President Barack Obama will announce the biggest enhancement in military ties with Australia since the 1980s during his visit to the nation this week, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said.
Increasing military training and U.S. access to Australian bases will be part of an agreement the nations have been working on for more than a year, Smith said in a Bloomberg television interview late yesterday in Canberra.
At stake for Australia is anchoring an American presence in the western Pacific that can help safeguard sea lanes that host more than $5 trillion of trade. Smith said the deepening security ties aren’t aimed at “one particular country,” underscoring his nation’s goal of avoiding any split with China, its top export destination.
“Australia takes the view that U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific has been a most significant cause of peace and stability and prosperity in our region since the end of World War II,” Smith said. “We want to see that continue.”
Obama, who arrived in Canberra today on his first visit to Australia as president, is increasing the U.S.’s economic and military focus on the Asia-Pacific region as it withdraws from wars in the Mideast. He will hold a press conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard marking the 60th anniversary of the U.S.- Australia military alliance and address the nation’s parliament tomorrow.
Enhancing arrangements with the U.S. “will be in my view the single biggest practical cooperative change or addition that we’ve made to the alliance relationship since we agreed on the joint facilities process in the 1980s,” said Smith, 55.
The “obvious and best example” of such a joint facility is the Pine Gap site in central Australia, Smith said, referring to the base which helps detect missile launches around the world.
There is “no proposal to have United States bases” in Australia, said Smith, who has held the defense minister’s post since September 2010 after serving almost three years as foreign minister.
“It’s been very much part of the public record that Australia made overtures to the U.S. to increase our engagement with the armed forces of Australia and our utility of the training facilities” in the country, Admiral Robert Willard, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in a briefing in Honolulu on Nov. 13. “That was unprecedented and we’re very grateful for that overture.”
The White House has declined to release details of any military announcement ahead of Obama’s visit.
The cooperation may involve an increased U.S. presence at a number of military sites, including the HMAS Stirling naval base south of Perth, an army base in Townsville in the nation’s northeast and a port at Darwin on the Timor Sea, Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has been briefed by the administration on the discussions, said last week.
“The administration clearly wants to assure the region that we are this resident Pacific power for the long term,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, a policy institute in Washington. “Throughout the region there is uncertainty how China will use its growing and newfound military power.”
Smith said the rise of China has led some to think “the U.S. is magically disappearing.”
“Well it’s not,” he said. “The U.S. has made it crystal clear that it will continue its presence in the Asia Pacific.”
The Australian visit is part of a nine-day trip that included the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu and will end in Indonesia at the East Asia Summit.
Obama has twice canceled planned visits to Australia, once because of his health care bill and the second time because of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Before leaving for Bali tomorrow, Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit the northern city of Darwin, which was attacked by the Japanese during World War II and symbolizes the historic U.S.-Australian alliance.
The 1942 air raids killed at least 243 people and were planned and led by the commander responsible for the assault on Pearl Harbor 10 weeks earlier, according to the National Archives of Australia. Among the ships sunk in Darwin harbor was the USS Peary, a navy destroyer that was refueling, according to the US Navy.
‘No Better Ally’
The president will use tomorrow’s address to parliament as the “anchor speech” of his Asia-Pacific trip, said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. Obama will discuss how the U.S. is pivoting to put more military and economic resources toward the region as it ends wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
The U.S. “really has no better ally than Australia” on a range of military, nuclear security and economic issues, Rhodes said.
The nation, which served alongside the U.S. in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is a buyer of American military equipment, approving an initial purchase of 14 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft at an estimated cost of A$3.2 billion.
Still, China’s demand for natural resources, led by iron ore and coal, has made the nation Australia’s largest trading partner and fueled a record mining boom, much of it concentrated in the north of the country.
“It’s possible for Australia to have an alliance relationship with the U.S. and a comprehensive bilateral relationship with China,” said Smith, a federal lawmaker representing voters in Perth, where he has been the member since 1993. “This is not a zero sum game.”