CANBERRA – The U.S. is in talks with Australia about “basing” navy vessels in facilities on the shores of its main South Pacific ally, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said, a move that would risk inflaming tensions with China.
“We’re doing a study together with the Australia Defense Force to see what might be feasible for naval cooperation in and around Australia, which might include basing ships,” Greenert said during a speech Tuesday at a university in Canberra. It was unclear if Greenert was referring to permanent basing or the rotational placement of ships.
The U.S. is in the midst of a “pivot-to-Asia” that will see 60 percent of its naval forces deployed in the region by 2020, a response to its growing strategic importance.
China claims the policy is an attempt to contain its own military expansion into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
“Increasingly the Indian Ocean is becoming a geostrategic hot spot,” said Rosita Dellios, an associate professor of international relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast. “Africa, India, the Gulf states all share the Indian Ocean and Australia is an important player.”
China sent submarines into the India Ocean last year, with one visiting a Sri Lankan port near India’s coast in a show of power that unsettled Indian leaders.
China is also promoting a “Maritime Silk Road” that would see it developing ports and infrastructure in Indian Ocean countries, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Pakistan.
While Australia has no formal U.S. naval bases, it has agreed to host as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines in the northern city of Darwin, and the two countries regularly hold joint military drills.
“This would not be a radical departure in alliance policy which is seeing an increased tempo of access to Australia by U.S. Marines and will see more visits from the U.S. Air Force in the years to come,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University, where the speech took place.
The U.S. has “forward deployment” arrangements in nations including Italy, Bahrain and Japan, with talks between the U.S. and Australia in “the early stages,” Greenert said.
“Right now it’s at the stage of, well what’s the art of the possible?” he said. “What kind of infrastructure exists? What would it take to do that? What sort of support measures and how that would fit into the two nations’ common strategic desires, if you will, into the future.”
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