US eyes Perth naval base
THE United States could base a US aircraft carrier and supporting fleet in Perth, under plans to be presented to Congress today.
The proposal is one of four options set out in a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies commissioned by the US Defence Department.
The centre was directed to consider how the US military could undertake the so-called “pivot” in the Asia-Pacific region announced by President Barack Obama last year in response to China’s increasing influence.
Chinese analysts immediately identified the plan as likely to antagonise China, saying it would confirm suspicions of an effort to contain it. Such a move would raise the temptation for China to use its huge economic leverage to retaliate, they said.
“It would be interpreted within China as another move to encircle China,” said Sun Zhe, the director of Tsinghua University’s Centre for China-US Relations.
Song Xiaojun, editor of Naval and Merchant Ships magazine, said Australia would be unlikely to proceed with the proposal after it weighed security gains against export losses.
“Do they think China one day will invade Australia and rob its iron ore? said Song, formerly an analyst with a People’s Liberation Army academy.
The strike group would include a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a carrier air wing of up to nine squadrons, one or two guided-missile cruisers, two or three guided-missile destroyers, one or two nuclear-powered submarines and a supply ship.
The report also suggests that the US could consider building facilities to support “bombers and other aircraft”.
“Australia‘s geography, political stability and existing defence capabilities and infrastructure offer ... significant military advantages to the United States in light of the growing range of Chinese weapons systems,’’ it says. “HMAS Stirling offers advantages including direct blue water access to the Indian Ocean ... submarine facilities including a heavyweight torpedo maintenance centre and the only submarine escape training facility in the southern hemisphere.’’
The report also notes the naval base offers ‘‘expanded surface ship facilities, including potentially a dock capable of supporting aircraft carriers”.
The document — which includes advice from Andrew Shearer, foreign policy adviser to former prime minister John Howard — provides the greatest detail yet about exactly how the United States sees its new role in the Asia-Pacific and Australia.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith said in a speech in Canberra last night that Australia would look at an increased US presence at HMAS Stirling.
‘‘For Australia, this presence will support our long-held strategic interests in maintaining and expanding US engagement in our region.’’
He reasserted the need for a strong alliance with the US, as it had underwritten stability in the region for the past half-century ‘‘and will continue to be the single most important strategic actor in our region for the foreseeable future’’.
Responding to a question, the minister said: ‘‘The US does not have a base in Australia and this will not change’’.
Mr Smith insists that the Northern Territory military base through which up to 2500 US marines rotate for training each year is not a US base. The report is believed to moot the possibility of increasing that number.
West Australian Premier Colin Barnett dismissed the notion of such extensive US forces at Stirling.
‘‘I don’t think there’s any possibility of that happening,’’ he said.
‘‘I don’t think you could squeeze a nuclear aircraft carrier into Cockburn Sound.’’
The Greens reacted negatively. ‘‘The risks of routinely floating nuclear reactors in and out of Cockburn Sound shouldn’t be underestimated,’’ West Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam said.
‘‘Western Australian police and emergency services personnel are completely under-resourced to cope with even a minor reactor leak.’’
The head of a Canberra think tank also rejected the idea, though for different and multiple reasons.
Peter Jennings, a former deputy defence secretary and now the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the idea was unrealistic, citing the cost — anywhere between between $US1 billion and $US6.7 billion — as prohibitive in the context of deep US defence budget cuts.
What was likely, however, was more US naval ship visits to Stirling, he said.
Authors of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies report were scheduled to give testimony before the US Congress Armed Services Committee overnight, Melbourne time.
The report notes: “Australia is unique among America‘s allies in having fought alongside the United States in every major conflict since the start of the 20th century.”
While Perth was a long way away from some strategically important areas, the report says the West Australian capital’s location could also be a benefit because it was beyond the increasing range of China’s defences.
A spokesman for the centre said the think-tank was unable to comment on the report until after some of its authors had testified before the Senate committee.
The Armed Services Committee’s chairman, Senator Carl Levin, said he agreed with comments made by Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta that ‘‘efforts to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific to advance a common security vision for the future are essential to the US strategy to rebalance toward the region’’.