U.S. Top Guns in Darwin Combat Drills as China Tensions Rise

In Australia’s remote top end U.S. fighter pilots are engaged in combat drills, while Marines sip beers at night in pubs in the tropical city of Darwin. Thousands of kilometers to the north, the U.S. finds itself in increasingly real standoffs with China’s air force.

“The planes are noisy but they’re just a part of life,” said Rachael Molloy, 24, who sells crocodile skin whips at the evening beach markets in Darwin, which plays host to the 22-day exercises where jets roar overhead until late at night. “They’re massive, beautiful planes.”

Pitch Black, held every two years, serves as a reminder of Australian and U.S. military heft as China presses its claims to the South China Sea, where shipping lanes carry more than $5 trillion in goods each year. While the U.S. touts its role in Asia as a counterpoint to China, it is also seeking to minimize the risk from militaries operating in greater proximity, highlighted when a Chinese fighter buzzed within 20 feet of a U.S. surveillance plane in international waters on Aug. 19 and did a barrel roll over it.

More than 4,200 kilometers from the southern Chinese island of Hainan, Australia’s gateway to Asian nations such as Indonesia and Singapore offers the U.S. an advantage: It is distant enough from China to avoid the appearance of a major threat, and close enough to Southeast Asia to offer a bulwark against China’s rise.

“While Australia has always been seen by the U.S. as a useful friend, in previous decades it was seen as remote from the real heartland of Asia,” said Andrew Carr, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra. “With the rise of powerful nations like China that are more willing to assert their national interests, that remoteness has become more useful as it gives it a way into the region without stepping on toes.”

Australian Bases

Darwin, a city of 130,000 that was bombed by Japan in World War II, showcases the six-decade U.S.-Australian alliance, with the U.S. intending to double its 1,200 elite soldiers there by 2020, boost live-fire exercises and increase navy visits. Barack Obama in November 2011 became the first U.S. president to visit Darwin, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government is lifting defense spending in the world’s 12th-largest economy from its lowest level since 1938.

While defense procurement has underpinned the U.S.- Australia relationship, with Australia ordering 58 of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for A$12.4 billion ($11.6 billion) on top of the 14 it pledged to buy in 2009, a priority is military exercises at Australian bases, according to U.S. Marines Liaison Officer Colonel Javier Ball, the nation’s senior liaison to the Australian military.

‘Realistic Training’

“The realistic training that it provides us when we come out here is unsurpassed,” Ball said in an interview from the national capital Canberra. “The other thing it allows us to do, especially as the Australian military comes on line with their amphibious operations, is work together so we both trade techniques and procedures on how we do operations.”

As part of its strategic and economic “pivot” to Asia, the U.S. is committed to increased fighter-bomber rotations by its air force in the Northern Territory -- the Outback region about twice the size of Texas that hosts Darwin and has a population of 233,000.

“They’re scoping out what maximum benefit they can get from our exercise areas and learning what missions they think will give them the best return on their investment,” Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said on board a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A MRTT which was used for air-to-air refueling of two F/A-18A Hornets en-route from Canberra to Darwin for the exercises.

China Encounters

President Xi Jinping is restructuring the nation’s military, boosting the capacity of its air force and bolstering its naval presence, and the consequence for nations from the U.S. to its ally Japan is increased Cold War-style encounters.

China disputed the U.S. claims of the Aug. 19 incident which occurred off Hainan, saying its fighter pilot carried out a routine identification of two U.S. planes and kept a safe distance. The most serious encounter between a Chinese fighter and U.S. aircraft was an April 2001 collision with a Navy EP-3 surveillance plane that led to the death of a Chinese pilot and forced the U.S. aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan.

China was involved in close encounters with Japanese planes in disputed territory in the East China Sea in May and June, in two of their narrowest brushes since World War II, while Taiwan said two Chinese military planes entered its air defense identification zone on Aug. 25 and were intercepted by fighters.

‘Few Limitations’

Maintaining a visible presence as China presses its claims to territory and pushes its military further out from its coastline has led the U.S. to deploy the P-8, its newest surveillance aircraft, to the Pacific. The U.S. this week executed a contract to deliver eight Boeing Co. P-8A Poseidons to Australia from 2017, to replace AP-3C Orions.

Part of the lure for the U.S., along with other nations such as Singapore, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates participating in Pitch Black, in conducting exercises in the Northern Territory is its remoteness and small population, according to Australia’s exercise director, Group Captain Micka Gray. More than 2,300 personnel from seven nations and 110 aircraft participated this year, flying more than 1,300 missions.

“Their airspace is not as big as ours, so they are pleasantly surprised when they come to Australia,” Gray said of the U.S. presence at RAAF Base Darwin. “We have very few limitations on where we can fly.”

Australia Dilemma

Australia is building military links with the U.S. and Japan while seeking to maintain economic ties with China, its biggest trading partner. Relations with China were strained after Australia Foreign Minister Julie Bishop criticized it for proclaiming an air defense identification zone in November in the East China Sea.

China’s Defense Ministry in February defended holding naval exercises in waters between Australia and Indonesia for the first time -- the closest they’ve conducted such activities to Australia -- and was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. as calling the drills “normal training.”

“We don’t say ‘hands off’ any region,” Johnston said. “As long as they’re in international waters, they’re entitled to free passage. They’ve been surveying their lines of communication, particularly for oil through the Middle East, through the northern part of the Indian Ocean, through Malacca.”

China Drills

While China didn’t participate in Pitch Black it attended as part of the international observers’ group, and this year it joined the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific naval exercise. In October, China will for the first time be involved in a small joint exercise with the U.S. and Australia in the Northern Territory, a development Johnston described as “exciting.”

“They’ve got huge capacity to build a bit of rapport and build a proper foundation for future engagement.”

Australia, which hasn’t received a formal request from the U.S. to participate in Iraq air strikes on Islamic State terrorists, would consider such a role should there be “achievable objectives, a clear role for Australian forces, full risk assessment and an overall humanitarian objective,” Abbott told parliament today. The nation is already providing humanitarian assistance in the nation via food drops.

With the U.S. military boosting the Northern Territory’s economy by about A$1.8 billion a year -- about 10 percent of total output -- the economic benefits of the increased presence in Darwin are welcomed by the community, according to the territory’s Chamber of Commerce.

“Darwin has a history of being a military town,” said the chamber’s chief executive Greg Bicknell. “We’ve always been aware of our importance here. We’re a lot closer to Singapore than Sydney.”

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