In this in this Jan 10, 2016 file photo, a US Air Force B-52 bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. The Australian defence minister on Wednesday tied to play down the significance of a major upgrade of B-52 facilities planned for northern Australia, saying the nuclear-capable US bombers had been visiting since the 1980s. (AHN YOUNG-JOON / AP)
SYDNEY – The COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living increases in daily lives have left most Australians blissfully blind to a military build-up that has been taking place in the country’s north.
On Oct 31, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship current affairs program Four Corners aired a report outlining how the United States is upgrading a major Australian air force base near Darwin in the Northern Territory which will house at least six nuclear-capable B52 bombers.
The initiative will also involve major infrastructure upgrades at the Tindal Royal Australian Air Force base and a massive fuel storage depot near Darwin.
Apart from that, the report exposed a major upgrade to the highly secretive Pine Gap intelligence gathering facility near Alice Springs in Central Australia. So secretive is this facility that only a few Australians have clearance to enter it. During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union had the facility marked as a ‘must’ target in the event of a nuclear war.
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Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the right-wing Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian, wrote in a commentary on Nov 1 that the B-52 deployment heralded a “growing ‘pre-war’ environment,” adding: “The drumbeats of potential war are sounding across the world. This is not alarmist, it’s reality.”
“The B-52 bombers will have the ability to deliver powerful strategic strikes on Chinese bases and assets in the South China Sea, and indeed in the South Pacific should any ever be developed there,” he wrote.
Australia should refuse to allow US nuclear weapons to be located on Australian territory under any circumstances.
Jim Green, Nuclear campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia
Australia's Defense Minister Richard Marles, in a press conference on Nov 2, tried to play down the significance of the military build-up, saying that nuclear-capable US bombers had been visiting Australia since the 1980s.
The deployment has not escaped China’s attention.
During a press briefing on Oct 31, when asked to comment on the reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the move by the US and Australia “escalates regional tensions, gravely undermines regional peace and stability, and may trigger an arms race in the region”.
“China urges parties concerned to abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow geopolitical mindset and do more things that are good for regional peace and stability and mutual trust among all parties,” he said.
Zhao added that any defence and security cooperation between countries must “contribute to regional peace and stability and must not target any third party or undermine their interests”.
Marles, on his part, said that those against the build-up should “take a deep breath”.
“What we’re talking about is a US investment in the infrastructure at Tindal, which will help make that infrastructure more capable for Australia as well,” the minister said.
David Shoebridge, an Australian Greens senator and the group’s defense spokesman, objected to the B52 deployment, saying in a tweet: “This is a dangerous escalation.”
“It makes Australia an even bigger part of the global nuclear weapons threat to humanity’s very existence — and by rising military tensions it further destabilizes our region.”
Indonesia has, in the past, voiced its concern over Australia’s nuclear direction especially following the formation of the Australia, United Kingdom and United States (AUKUS) pact.
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Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner with environmental and social justice organization Friends of the Earth Australia, said: “The plan to base nuclear-capable B-52 bombers at RAAF Tindal escalates and worsens a pattern of Australia providing practical and political support for the US nuclear weapons program.”
“Australia should refuse to allow US nuclear weapons to be located on Australian territory under any circumstances,” Green said in an email to China Daily.
“The federal Labor government has committed to signing and ratifying the UN's Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The stationing of nuclear weapons on Australian soil flies in the face of the government's commitment to the UN Treaty,” he said.
News of the impending deployment came days after the Joe Biden administration in Washington released a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that non-proliferation advocates said makes catastrophe more, rather than less, likely.
Australia is not alone in the region where the US is deploying weapons of mass destruction.
The Saipan Tribune noted in a report in January this year that during the Cold War, Guam was a target of the Soviet military in part because it was home to US Navy submarines that carried intercontinental ballistic missiles containing nuclear warheads.
“The United States has not spent … money to fully protect Guam and the Chamorro people from military attack,” the report said, referring to the indigenous people in Guam.
And the same holds true for Australia.
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