13 June 2014
CANBERRA, Australia —Talks between the U.S. and Australia have given fresh momentum to Washington's plans to create a larger ballistic-missile defense shield for its allies in Asia.
According to a U.S. statement overnight, discussions between President Barack Obama and visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott resulted in a commitment from Canberra for help in pushing forward with expanded missile-defense plans as a counter to North Korea.
The talks also firmed up U.S. intentions to position more warships and aircraft in Australia, as regional concerns mount over instability in the South China Sea. Disputes between China and several of its neighbors have escalated in recent months, and the U.S. has worked to shore up its defense ties with its regional allies.
China has its own ballistic-missile capability, and Beijing has long been skeptical of the growing U.S. missile-defense plans in Asia.
The U.S. has for years been working toward setting up a regional defense shield capable of thwarting potential missile threats from countries such as North Korea. The U.S. and Australia have been critical of missile tests and other actions by North Korea seen as provocative.
Japan and the U.S. have had a joint ballistic-missile defense system in place since 2010. Washington is also studying plans to deploy a missile shield in South Korea—a move that China has warned would unnecessarily raise regional tensions.
Washington's statement on Thursday said the U.S. was now examining ways for Australia to participate in a bigger regional system using the country's coming fleet of missile destroyers equipped with advanced Aegis radar capability.
"We are…working to explore opportunities to expand cooperation on ballistic missile defense, including working together to identify potential Australian contributions to ballistic-missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region," the U.S. statement said.
Australia is building a new fleet of warships that could be equipped to shoot down hostile missiles, as part of an ambitious military buildup that includes investments in new stealth-fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, amphibious carriers and submarines. The revamp will cost close to 90 billion Australian dollars (US$85 billion) over a decade.
"This might mean the Australian Defence Force could end up mounting advanced missiles on its Aegis-equipped air-warfare destroyers," said security analyst James Brown of Australia's Lowy Institute.
After the talks, Australia's Tony Abbott said his country had agreed to arrangements for an expanded U.S. military presence at whatever level was deemed "appropriate and necessary" by Washington and its allies for safeguarding regional stability.
Washington and Canberra have criticized Beijing recently for what they view as strong-arm tactics in spats with other countries in the region—including Japan—over contested islands in the South and East China Seas. China has also irked Hanoi by deploying an oil-drilling platform in disputed waters close to Vietnam.
In 2011, the U.S. and Australia reached a deal to rotate a 2,500-strong U.S. marine expeditionary brigade through the northern Australian city of Darwin for several months a year as part of Washington's "pivot" to Asia. The long-standing allies have been united in criticizing what U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently called "destabilizing, unilateral actions" by China in relation to its neighbors.
"We're not talking about U.S. bases," Mr. Abbott told Australia's Sky Television after the meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington. "We're talking about the United States using our bases on a more regular basis, and having an appropriate legal arrangement for this to go forward."
China rejects the suggestion that it has acted unreasonably toward its neighbors. A senior Chinese general criticized Mr. Hagel's remarks at a regional security conference in Singapore this month as "provocative" and "full of hegemony."
"Maintaining the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia Pacific region is in the common interest of all the relevant countries," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing Friday when asked about the talks between Australia and the U.S.
"So we hope that relevant countries developing direct cooperation will play a constructive role in protecting the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia Pacific region," Ms. Hua said.
Australia and Japan agreed to expand military ties during talks in Tokyo this week. But following Mr. Obama's talks with his Australian counterpart, officials on both sides took care to play down suggestions that there would be any rapid acceleration of an American buildup in Australia beyond current plans.
Mr. Obama said the latest agreement laid a platform for the ''additional reach'' of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific, and he praised Mr. Abbott's conservative government for boosting defense spending when other countries were becoming more cautious.
"Aussies know how to fight, and I like having them in a foxhole if we're in trouble," Mr. Obama said in Washington on Thursday.
— Jeremy Page contributed to