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US military numbers in Australia set to rise -

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US military numbers in Australia set to rise

Broadcast: 28/03/2012

Reporter: Heather Ewart

An increasing use of Australian bases by the American army, air forces and navy may be getting
watched carefully by Beijing.

Transcript

CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: The US military presence in Australia is set to rise significantly.
Shortly 250 Marines will arrive in the Top End to spend half a year here every year. In time that
force will swell to 2,500. US planes will have greater access to our air bases and more US ships
will be visiting the West Coast. And Australian officials are talking to their US counterparts
about using the remote Cocos Islands as a base for long-range spy planes. All of this is being
closely watched in Beijing, as political editor Heather Ewart reports.

STEPHEN SMITH, DEFENCE MINISTER: We regard an enhanced presence by the United States in the Asia
Pacific region as a force for peace, as a force for stability and a force for prosperity.

HEATHER EWART, REPORTER: But just how far are we prepared to go when the United States calls on us
for co-operation? Are the idyllic Cocos Islands, Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, fair
game for a joint Australian-US military air base that could enable drone spy flights across the
region?

PAUL BARRATT, FORMER SECRETARY, DEFENCE DEPT.: We should always, when we're asked to do something,
say, "Well, we'll think about it constructively, but what's in it for us and we'll need to look at
all the implications for us."

JOHN BLACKBURN, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF AIR FORCE: It makes sense with our major alliance partner in
the region doing surveillance that it gives us a greater capacity to share surveillance information
and therefore have a much greater return on our surveillance investment.

MICHAEL WESLEY, LOWY INSTITUTE: I think China is getting a signal that Australia is one of the US
allies that is tightening its alliance relationship with the United States. It's not the only one.
Japan, Korea, have also tightened their security relationships with the US.

JIA QINGGUO, ADVISOR TO THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT: I think China is also watching this event very
closely. China hopes that the US would give China an explanation too. I think any kind of military
arrangement, new military arrangement, I think every country in the region should be informed.

HEATHER EWART: The debate today was off and running despite the Defence Minister Stephen Smith's
efforts to hose down the Cocos Islands as an option about to be implemented any time soon.

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had a detailed discussion about the nature of access, either naval or
aerial or the detail of any proposals or suggestions. It is very much down the track. It is not one
of our three current orders of priority.

HEATHER EWART: Those priorities were settled when President Obama visited late last year and it was
announced that US Marines would be rotated out of Darwin. As well the US Air Force would make
greater use of Australian air bases in northern Australia and its Navy would have greater access to
HMAS Stirling in WA.

And while a joint Cocos Islands base may be a long way down the track, 7.30 understands the plan is
being discussed and worked on at a very senior military-to-military level.

PAUL BARRATT: It's interesting that the minister's able to say that if it goes ahead it would
require a $100 million upgrade to the airfield to an infrastructure to enable it to go ahead. So
someone has gone to the point of appraising the infrastructure and costing the upgrades that'd be
required. So, it sounds to me this is more than a back-of-the-envelope sort of idea. It's more than
a thought bubble.

HEATHER EWART: Does it also look as though we are doing America's bidding, do you think?

JOHN BLACKBURN: I don't think so. Everybody recognises that the US is our closest alliance partner.
We're already doing surveillance in that area anyway, so this is an adjunct to what we're doing.

HEATHER EWART: Central to the debate is whether this is really all about the United States'
concerns about the rise of China.

MICHAEL WESLEY: Developments in Chinese weaponry really have started to get the Americans wondering
whether the safety of their operations along the Western Pacific coasts. No longer are they able
with impunity to sale through the Taiwan Straits or through the South China Sea in the complete
comfort of knowledge that there is no-one who has the capacities to attack their naval assets.

PAUL BARRATT: However we view it, the US will position it as being part of keeping an eye on what
China's up to South-East Asia. And we don't - perceptions are important. We don't want to get drawn
into what looks to China like containment by stealth.

HEATHER EWART: One advisor to the Chinese Government thinks that's how it will be interpreted there
in some quarters.

JIA QINGGUO: Some people are bound to be worried, especially people who are, you know, in charge of
China's defence. ... If the missions are - hypothetically are targeted against China, then China
has a reason to be worried.

HEATHER EWART: How important is it that we keep up a strong Defence relationship with the US ahead
of our trade and diplomatic relations with China?

JOHN BLACKBURN: I think it's a balance. The economy is absolutely fundamental to what we do here.
But our Defence relationship underpins everything we do.

HEATHER EWART: It's a balancing act the Government faces at almost every turn these days. For
example, this morning the Treasurer addressed the Australian China Business Council in Melbourne,
talking up the new Asia century.

WAYNE SWAN, TREASURER: Australia stands right at the centre of a transformative defining shift that
will shape the 21st Century.

HEATHER EWART: But everyone there was conscious of the Government's decision to black ban the
Chinese technology giant Huawei from National Broadband Network supply contracts after security
warnings from ASIO.

WAYNE SWAN: Well I don't comment and neither have previous governments commented on intelligence
matters and I don't propose to do anything other than not comment on intelligence matters. I think
we've got a broad relationship and I don't accept the characterisation of it damaging that
relationship.

HEATHER EWART: What sort of signal does that send to other big Chinese companies?

JASON CHANG, AUSTRALIA CHINA BUSINESS COUNCIL: It's a bit difficult to estimate the impact of that
not knowing the precise background, but if I look at the year just gone by, there were more than
70-plus investments and transactions between China and Australia. I just don't think that trend
will change. And every now and then you might have an investment that will take longer to
consummate. I'm not sure we've seen the end of that story yet.

MICHAEL WESLEY: I think it sends a signal that Australia is wary, that it welcomes Chinese
investment, but it is gonna watch it very closely. It is not open slather for the investment of
China or for that matter any other country in the world.

HEATHER EWART: The Chinese business community here politely points to a massive increase in Chinese
investments in Australia over the past five years and sees that trend continuing. But it would like
Australia to show greater interest in China.

JASON CHANG: Look, absolutely I think we've work to be done there, but can I say that if you look
at the engagement between Australia and China over the last 12 months, it's - at a government and a
business level I think it's unprecedented.

HEATHER EWART: The test for the Government is how it keeps that up while at the same time balancing
the demands of its powerful ally the United States.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Political editor Heather Ewart.