By David Wroe
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 on 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.
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Julia Gillard met 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.
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.
Mr Smith repeated denials that the increased co-operation between the US and Australia was aimed at China.
Mrs Clinton later lauded Australia's burgeoning relationship with India and encouraged Australia to deepen its military co-operation — including through joint-naval exercises — with the world's largest democracy.
In her first remarks on tour, Mrs Clinton gave China relatively short shrift, saying only that "we look for ways to support the peaceful rise of China".
"And (we) hope to see gradual but consistent opening up of a Chinese society and political system that will more closely give the Chinese people the opportunities that we in the United States and Australia are lucky to take for granted."
Hailing India as the "world's largest democracy and a dynamic emerging economy", Mrs Clinton welcomed Australia's "burgeoning relationship" with the country. "We would welcome joint Australia-Indian naval vessel exercises in the future and we're eager to work together in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation," she said.
Speaking at the opening of a US studies centre at the University of Western Australia, she also said the US had made a strategic priority of encouraging Delhi to play a larger role in world affairs.
This article was originally published by The Age