US and Australian ministers sought to bolster security ties at annual talks Wednesday, as the American military seeks greater access to the country’s bases in a strategic tilt to the Pacific.
Anxious over China’s growing military might and territorial tensions with its neighbours, US officials are pushing for a more visible military role across the region.
This includes expanding exercises and deploying more advanced ships and hardware to Southeast Asia.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith welcomed the deployment of US Marines this year in Australia’s north and said he and counterpart Leon Panetta were looking at opening up access to more bases and ports for US aircraft and warships.
“We look forward today to discussions about the potential for enhanced aviation and aerial access to our Northern Territory RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) bases and also in due course advanced naval access to HMAS Stirling,” Smith told reporters, referring to the base south of Perth.
Smith said holding the annual strategic discussions between the two nations in the western coastal city underlined the growing importance of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, home to vital shipping lanes and growing economies.
“Here you see the world moving to the Asia-Pacific, the world moving to the Indo-Pacific not just with security implications but with enormous economic investment and prosperity,” he said.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, which gathers foreign and defence ministers from each country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed that the US was fully committed to its pivot to Asia over the long term, despite crises in the Middle East and fiscal pressures at home.
Speaking Tuesday evening at the University of Western Australia, Clinton underlined America’s “expanding engagement” in the region.
“It’s important that we make absolutely clear we are here to stay,” she said, adding that it was important to see India become more involved in the region and that the US would welcome Australia-India joint naval exercises.
Although US and Australian officials privately worry about Beijing’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and elsewhere, Clinton insisted the US supported the peaceful rise of China.
“(We) hope to see gradual but consistent opening up of a Chinese society and political system that will more closely give the Chinese people the opportunities that we in the United States and Australia are lucky to take for granted,” she said.
The US-Australia talks are taking place as China’s Communist Party undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
Clinton said Wednesday the two governments also planned to confer on more detailed plans for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, with most combat forces due to depart by the end of 2014.
The annual talks follow the arrival of about 250 US Marines in northern Australia as part of an American “rebalance” towards the Pacific after a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US military currently has only a limited footprint in longstanding ally Australia, including the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility spy station near Alice Springs.
The move to station Marines — some 2,500 by 2016-17 — represents a significant strategic shift by Washington and has irked Beijing.
A senior US defence official said the Pentagon would like to “keep the ball moving” on the deployment of Marines as well as air force crews, hoping to slightly increase the number of boots on the ground.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]