Monday, June 28, 2010

Australia's strategic little dots ... and the UK/USA alliance...

Australia's strategic little dots ... and the UK/USA alliance...
By Bertil Lintner

COCOS ISLANDS AND CHRISTMAS ISLAND - They are only small dots in the remote reaches of the Indian Ocean, but the Australian territory of the Cocos Islands boasts a 2,440 meter-long runway on its West Island, underscoring the lightly populated atoll's strategic importance.

The rest of West Island is a tropical paradise, replete with coconut palms swaying over white sand beaches and a crystal clear lagoon full of tropical fish. Yet there are slim choices for accommodation here and air fares on the twice-weekly flight from Perth on the Australian mainland are exorbitant.

"They don't want tourists here," laments a chef on one of the few restaurants on West Island. And "they", he suspects, are the Australian military.

Together with Christmas Island to the north, the Cocos form Australia's Indian Ocean territories. The territories give Australia - and indirectly its Western allies, including the United States - a strategic advantage in an increasingly important maritime area.

Middle Eastern oil shipments destined for China, Japan and other fuel importing Asian countries must pass through the Indian Ocean. Many analysts believe that in a potential conflict between the US and China the US navy would attempt to block these energy shipments to cripple the Chinese economy.

There are currently no military bases on either the Cocos or Christmas Island. But, as Australian defense analyst Ross Babbage wrote, in the case of an emergency, access to the territories would ''extend Australia's reach into the surrounding region for surveillance, air defense and maritime and ground strike operations. The islands could, in effect, serve as unsinkable aircraft carriers and resupply ships."

The islands, Babbage argued in his paper published by the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University in Canberra, are also important for signals intelligence bases in Australia proper: ''Australian ships operating in the islands' vicinity would also benefit from the local radar and other sensor coverage and, ideally, contribute ship-based radar and other sensor data to the regional surveillance network.''

Christmas Island is better known as home to Australia's detention center for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. It is located only 360 kilometers south of the Indonesian island of Java, or a third of the distance to the Australian mainland, The Cocos are even further out in the Indian Ocean, situated at 2,750 kilometers from the west coast city of Perth.

The West's enduring strategic foothold in the region also includes the strategically important British Indian Ocean Territory, which is still formally under British administration. In 1971, Britain agreed to lease until 2016 the territory's main island, Diego Garcia, to the US. Air and naval bases were subsequently built there and the US Air Force has used the facilities to refuel planes and base aircraft carriers during the 1991 Gulf War and ongoing war campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

France, another significant Indian Ocean power, currently controls the islands of Reunion and Mayotte, both of which are officially ''overseas departments'' and therefore part of both Metropolitan France and the European Union. France also holds the huge and rugged island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, and maintains the nearby Saint Paul, Amsterdam and Crozet Islands as ''scientific territories'' with no native populations. Since 1992, France has maintained a satellite and rocket tracking station on Kerguelen and, it is believed, storage facilities for military-related equipment.

The strategic importance of the Cocos and Christmas Island - both then British possessions - became apparent during the World Wars of the 20th century. One of the first naval battles of World War I was fought in 1914 near the Cocos between the British and Germans, resulting famously in the sinking of the German cruiser SMSA Emden. Guns from the Emden were later put on display in Sydney and Canberra. Japan invaded Christmas Island and bombarded the Cocos during World War II.

Today, neither Germany nor Japan is of strategic concern to Australia or other Western powers in the Indian Ocean; China's rising presence, however, is. Analysts agree that China has legitimate security concerns in the Indian Ocean and it is seeking ways to defend its vital Middle Eastern energy shipments. China's recent involvement in the upgrading of Myanmar's naval bases in the Bay of Bengal has tilted slightly the region's balance of power, as has Beijing's assistance for the construction of a new deep-sea port at Gwadar on the coast of Pakistan.

China has also shown interest in developing the former British naval base at Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka and improving port facilities in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Although a new cold war is not imminent in the Indian Ocean, various powers in the region are closely watching each other's emerging strategic designs.

Shifting possessions
Both the Cocos and Christmas Island were part of the British colony of the Straits Settlements and therefore once governed from Singapore. By the mid-1950s, with independence for Singapore on the horizon, Britain began making preparations to transfer the islands to Australian sovereignty. In 1955, the Cocos officially became Australian, but were still ruled by in a feudal manner by the Clunies-Ross family, Scottish planters who had imported hundreds of Malays to work on their copra plantations.

It was not until 1978 that Australia forced the family to sell the islands and in 1983 the last so-called Scottish "King of the Cocos," John Clunies-Ross, was told by Canberra to leave the island after a vote endorsed full integration. Most of its 600 people are ethnically Malay and Muslim, and live on Home Island, one of only two inhabited islets in the atoll. West Island, with its airport, remains predominantly Caucasian.

Christmas Island has always been more closely connected to Singapore. Phosphate mining began there in the late 19th century using indentured workers, mostly ethnic Chinese from Singapore and Malaya. In 1957, the administration of Christmas Island, too, was transferred to Australia. Singapore received 2.9 million British pounds (US$7.8 billion at 1957 exchange rates) in compensation, a sum based mainly on the estimated value of the phosphate foregone by the soon-to-become independent city state.

Today Christmas Island's permanent population numbers about 1,500, of which 70% are of Chinese origin, 20% Caucasian and 10% Malay. There are considerably more asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in a closely guarded detention center on the easternmost tip of the island. Because of its proximity to Java, Christmas Island has become the destination of choice for boats carrying refugees from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Sri Lanka.

Asylum seekers were at first sent to centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as part of then Australian prime minister John Howard's "Pacific solution" to the swelling refugee problem. In 2007, those centers were closed and asylum seekers are now processed on Christmas Island, an external territory located almost 1,000 kilometers to the southeast of the Australian mainland.

The immigration detention center gave Christmas Island a new lease on economic life after its main phosphate mine was closed down in 1987. An attempt was made for the first time in 1993 to attract tourists: a US$34 million casino was opened with mainly Asian gamblers arriving on a new direct flight from Jakarta.

It was closed five years later when the casino's Indonesian owner went bankrupt amid the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. The casino never reopened, despite a renewed attempt in 2004, and Christmas Island effectively died as a tourist destination. There are now only a few motels and a souvenir shop by the beach near Flying Fish Cove, the main settlement on the island. But every foreign visitor who is not an asylum seeker appears to be a novelty.

Although the question of Australia's sovereignty over its Indian Ocean territories is not in dispute, Britain's decision to hand them over to Canberra in the 1950s was not well received in Singapore. In June 1957, Lee Kuan Yew, then the main leader of the colony's independence movement, later prime minister and now Minister Mentor of the Singaporean government, stated: ''To give away all the appurtenances of Singapore before we take over is downright swindle. A few years ago they [the British] gave away Cocos Islands, now it's Christmas Island.''

At around the same time, Devon Nair, a leading Singaporean trade unionist, wrote an open letter to the British governor strongly opposing the transfer and pointed out that ''in the future'' Singapore might find the islands ''useful for defense and security'' purposes. His assessment was prophetic, but for Australia, not Singapore. Security analyst Babbage wrote that the Cocos and Christmas Island may not be ''vital'' for the defense of Australia, but they are still ''valuable and important''.

Australia does not need to station troops on either of the territories, but airports would facilitate the rapid deployment of forces in any conflict situation. In peacetime, maritime activities in the region can be and likely are being monitored from signals intelligence facilities on the islands. But if superpower rivalry, including between the US and China, ever comes to a head in the Indian Ocean, Australia will be well-placed to defend its interests and come to the military aid of its allies.