Australia’s military spending cuts are understandable and don’t jeopardize its alliance with the U.S., Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich said before the country hosts talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“We understand there are going to be these adjustments in budgets year-to-year but in terms of commitments, we hear the same thing we always hear from Australia,” Bleich said in an interview with Sky News television yesterday. “They will meet their commitment to us as allies.”
President Barack Obama is promoting a military “pivot” away from the Middle East, part of a U.S. push to expand its footprint in the Asia-Pacific area as China’s military power grows, as an opportunity to boost cooperation in the region.
Australia, which has begun hosting Marines in its northern port of Darwin under an agreement announced by Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard a year ago, in May said defense spending will be cut by A$5.4 billion ($5.6 billion) over four years.
“There have been periods where the U.S. has had to make adjustments in its own defense spending and our allies have always shown confidence in us that, no matter what our budget demands are, we’re always going to meet our obligations to our allies and also maintain the security needs of the U.S.,” Bleich said in the interview from Australia’s national capital, Canberra. “We’ve seen that in Australia.”
Clinton, who is embarking on a 10-day Asia-Pacific trip, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta are due to discuss security co-operation with Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr in Perth on Nov. 14.
The secretary of state will discuss U.S. concern over Australia’s cuts to defense spending at the meeting, the Age newspaper reported Nov. 10, citing Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. The nation’s defense budget this fiscal year is set to be 1.56 percent of gross domestic product, down from 1.8 percent last year, according to the report.
Campbell’s comments to the Melbourne newspaper were “misinterpreted,” Bleich said yesterday. Smith, in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview yesterday, said the nation’s cuts to defense spending, triggered by Gillard’s push to get the national budget back into surplus next year, won’t be discussed at the annual talks in Perth.
“The assertion that somehow the U.S. is coming here to talk about our defense cuts is frankly a nonsense,” Smith said. “Defense cuts are not on the agenda. We’re going to deal with the sweep of strategic issues that are of importance to us.”
Australia, a military ally of the U.S. for more than 60 years, is allowing as many as 2,500 Marines to be based in Darwin. Both nations, involved in the war in Afghanistan, intend to withdraw most combat troops from that country by the end of 2014.
“We’re continuing with our enhanced, practical co-operation with the U.S. through the rotation of Marines in Darwin and the prospect of enhanced aerial aviation down the track,” Smith said.
Allowing the U.S. Navy greater access to Australia’s Indian Ocean naval base HMAS Stirling in Perth is “a number of years off,” he said. Smith confirmed that Indonesia would be involved in military exercises with Marines and Australian forces next year.
Leaders in Australia’s opposition Liberal-National coalition, favored in polls to win elections due next year, want to open the debate with the U.S. over the possible purchase of nuclear submarines to replace the navy’s diesel fleet, the Australian Financial Review reported Nov. 10.
“It’s an idea to speculate about, but it’s so far away from ever being a serious policy consideration,” Bleich said. Australia, which doesn’t allow nuclear generation, doesn’t have the technological capacity for such a plan to be feasible, he said.
Clinton will travel to Adelaide after the talks in Perth to tour military ship- and submarine-builder Techport Australia before heading to Southeast Asia, the State Department said Nov. 9 in an e-mailed statement from Washington. Some of her trip to the region will coincide with the itinerary of Obama, who will this month become the first U.S. head of state to visit Myanmar while in office.