By Shalailah Medhora
A senior United States defence official “misspoke” when he told a US Senate committee the country planned to station B-1 bombers in Australia, Tony Abbott has said.
David Shear, the US Defence Department’s assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told the committee the US “will be placing additional airforce assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft”. He said more marines would be deployed to the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, as the US tries to assert its dominance against an increasingly powerful China.
“We will have a very strong presence, very strong continued posture throughout the region to back our commitments to our allies, to protect and work with our partners and to continue ensuring peace and stability in the region, as well as back our diplomacy vis a vis China on the South China Sea,” Shear said.
But the Australian prime minister said the information about the long-range bombers was incorrect.
“I’ve sought some information about the testimony provided in Washington by an official. I understand that the official misspoke and that the US does not have any plans to base those aircraft in Australia,” Abbott told reporters on Friday.
“I see the greater presence of the US in our part of the world as a force of stability. Australia’s alliance with the US is a force for stability,” Abbott said. The alliance was “not aimed at anyone”, he said.
A spokesman for the Australian defence minister Kevin Andrews said Australia’s defence agreement with the US, which allows American troops to be based in the Northern Territory for six-month stints, “does not allow US bases to be established in Australia”.
“Rather [it] provides for the rotational presence of US forces in Australia that will take place at Australian facilities,” the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Canberra said in a statement that the country had “no plans to rotate B-1 bombers or surveillance aircraft in Australia”.
But the statement did not close the door on the bombers being stationed in Australia in the future.
“We are currently exploring a range of options for future rotations with our Australian counterparts, and the specifics of future force posture cooperation have yet to be finalised.”
US defence officials had flagged an expansion of American interests in the region in July, when chief of the US airforce in the Pacific, General Herbert Carlisle, said the country would dispatch “fighters, tankers, and at some point in the future maybe bombers, on a rotational basis” to Australia.
That plan did not eventuate, but B-52 bombers were allowed to fly into Australian airspace for training exercises last month.
Ben Schreer from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi) said that there is “no reason” to doubt that Shear had meant to say B-52 instead of B-1 during his testimony to the US Senate. “His full answer to question merely lists US force posture activities in the broader region that the US has already announced or implemented,” Schreer wrote on Aspi’s blog.
Brendon O’Connor, from the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, said the strategic relationship between the countries had grown beyond what was imagined in the 2011 arrangement.
“It is more significant strategically than I think we’ve ever been used to, particularly in a peacetime,” O’Connor told the ABC on Friday. He said the prominence of American troops in Australia was something that the country has to “think about a little more strongly” because of Australia’s increased engagement with Asia, and China specifically.
“I think the Chinese are savvy enough to know that Australians want to play the relationship both ways — have it good with the Chinese and good with the Americans,” O’Connor said.
“[The bomber announcement] just ratchets up a degree of kind of nervousness, or that kind of underlying question of how to have [relationships with] your biggest trading partner, China, and your main strategic ally, the US,” O’Connor said.
The opposition leader Bill Shorten would not be drawn on whether having a greater American military capability on Australian soil would damage relationships with Asian countries.
“I think our region knows that we have the Anzus alliance,” he told reporters on Friday. “I don’t think anyone has ever said that we shouldn’t have the American alliance. But what I think Asian societies want to see is deeper engagement [in the region].”
This article was originally published at The Guardian