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Australia not bridge between US and China: Smith

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on August 9, 2012


By Deborah Snow

Defence Minister Stephen Smith Photo: JANEK ZDZARSKI

Defence Minister Stephen Smith Photo: JANEK ZDZARSKI

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has rejected the suggestion that Australia should seek to play a bridging role between the US and China, while re-stating Canberra’s concerns that the two giants forge a more amicable relationship.

Speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney today, Mr Smith said: ”Occasionally I have seen the suggestion that somehow a country like Australia could be a bridge between the United States and China.

”Two great powers do not need a country with a population of less than 25 million people to be a bridge between them. That is a matter for them.”

However he said Australia  would continue to encourage both countries to develop a ”positive relationship… at every level.”

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In a veiled riposte to a speech by former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating to the Lowy Institute on Monday, Mr Smith said he rejected the idea that the US should accept a ”substantial decline in or a withdrawal from our region”.

Mr Keating had quoted with approval from a new book on China by leading defence analyst ( and former Labor staffer) Professor Hugh White, who has suggested that with the rise of Beijing, ”America will have to exercise its authority within limits acceptable to China, just as it requires China to exercise its power within limits acceptable to the United States”.

Mr Smith differed on the need for US strategic concessions, saying ”I do not see it this way.”

And he rejected reports that Washington had been unhappy with the Gillard government’s decision to cut  defence spending in the May budget, dropping defence outlays as a proportion of GDP to 1.5 per cent, the lowest level since the eve of the second world war.

”Obviously as a defence minister I would prefer that it was closer to 2 per cent . But GDP is not the only measure” he said.

”We continue to remain in the top 15 defence spenders” .

He said that when he had briefed US defence secretary Leon Panetta on the cuts , Panetta had replied:  ”Stephen you think you’re an orphan? I’m taking nearly half a trillion dollars out of the United States defence budget over the next 10 year period.”

Mr Smith said a strong economy was an important underwriter of national security interests.

He added that he was  ”optimistic about the emergence of China”.

”The challenge now to avoid strategic competition between China and the United States is to make sure their level of bilateral engagement at the strategic, defence,military and political level is of the same level as their economic engagement,” he said.

”If the United States and China don’t get that bilateral relationship right, then we will have a problem.”

The head of the US Marines said today that the American troop build up in Darwin and his current visit to Australia and Asia should not be viewed as sabre rattling in the region.

General James F. Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and in charge of about 200,000 US Marines, was in Darwin today and will visit Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.

”I don’t see it as sabre rattling, I see it as partnerships,” Gen Amos told reporters at Darwin’s Robertson Barracks.

There were many reasons the US would want to partner with Australia, he said.

”There is lots of opportunity to work together with humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, train together and actually have an influence on sea lines, communications, commerce, free trade and responsible behaviour in the Asia Pacific area,” Gen Amos said.

The number of US troops rotating through Darwin will increase in coming years, to reach 2500 by 2017, but is currently only a few hundred.

Gen Amos said he did not know when the numbers would accelerate, but eventually the US wanted to have about 23,000 Marines stationed west of the international dateline.

Australia’s Major General Michael Krause, who helps oversee the US troop build up in Darwin, said while initially some Asian countries had concerns about the US Marines in Darwin, that perception had changed.

”That concern has really turned around now,” Maj Gen Krause said, citing Indonesia as an example.

Maj Gen Krause said US Marines in Darwin had behaved well, with two speeding tickets the only run-ins with the law from the group from Fox Company, who arrived in April.

America’s ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, told media the message he wished to deliver was one of thanks to the Australian government, the Australian Defence Forces, to Darwin and to Fox Company.

with AAP

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