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Smith Rules Out U.S. Having Aircraft Carrier Base in Perth

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard, Australia's prime minister. Photographer: Patrick Hamilton/Bloomberg

Australia is opposed to the idea of the U.S. operating an aircraft carrier base at the HMAS Stirling naval port in Perth after a think tank suggested the possibility in a report to Congress.

“The only thing we will consider will be greater access” by the U.S. military to the base, as previously announced, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said in an interview on Australian Broadcasting Corp. television today. “We have made it crystal clear from the first moment that we don’t have U.S. military bases in Australia, we don’t see the need for that.”

Marines are being deployed in Australia’s northern region under a plan announced by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November. The increased military presence is part of a U.S. push to boost its footprint in the Asia-Pacific, including a bid to strengthen naval defenses in the Philippines, as China’s military power grows.

The proposal to base a U.S. aircraft carrier and supporting fleet in Perth, Australia’s biggest western coast city on the Indian Ocean, is one of four options set out in a report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and due to be presented to Congress today, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported. The center considered how the U.S. military could undertake the so-called “pivot” in the Asia-Pacific announced by Obama last year in response to China’s increasing influence, it said.

Construction Costs

Basing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at HMAS Stirling would “require significant construction costs” because the port is not nuclear carrier-capable, according to the report. The Defense Department should move more ships to the Pacific and better define its strategy as it pivots toward Asia to counter a rising China, it said.

“It’s a suggestion by an independent think tank,” Smith said. “It’s not one we’re proposing to take up.”

People “should be very careful to ascribe a view of an independent think tank which has been presented publicly as a requirement by the U.S. Congress as in any way reflecting the view of the U.S. government.”

When Obama in November announced plans to deploy as many as 2,500 Marines in Australia’s north, he said it sent a “clear message” of U.S. commitment to the region and that the U.S. wasn’t attempting to contain China. Australia needs to bolster the defense of its energy and mining assets on its northwestern coast, according to a review commissioned by the government that was released in January.

Talks With Australia

The U.S. is engaged in discussions with Australia on what kinds of facilities it would be using in the country, Robert Scher, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans at the Department of Defense, told a sub-committee of the House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services in Washington yesterday.

“To be clear, we are not looking to establish a U.S. base in Australia or anywhere outside of U.S. territory,” Scher said, according to a transcript. “We are looking to use shared facilities.”

The talks with Australia are at an early stage and it’s too soon to have a measure of the cost of any projects, Scher said.

“Down the track, because of the growth of India and the importance of the Indian Ocean rim, in due course we would look at great naval access to HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port,” Smith said.

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