the curiosity didn’t take root.

I was curious though – and when Colonel Jackson came into the Advocate I asked him what they were doing here! He wouldn’t tell me. I was very naïve and admired the United States as everyone else did in those days, but I was a bit annoyed because he wouldn’t tell me. When I kept asking him he told me it was a weather station but when I said I wanted to go over it and he said no, which annoyed me even more, I wondered why the United States was interested in our weather. One day he came in and ordered some rubber stamps to be made – the wording on the stamps was intriguing: “Top secret – to be opened by the Pentagon only – room 5 of the Pentagon”, etc.

This word Pentagon kept cropping up and in the end I went in to the editor’s office and asked him what the Pentagon was! He told me it was the American war office – which made me even more curious because we weren’t at war. When the townspeople knew that I was interested they kept their eyes open and began to tell me lots of things. Employees at the Alice Springs airport told me when US planes landed. Sometimes, high ranking military men arrived. Other planes were huge Globemasters that unloaded heavy equipment, tractors and cranes, etc. The military personnel drove straight out to the base to the north of the town. Then there were the road gangs that told me that they had seen heavy equipment being driven along tracks in the outback.

A friend of mine, a leading hand in the Department of Works and Housing, told me that he was blindfolded one day and taken out to the US base to fix some equipment, then blindfolded and brought back to town again. Some girls in the town that had dates with the young Americans complained to me on occasions that their boyfriends couldn’t keep their date because they had to stand guard duty. Others told me that when they were travelling up the Stuart Highway and happened to be following an American jeep it would break down and stop – and, of course, the following car had to pass it, so no one ever found the turnoff to the US camp. This, of course, was many years before the Pine Gap base, which is at the south of the town.

When I came down from Alice in the late ’50s, I could not find any reference in any paper about the presence of the American military in Australia. In fact, I did not see anything questioning or critical of the US at all. One day, coming out of Flinders Street Station, I saw a street seller selling the Guardian newspaper, and it had a headline that was a bit critical of the US – I bought a paper and read the article and agreed with it. It was a communist paper so I rang up the Communist Party and asked them if they wanted to know about the United States’ bases in Alice Springs!

Well, it was greeted with a bit of silence at first. They were very polite, but not very enthusiastic and I didn’t get invited to their office to tell them about it. It was a bit of a disappointment. Of course now I realise why – this was when the Cold War was getting into its stride and they must have thought that I was a plant or a spy! Eventually, though, I did get the story out and actually it was at the Melbourne Unitarian Church.

The Reverend Victor James had called a meeting of peace activists. It was a big meeting and a friend had taken me along. During the meeting she said to me to get up and tell them about the bases in Alice Springs. But I was too shy and wouldn’t. Then we broke for a cup of tea and after we resumed the meeting another woman from across the room got up and said that “her sister had just come back from Alice Springs and there were American soldiers there and the local people weren’t saying anything and just accepted them”. That was like the proverbial red rag to a bull. I got up and must have spoken for 10 minutes or more!

So there was secrecy in the ’50s and there is secrecy now, and with all our military bases and all the United States’ military bases, the frequent military exercises, and the bombing ranges and airfields, etc, the extent of the militarisation of our country would be enormous; and it would be very difficult for us to find out exactly the area involved in military pursuits because of that secrecy and our sparse population, and now the scandal about security – or the lack of it – revealed yesterday, adds to all the danger of the military bases.

* Pauline Mitchell is Secretary of the Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament (CICD)  

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