Australia, which tries to tread a fine line between supporting its closest ally, the US, and not upsetting China, its biggest trading partner, yesterday rejected a proposal to base a US nuclear aircraft carrier group near Perth, saying it did not want American bases in the country.
The idea was raised in a Pentagon-commissioned report by the influential Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, which suggested relocating a carrier and its support fleet from the US east coast to HMAS Stirling, an Australian naval base south of Perth, as part of a new strategic focus on Asia.
But the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, ruled it out, saying that while negotiations were under way to increase US navy access to the base, Australia would not be hosting a US aircraft carrier group, which typically including submarines, destroyers and fighter jets. “We have made it crystal clear from the first moment – we don’t have United States military bases in Australia, and we’re not proposing to,” he said.
Defence analysts said that was probably aimed at placating China, which reacted coolly to an announcement last year that the US would be rotating up to 2,500 Marines through Darwin. “I think they’ll [the Australian government] be very careful not to risk further displeasure from China by doing anything that suggests they’re supporting a US military build-up in Asia,” Hugh White, head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told Associated Press.
The US, which has announced plans to shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020, has been forging closer military ties with countries in the region, in an effort to counter China’s growing military strength. It already has a carrier strike group based in the Japanese port of Yokosuka.
According to the report, it would cost more than $1bn (£644.7m) to upgrade HMAS Stirling into a home port for a nuclear carrier that would become the flagship of a strike group.
Mr Smith emphasised that the proposal came from a think-tank. “The report is an independent report to the United States government. It’s not a United States government document,” he said. “What we have talked about in terms of either increased aerial access or naval access is precisely that – greater access to our facilities.”
The rotation of Marines through Darwin was announced during President Obama’s visit to Australia last year, as part of an agreement on increased military cooperation. China condemned that agreement as a return to the Cold War divisions that risked the peace and security of the region.
“There’s a concern that the more the US builds up its military posture in the Western Pacific as part of … [the] pivot to Asia, the higher the risk that the US-China relationship will become more competitive, more adversarial, more hostile,” Professor White said. “And that pushes Australia close to the point of having to make a choice between the US and China, and that’s something we badly want to avoid.”
Mr Smith played down a separate proposal in the report to expand the US Marines’ presence in Darwin to a full air ground taskforce involving thousands of troops. “There is no suggestion being made to us that Australia should receive such a large number of Marines transferred from Okinawa or from Guam,” he said.
The US announced in April that it would pull 9,000 troops out of Japan as it seeks to resolve a long-running stand-off over the future of its huge military presence in the country.
Australia still hosts a top-secret joint US-Australian communications base at Pine Gap, in the central desert.