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Cocos (Keeling) Islands (12°08'S, 96°50'E)

The Washington Post reported 27 March 2012 the US and Australia were contemplating an expansion of joint military activities, to include flights by Global Hawk surveillance drones from Australia's Cocos Islands territory. A new version of the Global Hawk, known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance drone, or BAMS, is scheduled to become operational in 2015. A spokesman for Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said expanded use of the Cocos Islands was a longer-term option, but not one of immediate levels of engagement. "On the issue of drones and Cocos Islands, the details of any possible US air or ship access to the Cocos Islands have yet to be discussed or decided upon," Mr Smith's spokesman said. Greater use of Cocos would require substantial improvements to the island's infrastructure. The islands would complement the current US Indian Ocean base, Diego Garcia, which the US leases from Britain [the U.S. lease was to expire in 2016, but it was renewed].

Cocos IslandsThe Cocos Islands have a strategic importance in the Indian Ocean, with an airstrip used by the Australian Air Force. Eventually, a naval base could also be constructed there. The airstrip can also be used by aircraft of the US air force patrolling the Indian Ocean. The airstrip on West Island is used by the RAAF as a staging base for reconnaissance flights in the central Indian Ocean and by the US Air Force staging through to Diego Garcia. Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the Cocos Islands could be used for a joint Australian-US air base in late 2011, after US President Barack Obama visited Australia in November 2011 to announce with Prime Minister Julia Gillard that up to 2500 US Marines would set up in Darwin. There's also a quarantine station where cattle being imported to Australia are held for 90 days to ensure animal diseases are not introduced to Australia.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands lie in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) northwest of the Australian city of Perth and about 3300 kilometers west of Darwin, in the Northern Territory. The Cocos Islands (Keeling Islands) lie about 600 miles SW of Tanjung Layar, the Western extremity of Jawa. The Cocos Islands are nearer to Sumatra and Java than Australia, and the majority of the population is of Malay or Indonesian stock. There are 27 coral islands in the group, which had a total population of about 600 as of 2012.

They are in two distinct divisions, lying North and South and are separated by a channel 15 miles wide. The North division has a single island known as North Keeling Island while the South division has about 20 islands, known collectively as South Keeling. There are two inhabited islands: Home Island where some 300 Malays live. On West Island, lived about 250 Australians who work in the territory's administration office or the airfield. The Australian Cocos Islands [plural] should not be confused with Cocos Island [singular], a possession of Costa Rica. Like Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands are closer to Indonesia than Australia.

The Cocos Islands could not substitute as an anchorage for the current US Indian Ocean base, Diego Garcia. Although the lagoons of both atolls are of similar dimensions, the Cocos Islands lagoon is too shallow to serve as a military anchorage. The South Keeling Island division of the Cocos Islands is formed of about 20 islands and islets. They lie around a central lagoon in the approximate form of a horseshoe with the opening to the NW; the longer dimension is about 8 miles and the shorter about 7 miles. Horsburgh Island, Home Island, and the W end of West Island are reported to be good radar targets. A reef, against which the sea breaks continually, fronts the outer sides of the islands and protects the enclosed lagoon. Seaward of this reef the depths increase abruptly except off Horsburgh Island. The greater part of the lagoon is filled with patches of growing coral with deep water between them; it is navigable only by shallow draft boats with the aid of local knowledge.

Port Refuge (12°06'S., 96°52'E.), in the N part of the lagoon between Horsburgh Island and Direction Island, comprises an outer and inner harbor. The entrance should be approached with caution, as the bottom rises very steeply from the ocean depth to the 20m curve. The change of color of the water from a dark to a light shade of blue is very marked and it can be seen from some distances and may be relied on as a guide. The bottom is generally visible in Port Refuge where the depth is less than 14.6m. The best anchorage for large vessels is at the entrance to Port Refuge, with Direction Island Light bearing 096° and the E extremity of Pulau Maria bearing 180°, in a depth of about 10m, coral. This anchorage, used by vessels with a maximum draft of only 7.6m, is sheltered from the predominant SE winds, but is open to winds and swells from the N and NE.

In the 1980s Indonesia believed Australia might develop military facilities on the Cocos and Christmas Islands in the Indian Ocean and said it wanted to be consulted about such plans. Both island groups are much closer to Indonesia than to Australia and their inhabitants are mostly of Asian descent. An offical commentary broadcast in English on Indonesia's State radio, RRI, said the Christmas and Cocos Islands could become "a formidable fortress at the entrance of the Sunda Strait and the South Java Sea". It was broadcast on 10 April 1984, four days after the Cocos islanders voted for integration with Australia. The RRI commentary said "In the event of a conflict between the superpowers over control of the Indian Ocean, the Cocos islands are bound to playa decisive role. Together with thenearby Christmas Islands, they will become a formidable fortress at the entrance of the Sunda Straits and the South Java Sea." The RRI commentary said Indonesia had declared often that it had "no ill will against Australia and no territorial ambition"." On the contrary, Indonesia had the desire to cooperate with Australia for the benefit of both countries. The commentary said Indone-sia was "keenly interested . ... in maintaining peace and security in this area.... But one thing Australia has to remember is that as a member of ASEAN and the non-aligned movement, Indonesia is working for the realisation of a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality in South-East Asia, and for a nuclear-free zone on the Indian Ocean."

In March 1984 the 'National Times' published excerpts from a secret Australian defence document which said the Cocos and Christmas Islands could be targets of attack if Indonesia turned hostile. Referring to possible threats to Australia, the document published in the 'National Times', said that "in a campaign of harassment of Australia. . . (the) Christmas and the Cocos Islands could be favored targets". The document said: "Both islands are much closer to the (Indonesian) archipelago than to Australia and, while they continue undefended, it could seem feasible to an Indonesian Government, even with such limited military capabilities as at present, suddenly to seize either or both islands, should it see value in such a dramatic and challenging gesture." Once taken, and were the Indonesians able to achieve a logistic build-up, the islands could be difficult to retake and to attempt to do so could place important high-capability Australian military assets at risk in a situation that would favor Indonesia."

The territory is one of the remaining pristine tropical island groups in the Indian Ocean region with abundant wildlife, particularly sea birds and supports an internationally significant seabird rookery. The Islands also have land crabs, turtles, a range of flora and a marine environment with a wide variety of corals, fish, molluscs, crustaceans and other species. Comprised of coral atolls and islands, the archipelago includes North Keeling Island and the South Keeling Islands. Coral atolls — which are largely composed of huge colonies of tiny animals such as cnidaria — form around islands. After the islands sink, the coral remains, generally forming complete or partial rings. Only some parts of South Keeling Islands still stand above the water surface. In the north, the ocean overtops the coral. Along the southern rim of this coral atoll, the shallow water appears aquamarine. Water darkens to navy blue as it deepens toward the central lagoon. Above the water line, coconut palms and other plants form a thick carpet of vegetation.

In 2005, the Australian government issued a report on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, summarizing field research conducted between 1997 and 2005. Hard corals, which play a primary role in reef building, were not the only corals at South Keeling Islands. Soft corals were also thriving at study sites throughout the reef. Although coral and rock predominated, the researchers also found varying amounts of silt, sand, rubble, sponges, and seaweed. Some of the coral had recently died, and coral predators appeared in high densities at some sites. But overall, the report noted, “the coral reef community at Cocos (Keeling) Islands is very healthy and in a stable period, with little impact from anthropogenic activities.”

Captain William Keeling discovered the islands in 1609, but they remained uninhabited until the 19th century. In 1826 Alexander Hare settled on the main atoll. In 1827, a former employee of Hare, John Clunies-Ross, settled on Home Island and brought Malays in to harvest coconut crops. From the 1820s to 1978, members of the Clunie-Ross family controlled the islands and the copra produced from local coconuts. Britain annexed the islands in 1857 and 29 years later they were given to the Clunies-Ross family. The islands were the site of a World War I naval battle in November 1914 between the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German raider SMS Emden; after being heavily damaged in the engagement, the Emden was beached by her captain on North Keeling Island. The Cocos Islands were transferred to the Australian Government in 1955. Cocos (Keeling) Islands were defined as “Cocos Islands” prior to June 1974.

In 1974, the United Nations sent a mission from its Decolonization Committeeto visit Cocos and the members were not impressed with what they found. Home Island was owned by a shy millionaire Australian, who was born there, John Clunies Ross. The mission reported that there was no such thing as democracy under the Clunies Ross rule. Primary school education was not compulsory; there was no secondary education at all and there was a primitive manner of paying the Cocos Malays with plastic tokens which were redeemable only at the island store — and that happened to be owned by Clunies Ross. The report on the feudal system operatingon Home Island embarassed the Australian Government. In 1978, after much bitter haggling, the Australian Government paid John Clunies Ross $6.25 million to buy back his land. Mr Clunies Ross remained living privately on part of Home Island.

The United Nations had an interest in Cocos because it considersthe 300 Malays who have lived there for several generations as an indigenous people. Therefore, under a United Nations resolution they would make an act of self-determination about their future status. Basically, they hade three options. They can seek full independence from Australia or they can opt for integration either as part of an Australian state or part of the Australian capital territory where the capital, Canberra, is situated. The third option is somewhere in between — a form of free association with Australia. This would entail an autonomousstate with the islanders managing their own internal affairs and their economy,but with Australia being responsible for the island's foreign affairs and defense. The Cocos Malays are a cautious, conservative people, but it was clear that they wanted a minimum of disruption to their lives on Cocos. The Cocos Islands became an overseas territory of Australia in 1983 after a UN supervised act of self determination for the 320 Cocos Malays.

Indian Ocean Territories Cocos Islands
Cocos Islands Cocos Islands
Cocos Islands & Diego Garcia Cocos Islands & Diego Garcia
Cocos Islands Cocos Islands Cocos Islands airfield

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Page last modified: 09-07-2018 12:51:15 ZULU