|U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Thai Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat inspect the honor guard in Bangkok, Nov. 15, 2012. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo|
U.S.-Australia Conference Points to Possibilities
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
HONOLULU, Nov. 15, 2012 - While the latest Australia-U.S. Ministerial Conference in Perth, Australia, was more concerned with the maintenance of the alliance, the discussions do point to interesting possibilities for the two countries in the future.
The very location of the host city highlighted one possibility: Perth is the largest Australian city on the Indian Ocean.
"We are continuing to examine what opportunities exist in the Indian Ocean-Pacific Ocean region," said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a participant in the conference. "Up until now most of our conversations have been about the Pacific. I think what you've seen emerge as a result of the Perth Ministerial is the Indian Ocean. Perth is a portal to the Indian Ocean."
Dempsey spoke in an interview aboard a military aircraft traveling back from the conference.
The discussions included the possibility of allowing U.S. forces to use a navy base near Perth and airfields in northern Australia. The participants decided this required more information.
"We're not looking to station anybody beyond where they are already based, because we do have to maintain a balance of forward permanent presence and rotational presence," Dempsey said. "We're not looking at changing that balance yet."
But more areas for rotational units could be in the cards. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta tasked Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, U.S. Pacific Command commander, to work with Gen. David Hurley, chief of Australia's defense forces, to assess what might be possible. The results would be discussed in a future ministerial conference.
"Wherever we find ourselves the rotations will be episodic, and what works best for both us and our partners," Dempsey said.
U.S. Marines currently rotating in and out of Darwin, Australia, are there for six months; there is no permanent U.S. base.
"We're not looking at planting a flag and opening a base," Dempsey said. "There will be a handful of people who will probably be there to keep the base warm, but not many."
This ministerial conference changed the measurement of success a bit, the chairman said. The U.S. effort in the Asia-Pacific region often is thought about in reference to a Marine expeditionary unit, a brigade combat team, aircraft or ships, he explained.
"But it's also about the other things that we are increasingly interested in and partnering with -- space, cyber, special operations forces, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], ways to achieve maritime domain awareness," he said. "While it's sometimes about personnel and hardware, it's often also about integrating strategies."
Despite transparency from the United States and Australia with their defense intentions, the Chinese government objected to the positioning of Marines in Australia. The United States puts Marines in Darwin for the purpose of partnering with Australia and the other nations of the region, the general said. This leads to better understand of the region, builds deeper relationships, and places assets in place in case of a need for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, he added.
"It's not just the Chinese who are interested in our intentions," the chairman said. "We've had similar conversations with Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and we have to keep at that."
The absence of the United States as a Pacific power would be very bad for the region and the globe, Dempsey said, because with little U.S. defense presence in the region, the possibility of a dangerous miscalculation or misperception rises. While the United States is rebalancing military forces to emphasize the Pacific, he added, there will be some churn as the process proceeds.
"The nature and intentions of our presence [in the Pacific] will become evident to the Chinese over time," he said.