By Philip Dorling
The US military plans to station B-1 strategic bombers and surveillance aircraft in Australia as part of efforts to deter Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, a senior US government official has revealed in comments later downplayed by the Australian government.
The US plan comes as the Obama administration moves to boost US naval forces and air power in the South China Sea to assert the right of free passage and challenge China's efforts to buttress its maritime territorial claims through the construction of airfields and artificial islands.
The B-1 Lancer bomber, commonly called "Bone" (originally from "B-One") was first deployed by the US Air Force in the mid 1980s and is expected to continue as a strategic bomber until the mid 2030s.
US B-52 bombers have previously been temporarily deployed to Darwin, to take part in exercises with the Royal Australian Air Force, in 2012 and in late 2014, as a consequence of a joint Force Posture Initiative agreed by former prime minister Julia Gillard and US President Barack Obama in 2011.
About 1150 US Marines began arriving in Darwin this week for six months training during the Top End's dry season.
The marines are the fourth rotation of US troops deployed to the Northern Territory since 2011.
The plan is to gradually increase the number of US Marines rotating through Darwin to 2500 troops by 2017.
Disclosed ahead of any statement by the Australian government, the US plan to deploy B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft to Australia comes as part of the US military's broader "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region.
Assistant Defence Secretary Shear made it clear on Wednesday that the US intends to challenge China's claims to sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea.
"We claim the right of innocent passage in such areas, and we exercise that right regularly, both in the South China Sea and globally," Mr Shear told the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Similar views were expressed by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, who also told the Senate committee "No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can't manufacture sovereignty."
An Australian Defence Department spokesperson said the department was "aware of the comments made by a US official in Congressional testimony overnight."
In an apparent reference to Assistant Secretary Shear's remarks about China added that the US Government "has contacted us to advise that the official misspoke."
The Defence Department spokesperson insisted that military cooperation between Australia and the United States is "not directed at any one country."
However the spokesperson did not dispute the report that the US plans to deploy B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft to Australia and declined to answer specific questions about any such deployments.
"The specifics of the future force posture cooperation are yet to be finalised," the spokesperson said. "Details are subject to continuing discussions between Australia and the United States. A range a different US aircraft already visits Australia for exercises and training. Increased cooperation will build on these activities."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he wasn't aware of the report but backed the Amercian -Australian alliance.
"I think our region knows we have the ANZUS alliance," he said.
"I don't think anyone's ever said we shouldn't have the American alliance but what I think Asian economies and societies want to see is deeper engagement and engagement isn't just trade," he said.
Greg Sheridan writes recently that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about U.S. Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.
I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the U.S.–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:
...U.S. Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.
Sheridan criticizes Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, “There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.”
We're in the realm of wordplay here. The U.S.-Australia Joint Defense Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various U.S. spy agencies. And while the U.S. Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the U.S. military presence in Australia.
Sheridan then writes:
The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.
Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.
But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host U.S. strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.