The Guardian • Issue #2016

The real threat of the United States’ 800 foreign bases

US Andersen Air Base, Guam. Photo: LCPL Van Noble Iii, Usmc –

Under the heading “Australia Faces Massive Existential Threat from China,” Christopher Joye writes that: “The spectre of Chinese nuclear submarines, destroyers, fighters and bombers based in Solomon Islands, 1750 kilometres from Australia’s mainland (and closer than New Zealand), brings the looming prospect of global conflict right to our doorstep” (Australian Financial Review, 22 April 2022). The Washington Times also reported that there was concern that China’s increased “military activity” and influence in the Indo-Pacific would destabilise the region, as Fiji could be utilised as a “stopover for China’s troops for tactical replenishments.” China’s intention to build a naval base in the Solomon Islands would intimidate Australia.

The senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Malcolm Davis, went even further and said that if war broke out between China and Taiwan, the US would pull Australia into the conflict. “I would certainly say it’s in the seventy to eighty per cent chance, because […] it’s inconceivable that Australia would not support the United States if it was going into that sort of conflict.”

In May, to counter these claims, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference, that under China’s proposed “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” and “Five-Year Action Plan (2022–26)” projects, the volume of trade between China and its multilateral economic partners would double and increase its influence through its China-Pacific Island Countries Ministerial Dialogue on Law Enforcement Capacity and Police Cooperation project.

The United States has its own “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” initiative, and Australia is already a major supplier of foreign aid and trade in the Pacific, making its diplomatic connections outweigh those of China. Yet China’s initiatives are seen as in conflict with Australia’s existing economic and security, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese describing China as a “direct challenge” to Australia. 

In June, Foreign Minister Penny Wong flew to Fiji, amid the government’s concerns over China’s growing influence, assuring the government that Australia is committed to bringing “more resources” to the region. Wong’s perceived China threat goes back to 2018, when as Senator, she gave a speech at the United States Studies Centre. Australia requested an increase in the existing US military assistance in the Pacific region, to balance the growing threat of China:

“As the world’s only global power, the US has had a foundational role to play in Asia. US presence in the region transformed our own security, and the security of its other allies and partners. The US remains the region’s biggest military partner. And it is Australia’s principal strategic partner and ally.”

Three years later the US reduced troops and equipment in other parts of the world to upgrade its bases in Australia and in the Indo-Pacific. “In Australia, you’ll see new rotational fighter and bomber aircraft deployments, you’ll see ground forces training and increased logistics cooperation,” said Mara Karlin, the US Under-Secretary of Defense. “More broadly across the Indo-Pacific, you’ll see a range of infrastructure improvements in Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Australia.”

This was followed by a deal announced by US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia had signed the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and the United Sates) military pact to improve intelligence and technology sharing between the three nations. The US would share secret nuclear technology to help Australia switch from diesel to nuclear-powered submarines.

What military threat is there to deserve such a special military build-up in Australia? The only foreign bases China has are in Cambodia, Myanmar, Djibouti, and Tajikistan. These four bases are the Ream Naval Base; The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti; a naval SIGINT facility in the Great Coco Island; and a military post in southeastern Gorno-Badakhshan. No Chinese military base is even close to Australia or the Pacific region.

To counter this misconceived threat of Chinese military bases in Asia, there are at least six US military bases in Australia. As well, Australia’s largest foreign military base is the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Base Butterworth in Malaysia, and headquarters of the Five Power Defence Arrangements Integrated Area Defence System (HQIADS). The Butterworth Air Base is used for Australia’s commitment to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). In addition, the Australian Army maintains the Rifle Company at Butterworth for training. In Singapore, Australia has the Flying Training School (No. 130 Squadron) and the training base at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre. The Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates is used for Australian operations in the Middle East. As well, Australia has numerous military bases across its continent.

It would appear that Australia is more of a threat to China, than vice versa. This is especially so when one considers that during the Cold War Australia had a naval base in Hong Kong and its air force in Japan as part of its policy to contain Communist China. During the Vietnam War Australian submarines spied off the coast of China.

According to Aljazeera, in 2020, the US, outside the fifty US states and Washington, DC, had 800 bases in eighty countries around the world, with 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries. The countries with the most US bases are Japan with 120, Germany 119 and South Korea with seventy-three bases. There is one US base in Cuba, in which 731 troops are stationed. In contrast, Britain, France, and Russia have a total of thirty foreign bases combined. Yet the sheer number of US bases, their secrecy and lack of transparency, does not raise any question by the Australian government as to the potential threat they have on global peace. In reality US bases are geopolitically destabilising and have only led to regional instability and political distrust.

The US foreign bases are well documented. The US Army-funded study, “US Presence and Incidence of Conflict,” by the RAND Corporation (2018), evaluates the impact of US bases on potential global conflict. The study uses David Vine’s list of bases given in his BaseNation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015), rather than the Pentagon’s own unreliable list. Vine’s database of 800 foreign military bases (available on the Net) is only approximate, as many bases remain classified. The Pentagon considers bases located in US territories as “overseas,” because they lack full democratic incorporation into the United States. As Vine writes in Base Nation and If We Build Them, Wars Will Come (2020), many Native American peoples justifiably consider all domestic US bases in North America and Hawai’i to be bases abroad, as they occupy indigenous lands.

The types of US military bases include: “base sites,” “lily pads,” and “US-funded Host Nation” bases. All base sites are listed by name in the Pentagon’s annual Base Structure Report, including any significant foreign military installation with US military facilities with more than around 200 US military personnel. A “Lily Pad” is a small military installation, such as those in Botswana, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Zambia. A “US-funded Host Nation” base is not designed for explicit US use, such as those in Latin America, and formerly in Afghanistan. No country has a base on US territory. Yet US bases encircle all countries it considers a threat: Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba.

In 2019, the staff at Brown University produced the Costs of War Project, at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, building a database of all US bases around the world. It showed how extensive the US network of global military and paramilitary collaboration was. According to these figures, by 2015 the US military was actively engaged in eighty nations on six continents, and training at 471 locations within 120 countries. The US Department of Defense (DoD) spent US$122 billion, following the 9/11 terror attack, in a training network that had 150 defence agencies, civilian agencies, armed forces colleges, defence trained centres, military units, private companies, and NGOs, as well as the National Guard forces of five states.

This report on how US military bases encircle the globe was, “a distressing and tremendously helpful resource for grappling with the global geography of the American armed forces.” More than three decades after the end of the Cold War, the US still stations troops at hundreds of locations worldwide, such that it must raise certain questions. As Vine demonstrates, these foreign bases show how vast are the Pentagon’s operations, revealing a worldwide network that can only bring with it a panoply of ills that raise regional geopolitical tensions and provoke widespread antipathy towards the United States. In Guam the US has installed a self-perpetuating system of second-class citizenship and in Okinawa it created an atmosphere of sexual violence. In other countries, the bases destroy the local environment and damage local economies. The financial cost for the Pentagon, in the fiscal year 2014, to maintain these bases and troops overseas cost a staggering US$100 billion. If the cost of all bases and troops in warzones is combined it gives a figure of US$200 billion per annum.

For many decades, the need for overseas bases has been a quasi-religious dictum of US foreign policy. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending thirteen years of war at a cost of over US$2 trillion, DoD should have begun a re-examination of the tenets of the US military strategy. It did not. Instead, the DoD found new threats in Russia, China and Iran. In reality, no country is a threat to the US, yet the US is a direct threat to countries around the world.

One has only to remember how in the 1980s, when the New Zealand government refused the entrance of all US ships that carried nuclear war heads, the US caused a major economic down turn in New Zealand. This suggests that Australia would be treated in a similar way if we refused a US military build-up in Australia. One is left to wonder who the real threat is to Australia.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More