From left, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta take part in a news conference Nov. 14 at the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations in Perth. In what could be her final visit Down Under in her current job, Clinton joined Panetta for talks with Australian counterparts Carr and Smith. (Matt Rourke / AFP pool)
PERTH, Australia — The United States military will station a powerful radar and a space telescope in Australia as part of its strategic shift toward Asia, the two countries announced Nov. 14.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described the deal as a “major leap forward in bilateral space cooperation and an important new frontier in the United States’ rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.”
The transfer of the C-band radar “will add considerably to surveillance of space debris in our part of the world,” Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith told a news conference.
The plan, unveiled at annual strategic talks between the two nations, calls for the first deployment of a U.S. Air Force C-band radar in the Southern Hemisphere, allowing the Americans to better track space debris as well as Chinese space launches, senior U.S. defense officials said.
“It will give us visibility into things that are leaving the atmosphere, entering the atmosphere, really all throughout Asia,” including China’s rocket and missile tests, a U.S. defense official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
At the meeting of foreign and defense ministers in the western Australian city of Perth, the two governments also launched discussions on granting the Americans future access to air bases in northern Australia as well as naval ports, including one in nearby Stirling, Smith said.
Smith welcomed the deployment of U.S. Marines this year in Australia’s north, where 250-strong contingents spend six-month tours. He said the two sides would soon increase the number of Marines on the ground to 1,100 by 2014, with the goal of 2,500 Marines in place by about 2016-17.
A joint communique signaled “increased rotations of U.S. aircraft through northern Australia” but also struck a cautious note, saying any enhanced U.S. military presence “would require substantial further study and additional decisions by both capitals.”
Anxious over China’s growing military might and territorial tensions with its neighbors, U.S. officials are pushing for a more visible military role across the region.
This includes expanding military exercises and deploying more advanced ships and hardware, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Smith said holding the talks in the western coastal city underlined the growing importance of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, home to vital shipping lanes and growing economies.
“Here you see the world moving to the Asia-Pacific, the world moving to the Indo-Pacific, not just with security implications but with enormous economic investment and prosperity,” he said.
Before Nov. 14’s meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed that the U.S. was fully committed to its pivot to Asia over the long term, despite crises in the Middle East and budget pressures at home.
Speaking Nov. 13 at the University of Western Australia, she underlined America’s “expanding engagement” in the region.
“It’s important that we make absolutely clear we are here to stay,” she said, adding that it was important to see India become more involved in the region and that the U.S. would welcome Australia-India joint naval exercises.
Although U.S. and Australian officials privately worry about Beijing’s assertive stance in the South China Sea and elsewhere, Clinton insisted the United States supported the peaceful rise of China.
The U.S.-Australia talks are taking place as China’s Communist Party undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
The discussions in Perth also covered political reforms in Myanmar, concern over Iran’s nuclear program, the raging civil war in Syria and the NATO-led war effort in Afghanistan, officials said.
The ministers renewed their support for the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But the two governments discussed the possibility of Australian special forces taking part in a smaller force with the United States after 2014.
“I believe that is worth considering,” Panetta said, adding the Australian elite special forces could play a role in a counter-terrorism mission aimed at al-Qaeda.