AUSTRALIA could allow American spy flights to operate from a remote Indian Ocean island, defence minister Stephen Smith has said, supporting the US military pivot to Asia but potentially upsetting Australia’s biggest trading partner, China.
Mr Smith said the possible use of Australia’s remote Cocos Islands territory had been raised with the US, but the proposal was not among current plans for Canberra to strengthen military ties with Washington DC.
Mr Smith said yesterday: “We view Cocos as being potentially a long-term strategic location. But that is down the track.”
The Washington Post said the Pentagon was interested in using the Cocos Islands – a series of atolls about 1,800 miles west of Australia and south of Indonesia – as a new base for surveillance aircraft and allowing spy flights over the South China Sea.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea.
The Cocos Islands could be an alternative to a US base on the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which faces an uncertain future beyond its lease which expires in 2016.
The case for a right of return by the original 1,151 inhabitants of Diego Garcia, removed by the British government in 1971 and resettled in Mauritius, is still before the European Court of Human Rights.
Australia is a firm US ally but counts China as its biggest trading partner and is careful not to antagonise it.
Last November, US president Barack Obama outlined his pivot to Asia and agreement with Canberra for a de facto base for 2,500 marines near Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The two countries also agreed to allow greater US air force access to northern Australian bases, and to give the US navy greater access to the Indian Ocean naval base HMAS Stirling, near Perth.
Mr Smith said Australia had been open with China about its plans and its posture review which is likely to recommend more military assets move to the country’s north to protect resource projects.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about the possibility of US spy flights out of the Cocos Islands, said co-operation was the “common trend” in the region.
Speaking in Beijing, he said: “We hope the region’s relevant countries can uphold the new security concept of equality, common development, co-ordination, mutual benefit, and try to uphold safety for all, and relevant countries should adapt to this trend of the times.”
US and Australian officials said the Cocos Islands could be ideal for not only manned US surveillance aircraft but also unarmed, high-altitude drones.
Mr Smith played down the chances of a US sovereign base on Cocos Islands, and said while Australia hosted joint facilities and visiting forces, it had never allowed the US to operate an independent base in Australia.
Strategic analyst Hugh White, head of defence and strategic studies at the Australian National University, said Australia risked being caught up in a dispute between its strongest military ally and its biggest trading partner.
“All of this relates to the US pivot to Asia. The US pivot to Asia is all about the rise of China,” White said, adding it would be a mistake if Australia joined any US push to try to contain China.
“It means that Australia is for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War starting to be seen by the US as a strategic asset in its strategic competition with China. That is a bit worrying for Australia, because China is our biggest trading partner.
“Our future is going to be one where we are increasingly pulled between our old ally in the US and our economic future in Asia.”