This is a shortened version of a longer paper

The arrival of US Marines in Australia has started a national, regional and international debate that will run for some time. The debate centres on the obvious advantages of an enhanced regional humanitarian and disaster response (HADR) capability and the disadvantage of an increased US military presence in Australia, seen by China part of a wider effort to circumscribe their emergence as a regional, and potentially global, power. How the increased US presence is understood within the region will do a lot to shape the nature of the alliance between Australia and the United States into the 21st century. It’s hard however, to counter the perception that the increased US military presence in Australia is a response to the growing power of China. The reality of the deployments and the potential for more extensive deployments, especially air and naval forces with strategic reach, places Australia firmly in the American camp. As well as partners on the battlefield, Australia and the US have been partners in delivering humanitarian and disaster relief. The already high base levels of warfighting interoperability have also contributed a lot to their ability to deliver effective aid and relief such as in Operations Restore Hope (Somalia) and Provide Comfort (protecting Kurds in northern Iraq). With US Marines conducting lengthy annual training activities in northern Australia and deployments from other US services anticipated, this level of military interoperability will increase. Also, a more permanent presence and increased frequency of exercises and training will support the development and introduction into service of new Australian strategic capabilities such as the C-17 aircraft and landing helicopter dock ships. These capabilities in turn provide a significant additional HADR response capacity. Australia’s developing security relationship with Japan was boosted by our quick and extensive support following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The closer relationship was highlighted by the September 2012 communiqué following the 4th Australia–Japan Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations. Among the range of proposals for further cooperation were agreements to strengthen bilateral and regional cooperation on disaster management.  These proposals aim to improve civil and military coordination for disaster preparedness and relief, humanitarian assistance, evacuation operations and development efforts in the Pacific. The increasing acceptance of HADR as a legitimate defence mission has the potential to partially balance Chinese concerns about the arrival of US forces in Australia. Of course there are limits to the reassurance that HADR can provide, but these good neighbour missions are a step towards binding the nations of the region closer together to meet the growing threat of disasters, respond to adverse humanitarian events and, if used appropriately, prevent weak states from declining further to become failed states. These missions are the lowest common denominator of military cooperation, but the potential benefits are closer patterns of cooperation, opening of lines of communications between countries in the region, and professional dialogue between military forces. HADR missions and dialogue could lead to more substantial military to military engagement. Australia, Japan and the US are very active in promoting disaster risk management as a key component of their Asia–Pacific relations. These activities serve as a model for enlarging the HADR network within the region. Efforts to enhance interoperability should then quickly expand, not just to build regional HADR capability but also to develop trust and confidence between countries where military cooperation is limited. HADR provides a way to increase interoperability through a less threatening level of military cooperation. Efforts should now be made to engage all regional countries, including China, into an HADR network. As trust and confidence grows, this might contribute to greater familiarity and dialogue between the US and China and, in time, a normalising of the relationship and a lessening of tensions between the two countries. Recommendations:

  • Establish a regionally based coordination authority similar to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs under the auspices of ASEAN
  • US and Australia should actively pursue broad based opportunities to conduct multilateral HADR exercises and activities
  • The recommendations in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Disaster Risk Management Report should be pursued jointly by the Australian Department of Defence, the Japanese Ministry of Defence and the US Pacific Command
  • The ADF should monitor developments in the thinking of the US Department of Defense on the differentiation between humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and, if necessary and appropriate, adjust Australian doctrine and procedures to ensure continued interoperability.

Peter Leahy is the Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra and was Chief of Army from 2002 to 2008.