- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia — The United States is considering positioning combat troops and aircraft in Australia as part of an effort to intensify the war on terrorism in Southeast Asia, Australian defense officials were quoted by local press reports as saying.

The reasons, they said, are political instability in Indonesia, to Australia’s immediate north, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups there, including Jamaah Islamiah, with reported links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

Defense sources told the newspaper Australian last week that Washington had approached Canberra with plans that included the deployment of F-16 fighters and positioning up to 5,000 Marines at an Australian army base.

If the plans were implemented, it would be the first time since World War II that U.S. troops in large numbers were deployed in Australia.

The Australian reported further that Deputy Defense Secretary Shane Carmody had told a parliamentary hearing on maritime strategy in Canberra that the provision of facilities for U.S. troops in Australia had been suggested.

But an aide to Defense Minister Robert Hill told The Washington Times that “nobody at the U.S. political level has said they would like any access to Australian bases they don’t already have.”

The aide could not confirm whether discussions about such a possibility were taking place at the departmental level.

At present, U.S. military presence in the country is most prominent at the joint-intelligence facility at Pine Gap, the largest and most important U.S. satellite ground station outside the United States. It was used during both PersianGulf wars to help direct U.S. missiles to their targets but does not include any American combat troops.

“It will be a very brave government that decides to host large numbers of U.S. combat troops in this country,” said John Walker, a lecturer in politics at the University of New South Wales.

He said many Australians have begun seeing Prime Minister John Howard as a puppet of the Bush administration after he supplied troops during the war with Iraq without the explicit backing of the United Nations.

In the pubs of Sydney, Mr. Howard has gone down a few notches from being “honest Johnny Howard” to being referred to as “Little Johnny Howard.”

Traders here are also worried when they see business opportunities in postwar Iraq being grabbed by the Americans, says Mr. Walker.

“People here are alert to the broader relationship, especially trade. We were one of the main exporters of wheat to Iraq, but now the U.S. is in control of that. It’s these sort of things that can sour the mood,” he said.

Some diplomats and analysts believe that while a U.S. presence in the region would be a stabilizing factor and a deterrent against the hegemony of China, a broadening of the presence would cause suspicion.

“If the plan becomes policy, then of course we will take it up with the Australian government and the Americans, and ask for clarification on what exactly is being planned,” said a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra.

Analysts said it has always been Australia’s wish to have the United States more interested in the country’s north.

“We would look to the U.S. if we went into any big confrontation in the region,” said Wayne Reynolds, associate professor at the University of Newcastle.

But he said U.S. troops on the ground should be a last resort.

“The U.S. should provide logistical support, technological support, but military muscle should be provided by Australia itself,” he said.

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