Opinion: Could history repeat itself?

HISTORY sometimes has a strange way of repeating.

Each of Townsville’s three infantry battalions has spent time in their formative years in what was historically referred to as the “Far East”, though it was “near west” from an Australian perspective.

All served in Malaya during the Emergency and later as part of Australia’s military contribution to the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation, and later still as part of the Far East Strategic Reserve.

Stationed in historic barracks in places like Penang, Terendak and Selarang in Singapore they absorbed themselves in the life and culture of their host nations, operations permitting.

Even when the Whitlam government withdrew all Australian military forces in 1973, a rifle company continued to rotate through the Royal Malaysian Air Force base at Butterworth in northwest Malaysia, as it still does today.

This was in reality an operational deployment though successive Australian governments have deceptively insisted it was for training purposes only.

Soon Townsville will play host to Singaporean defence force personnel as part of a $2 billion investment to provide training facilities and opportunities beyond that nation state’s limited geographical resources.

As their Australian counterparts did decades ago in Malaysia and Singapore, the visitors will be able to immerse themselves in Australian life and culture, enriching the experience of both countries.

Perhaps one significant difference will be that the more disciplined Singaporeans will be better behaved during stand-down periods than larrikin Diggers were when sampling South-East Asia’s delights.

Townsville can handle that since being a garrison town is a rich part of our city’s history, particularly during World War II when thousands of US troops were stationed here and across north and western Queensland.

Darwin is also bracing for regular rotations of US Marines, America having invested in facilities there as regional alliances shift dramatically in an increasingly unstable region.

That has been particularly so with historic US-Philippines links.

Having withdrawn from its massive bases there late last century, in May this year the US negotiated a new arrangement with the Philippine government to re-establish a presence in five bases.

Mercurial Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has since reneged and threatened to expel all US forces from the country and deny them future access.

That would leave only nearby Guam as a strategic US territorial air base with close regional access to disputed sea, land and air territories.

Like Singapore, Guam has only limited terrain for any expansion.

Just 3600km north of Townsville, Guam is a nuclear-capable facility equidistant from Hawaii.

Urgent daily logistic support is by regular airlift.

It would make sense to establish another presence closer to the disputed territories from which Guam could be supported or from which combat forces and reinforcements could be rapidly deployed.

Where better than Townsville, whose historic military links with the US, not to mention its own significant ADF resources including training facilities could be used to host a new US base?

The possibilities are endless, not just strategically but in economic benefits for Townsville. It would be déjà vu all over again.

November 3, 2016