Australian Defence minister Stephen Smith on Sunday welcomed the United States’ plans for an enhanced naval presence in the Pacific, and said this should not impact Canberra’s relationship with China.
Pentagon chief Leon Panetta announced in Singapore on Saturday that the United States will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia.
Smith, speaking shortly after his return from Singapore, said the United States’ presence in the Asia Pacific had been “a force for peace and stability and prosperity since the end of World War II.”
“And we welcome very much the fact that not only will the United States continue that engagement, it will enhance it,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“The essential point is that none of this is done for reasons of trying to maximise or influence concern or threat; it’s all done for purposes of stability to continue peace, to continue prosperity.”
Panetta said the decision to gradually deploy more ships to the Pacific, along with expanding a network of military partnerships, was part of a deliberate effort to bolster the US role in an area vital to America’s future.
The move reflects US concern over China’s rising economic and military might but Panetta insisted the strategy was not a challenge to Beijing.
Australia will see 2,500 US Marines deployed to its north as part of the Asia strategy, a move that has rankled Beijing, but Smith said when he travelled to China this week he would make clear that Canberra wanted to continue to deepen its relationship with the Asian giant.
“The point I’ll make to Chinese friends is that Australia has had a growing relationship with China since we were one of the countries to recognise China very early back in 1972; we’ve had a growing relationship for 40 years,” he said.
Smith dismissed a report saying Australia, as a military ally of the United States, would be forced to fight China in the event of a conflict was considered in the initial draft of a 2009 defence white paper but later scrapped to avoid offending Beijing.
“It was a nonsense when it was made previously and it’s a nonsense now,” he said of the claim, adding that the white paper, which outlined Australia’s military strategy for the next 20 years, was not aimed at any one country.
“It wasn’t aimed at China.”
He said Australia had a strong and comprehensive relationship with China, one of its most crucial trading partners and a keen consumer of its exports, and growing defence ties.
“And none of that has been adversely affected by our over 60-year alliance with the United States, he said.
“So this is… it can be win-win, and that’s what we want it to be.”
Australia’s ties to Washington reportedly dominated Australian Foreign minister Bob Carr’s visit to China last month, with Beijing criticising their close military alliance.
“I think their view can be expressed that the time for Cold War alliances have long since past,” Carr told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Smith said alterations were being made as the world adjusted to the rise of Asia, including India.
“So these changes of strategic influence, the changes in economic, political and military weight, do require adjustments and the United States, Australia, China and India and our region are adjusting to that,” he said.
“It’s how we manage that adjustment and manage that for good stability and prosperity reasons; that’s the most important objective we have and the central challenge that we have in the coming decades.”