MELBOURNE, Australia – The United States plans to expand its military presence in Australia as the two nations maneuver to rein in an increasingly assertive China.
U.S. and Australia are considering a joint or shared base arrangement in which U.S. troops and assets such as planes or ships would piggyback on existing Australian military facilities, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said wider military cooperation between the U.S. and longtime ally Australia is on the table as defense and foreign ministers from both countries hold annual talks Monday.
He and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd hinted at the outline of the shared base idea but did not provide details.
Rudd said Australia would "welcome the United States making greater use of our ports and our training facilities, our test-firing ranges. That has been the case in decades past and will be the case for decades in the future."
The shared base idea is part of U.S. efforts to diversify its Asian military stance, which has long been focused on northern Asia. Australian bases would place U.S. forces or assets such as ships and planes much closer to potential natural disasters or conflicts in the Southern Hemisphere.
The arrangement, somewhat controversial in Australia, would probably mean more U.S. service members on Australian soil.
In a television interview, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said closer military cooperation serves Australian interests.
"It does give the possibility, of course, for further joint exercises, further collaboration," Gillard told Nine Network television on Sunday.
Gillard said that among the topics for discussion at Monday's defense and foreign affairs talks would be the war in Afghanistan and the rise of China as a global power.
Gates denied that closer U.S. cooperation with Australian and Southeast Asian nations is a challenge to China, which claims dominion over vast areas of the Pacific that the U.S. considers international waters. China has also alarmed smaller Asian neighbors by reigniting old territorial disputes.
"It's more about our relationships with the rest of Asia than it is about China," Gates told reporters traveling with him.
Gates said the United States is not contemplating building any new military bases in Asia. The U.S. maintains large, permanent bases in Japan and South Korea, and has military facilities elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.
The ministers will launch a study group on the shared base idea during Monday's meeting, the senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the two nations' defense and foreign ministers have not yet addressed the issue.
Ahead of that meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudd agreed to cooperate in trying to push China to take a more positive approach in its backyard.
China's smaller neighbors have grown steadily concerned about what they perceive as bullying from Beijing as it expands its influence and seeks to assert authority over large swaths of disputed maritime territory. Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have competing claims with China over islands in the East and South China Seas.
Clinton said the United States would continue to press for peaceful resolutions to those claims. The U.S. claims a national security interest in protecting crucial international shipping lanes; China calls it meddling. China rebuffed a proposal Clinton made last week to host talks between China and Japan over one such dispute.
"We want to see China's rise be successful, bring benefits to the Chinese people but to take on greater responsibility and a rules-based approach towards all of its neighbors," Clinton told reporters at a press conference with Rudd.
Rudd, a former prime minister and diplomat who is fluent in Mandarin and served in China, agreed. He said both diplomacy and a joint U.S.-Australian projection of power are aimed at maintaining a strategic balance in the region.
"This is very important in shaping rules-based order and habits of cooperation and predictability of behavior within the Asia-Pacific region that is in our common interest to underpin our stability and our security for this new century," he said.
Associated Press writer Rohan Sullivan in Sydney contributed to this report.