MELBOURNE: The US military plans to bolster its presence across Asia and is looking at an expansion of ties with Australia’s armed forces, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.
Building up military cooperation with Australia would reinforce a broader effort to extend the US military’s role across the Asia-Pacific region, Gates told reporters aboard his plane Saturday, before landing in Melbourne.
“We’re looking at ways to strengthen and perhaps make more robust our presence in Asia,” Gates said, referring to a Pentagon review of how American forces are deployed around the world.
“We’re looking at a number of different options, one of those includes talking with the Australians about… areas where we can work together in a mutually beneficial way,” he said.
At an annual Australia-US meeting being held in Melbourne, Gates said the two governments would discuss deepening military ties including cooperation on cyber security, missile defence and “space surveillance.”
But he said there were no plans for new US bases in Australia or elsewhere in the region.
The discussions in Australia come amid concern over China’s increasingly assertive stance in the Pacific and its growing naval power, with some Asian states turning to Washington for support.
Gates, however, insisted that US plans were not designed as a counter-weight to China.
“This isn’t about China at all,” he said.
The United States had an interest in building military ties with Asian countries to combat piracy at sea, bolster counter-terrorism efforts and provide humanitarian relief for natural disasters, he said.
The Pentagon chief added that cooperation on humanitarian operations has come up in talks with China’s military as well.
His comments came as US military leaders consider moving more forces to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, beyond the longstanding American presence in South Korea and Japan.
A senior defence official said the Pentagon is “looking at how we can make sure our forces are not just oriented in Northeast Asia, but are looking through down to Southeast Asia and then into the Indian Ocean as this part of the security environment becomes more important.”
Boosting US access to Australian bases, if agreed, would likely mean a larger American presence but precise numbers remained unclear, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A final decision was still months away, he added.
During the summit, defence chiefs are due to sign an agreement to bolster joint efforts to track objects in space over the southern hemisphere, including satellites, space junk and potential ballistic missiles fired from North Korea, officials said.
The “space situational awareness partnership agreement” could allow for an expanded American presence at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, which the US military already uses.
Australia’s military alliance with the United States has deep roots and the country remains a top buyer of American weaponry, with US military sales to Australia reaching 1.45 billiondollars in 2010.