Australia urged to send military to counter China's control over sea lanesAn artists impression of the Australian Navy's Air Warfare Destroyer
By John Garnaut and David Wroe
By John Garnaut and David Wroe
Australia should prepare to send military aircraft and ships to the South China Sea to stop China from asserting territorial control across some of the world's most important trading lanes, says a leading defence planner.
The recommendation by Peter Jennings, who chairs the Abbott government's advisory panel for drafting the upcoming Defence white paper, followed vehement denials by both Canberra and Washington that the US plans to put long-range bombers in Australia to deter China.
Those denials came in response to a remark by a top Pentagon official David Shear that "we will be placing additional air force assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft", though the denials from both sides left the door open to an increased military presence in Australian in future.
Mr Jennings' recommendation, meanwhile, raises the unprecedented prospect of Australian defence personnel facing off against the armed forces of Australia's largest trading partner.
While it has not been endorsed by serving military or government leaders, the idea reflects the degree of concern in Canberra about China projecting military power and asserting control over contested waters that stretch as far as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Concerns this year have focused on China's rapid construction of ports, airstrips and possibly even gun battlements upon previously submerged atolls in the Spratly archipelago.
And the growing intensity of those concerns appear to have led to the extraordinary confusion that followed the B-1 bomber remarks by Mr Shear, who is the US Defence Department Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.
Mr Jennings said it wouldn't be the first time a Pentagon official "misspoke" but the episode showed how the US was hardening its position as China grew more aggressive in its territorial claims.
To maintain credibility he said the US would have to puncture the Chinese claims by sending US vessels and aircraft flying through Chinese-claimed waters and airspace.
And Australia would need to follow suit.
"The next step after asserting our position is the simple physical demonstration of it by actually sailing through the sea and airspace," said Mr Jennings.
"If we're serious about asserting it then we'll have to do it, at some stage," said Mr Jennings.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his understanding was that the Pentagon's Mr Shear "misspoke and that the US does not have any plans to base those aircraft in Australia".
A senior Australian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, went further, telling Fairfax Media that the claims were not just wrong but were "off the reservation".
"I can give you an absolute guarantee that there has simply been no discussion with the Americans formally or informally about bloody B-1s and surveillance aircraft," the official said.
A US Embassy spokeswoman also said Mr Shear "misspoke" and there were "no plans to rotate B-1 bombers or surveillance aircraft in Australia".
But she added that "we are currently exploring a range of options for future rotations with our Australian counterparts, and the specifics of future force posture co-operation have yet to be finalised".
Similarly, a spokesman for Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said that "the specifics of the future force posture co-operation are yet to be finalised".
"A range of different US aircraft already visits Australia for exercises and training. Increased co-operation will build on these activities," he said.