There isn't much detail on the public record about the agreements that govern the presence of US forces in Australia, but it seems that under the Force Posture Agreement, the presence of these forces is subject to bilateral consultation conducted 'in accordance with Australia's policy of Full Knowledge and Concurrence'.
This policy was conceived to ensure that Australia knows everything happening at places like Pine Gap. Former Defence Minister Stephen Smith described Full Knowledge and Concurrence as 'an expression of sovereignty, of Australia's fundamental right to know what activities foreign Governments conduct in, through or from Australian territory'. Interestingly, Smith stated that 'Concurrence means Australia approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia in support of its mutually agreed goals. Concurrence does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken'.
Now that this policy is being used to cover not just intelligence-gathering but military operations that might be launched from Australian territory, this careful definition of 'concurrence' will become problematic. The recent controversy over Pentagon official David Shear's comments (quickly retracted) that the US was about to place B-1 strategic bombers on Australian soil, and that the US might use these aircraft in shows of force in the disputed South China Sea, illustrates the potency of the issue.
Much of Australia's future usefulness as an American ally will depend on what real estate we provide and what conditions are attached. It will be impossible to claim that Canberra's concurrence to a US operation does not constitute approval.
In the future, if B-1 bombers are stationed in Australia, and if they conduct freedom of navigation exercises over the South China Sea, then this will occur only because Australia has concurred in US forces using Australian bases for that purpose. It could be said, just as accurately, that the operation occurred only because Australia chose to not veto it.
In such circumstances, it will be harder to say that the alliance is 'not directed at any one country'. Because US forces could only operate from Australian soil with our concurrence, we would essentially be enabling the operation. Our alliance is not 'directed against China', as some have claimed, but if such an operation were to occur it would definitely be directed against Chinese activities. Would the finer points of this distinction matter to the leadership in Beijing?
It is not clear where the real point of decision lies — whether it is in allowing the US to station B-1 bombers in Australia, or whether an additional green light (ie. specific approval for US aircraft to conduct freedom of navigation operations over the South China Sea) would be required. One agreement could cover both the deployment and operation of USAF aircraft, or separate agreements could be negotiated. As this recent report suggests, when David Shear misspoke earlier this month, it's possible he was talking about some form of agreement nearing completion.
Given that Australian politicians have explained how Full Knowledge and Concurrence works for the intelligence facilities, perhaps they could also explain how this policy applies to the military forces that are already here, and those yet to arrive.
None of this is to argue for or against Australia supporting American actions in the South China Sea. But the factors assessed above are critically important to how the alliance will operate in the future. It's hard to be sure with so little information publicly available, but it seems that whether B-1s are 'based', 'stationed' or 'deployed' to Australia is less important than what missions Canberra chooses to approve (or veto).
If America ever wants to use Australian bases in an effort to enforce red lines in the South China Sea, they'll expect a green light from Canberra. No matter what traffic signal we choose, there will be consequences.
Photo by Flickr user AereiMilitari.org.