By Jared Owens
American officials in Canberra have denied US Assistant Defence Secretary David Shear’s claim that long-range B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft would be stationed in Australia amid efforts to counter Chinese influence in the region.
In Washington on Wednesday, Mr Shear told a congressional committee the “additional air force assets” and “significant numbers of marines” would be placed in Australia in response to Beijing’s efforts to “assert de facto control over disputed territories”.
The office of Defence Minister Kevin Andrews was caught off-guard by the Pentagon’s evidence. In a statement, it said Washington had advised that the senior official “misspoke”. The government was especially eager to reject any connection to Beijing’s posture in the East and South China seas, saying Australia’s military co-operation with the US was “not directed at any one country”.
Before 1pm, the US embassy in Canberra had scotched Mr Shear’s evidence with a tweet: “Contrary to reports, and to correct the record, the US has NO plans to rotate B-1 bombers or surveillance aircraft in Australia.”
However, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Andrew Davies, said Mr Shear may have found himself “ahead of the curve”. “I suspect what has happened is someone has just got ahead of the curve in terms of saying something was about to happen,” Dr Davies said.
“I think it’s almost certainly the case that discussions are going on, and that might well be what we end up with in the end. We could end up with more American nuclear submarines coming through Fremantle, for example.”
James Brown, the director of the Alliance 21 project at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre, said: “There are people in the Pentagon thinking about rotating B-1s through Australia, but a formal plan appears not to have been agreed by both governments.”
The 86-tonne B-1 bomber can carry up to 84 conventional 227kg bombs, or nuclear weapons, between continents.
Tony Abbott insisted Australia’s alliance with the US was “not aimed at anyone”. “It is an alliance for stability, for peace, for progress, for justice, and it is going to be a cornerstone of the stability of our region for many decades to come,” the Prime Minister said.
Mr Shear said the US had noted “a pattern of behaviour that raises concerns that China is trying to assert de facto control over disputed territories, and strengthen its military presence in the South China Sea”. “We are concerned that the scope and nature of China’s actions have the potential to disrupt regional security.”
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “The Chinese side advocates the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, yet the freedom definitely does not mean that foreign military vessels and aircraft can enter one country’s territorial waters and airspace at will."
This article was originally published in The Australian