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US vows to defend Asian interests ahead of Australia talks

by Staff Writers
Melbourne (AFP) Nov 8, 2010
The United States vowed Monday to defend its interests in Asia and beef up its regional military presence, reflecting worries over rising China, ahead of major talks with Australia.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates underlined Washington's role in Asia in a newspaper commentary as they met their Australian counterparts at a meeting in Melbourne.

Without explicitly mentioning China, Clinton and Gates wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that Asia presented an array of security challenges including piracy, terrorist threats and "the emergence of rising powers."

"As a Pacific nation, the United States is committed to meeting these challenges and defending our interests in Asia," they wrote.

With America's future hinging on "Asia's success," the United States is "enhancing our defence presence and posture in the Pacific, including the modernisation of our basing arrangements and air, naval and missile defence capabilities," the commentary said.

Ahead of Monday's Australian-US ministerial talks, officials said the two allies were looking at expanding the American military's access to Australian bases and ports and holding more joint exercises.

Forging stronger military ties with Australia was part of a wider strategy to build up the US military's presence in the region, deploying more ships and forces to Southeast Asia, officials said.

The talks in Melbourne coincide with China's increasingly assertive stance in the Pacific, with Japan and other Asian neighbours locked in territorial disputes with Beijing.

Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said on Sunday that China's rise had been much quicker than anticipated and stressed that it needed to be open about its objectives as Beijing "eclipsed" the military might of the Americans.

"We have made the point to China, both privately and publicly, that there does need to be transparency about China's military strategy," Smith told ABC television.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Sunday said Australia and the United States wanted to see China serve as a "force for good" in the world, working in cooperation with other countries and respecting a "rules-based framework."

US military officials and strategists have watched China's growing military and economic clout with concern, seeing Beijing as a potential threat to Washington's once unrivaled dominance of the Pacific.

Gates, however, insisted earlier that plans to bolster the US military's role in the Pacific were not designed to counter China but merely a bid to improve ties with Asian states.

In their newspaper commentary, Clinton and Gates praised Australia as a vital ally and confirmed that the two governments will sign an agreement for increasing cooperation on intelligence and surveillance efforts.

The "space situational awareness" partnership will allow the two countries to develop a better way to track objects in space over the southern hemisphere, including satellites, space debris and potential ballistic missiles launched from North Korea, officials said.

Monday's discussions, which were being held under tight security, were also expected to focus on the war in Afghanistan and NATO's plans to gradually hand over security to Afghan forces.

With NATO due to review war strategy at a summit later this month in Lisbon, Gillard on Sunday called for a clear transition plan that would be dictated by conditions in Afghanistan and not by any timeline.

Clinton and Gates paid tribute to Australia's contribution of 1,550 troops to the Afghan mission, saying "Australia is once more punching well above its weight with the largest non-NATO deployment of combat troops."

But they warned of difficult days ahead in the nine-year-old war.

"We recognise, as do our allies and partners, that the road ahead in Afghanistan will not be easy -- or short."

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