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Smith talks up Perth base for US navy

14 Nov 2012 THE AGE - BY DAVID WROE DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT



DEFENCE Minister Stephen Smith has flagged in the clearest terms yet that Australia will deepen its long-term involvement in the United States' strategic "pivot" to Asia by boosting the role of the naval base at Perth in the build-up of American forces in the region.

Ahead of the high-level AUSMIN talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in the West Australian capital Wednesday, Mr Smith said Perth's HMAS Stirling would inevitably rise in prominence as the Indian Ocean gained strategic importance.

"I've been an advocate and an arguer of the point of view that India is on the rise, the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean is on the rise," Mr Smith said.

"The enhanced importance of Stirling and its utility is to me something that will occur as sure as night follows day."

He stressed it would take "years, rather than weeks or months". While HMAS Stirling has previously been floated as a possible site for a greater US naval presence - including even an aircraft carrier - the strength of Mr Smith's remarks signify that Australia will play a long-term and expanding role in the pivot.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard met Tuesday night with Ms Clinton and Mr Panetta, joined by Mr Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

Wednesday's talks will cover the next stage of the rotation of US marines through Darwin, the first 250 of which have spent part of this year in the Australian base there.

They will also canvass cyber security, how to tackle the amount of used satellite junk in space, and the post-2014 military contributions to Afghanistan. Australia has already indicated it would consider keeping a Special Forces presence for counter-terrorism, as well as to continue training Afghan officers.

The talks will also look at increasing US Air Force access to Northern Territory airfields.

Many defence and national security experts view the US pivot - an increase in its military presence in the southern Asia Pacific region - as squarely aimed at China. In particular, there are concerns about the emerging economic and military giant's tensions with its neighbours over disputed territories in the South China Sea, which, as well as having oil and gas reserves and fish stocks, is the gateway to key maritime routes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Mr Smith repeated denials that the increased co-operation between the US and Australia was aimed at China.

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, said China would be the "key issue".

The American visitors would demand to know how committed Australia was to helping the US manage China's rise, he said.

"The US leaders are going to look our leaders in the eye and ask, 'Are you guys dinkum or not?' They won't say it publicly, but it will be an interesting meeting."

Professor White said there was "an awful lot of linguistic and political chicanery" around the US pivot.

"Everyone is denying the bleeding obvious," he said.

He also dismissed Mr Smith's claim that Australia's defence budget cuts - by about 10 per cent - would not be a major issue of the talks.