Australia on Wednesday said it may allow Washington to use its territory to operate long-range spy drones, as part of an increased US presence in the Asia-Pacific that has rankled China.
The United States and Canberra are planning a major expansion of military ties, with the first of a 2,500-strong Marine deployment to northern Australia unveiled last November by President Barack Obama due to arrive next month.
The plan has irked Beijing and worried some Asian countries who see it as a statement by Washington that it intends to stand up for its interests in the region amid concerns of increasing assertiveness by China.
Australian media carried reports Wednesday citing a Washington Post story that the United States was considering using the Cocos Islands, atolls in the Indian Ocean off northwest Australia, to launch unmanned surveillance aircraft.
They said the Cocos, which has a population of around 600 people, would replace the present US Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, which America leases from Britain and is due to be mothballed in 2016.
Aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines could also be based in Perth as part of efforts to refocus American defence resources in the region, the reports added.
Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the use of the Cocos Islands was a longer-term option for closer Australia-US engagement and its airstrip would need to be upgraded before it could be used.
“Cocos is a possibility… it’s a long-term prospect and should be treated as such,” Smith told ABC radio.
“It’s not currently ideal because one of the first things that we would have to do… is a substantial infrastructure upgrade, particularly so far as the airfield is concerned.
“That’s one of the reasons why this is very much a long-term prospect.”
An upgrade would cost anywhere between Aus$75 to Aus$100 million, he added stressing that Australia’s neighbours had nothing to fear.
“We have been transparent about these matters,” he said.
The Cocos are seen as an ideal location to base unmanned patrol planes to keep watch on the world’s busiest shipping routes and the South China Sea, where territorial claims are seen as potentially dangerous flashpoints.
China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia all claim territory in the area.
Smith said the key priorities in closer US cooperation were the rotation of Marines through the Northern Territory, greater air access and more use of the HMAS Stirling base in Perth.
Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was in Australia last week to discuss the first deployment of 250 Marines next month and other defence issues, he added.
Hugh White, a defence analyst at the Australian National University, said Australia was being viewed as a “strategic asset” by the US as it monitors China’s rise.
“I think what we are seeing here is fundamentally a very significant shift in US strategy,” he said.
The United States currently has only a limited deployment in longstanding ally Australia, including the remote Pine Gap satellite spy station near outback Alice Springs.
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