The prospect of US missiles being stationed in northern Australia is again being discussed — and no one is prepared to rule out the weapons being based in Darwin.
At a ministerial meeting on Sunday, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds quizzed newly appointed US Defence Secretary Mark Esper about reports America wanted to station missiles in Darwin.
“I did discuss it yesterday with secretary Esper and he confirmed that there was no ask of Australia and none was expected,” she told ABC Radio National on Monday.
“You would expect the US Secretary of Defence to canvass all of these issues in light of what’s happening in the Indo-Pacific, but I can confirm that he made no request and he wasn’t anticipating any request.”
However, during the meeting Dr Esper said he wanted to install intermediate range conventional warheads in the Asia-Pacific — something that was possible now after the end of the Cold War treaty with Russia that banned such use of weapons.
“We now are free if you will to develop that range of weapons, 500 kilometres to 5500 kilometres that had not been available to us from a ground-based deterrent posture,” Dr Esper told the post-talk news conference.
“I think to the degree that allowing us to design and develop, to test and eventually to deploy systems, whether it is in Europe, whether it is in the Asia-Pacific or elsewhere, gives us and contains the deterrent posture we want to do to deter conflict in any region which we deploy them in consultation with our allies and partners.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later said: “Frankly decisions on force deployments, missiles and weapons, all of the things we do around are things we constantly evaluate. We want to make sure we are protecting our partners, protecting American interests.”
Mr Pompeo stressed the missiles wouldn’t be deployed in Darwin or elsewhere without Canberra’s support.
“When we employ these systems around the world with our friends and allies we do so with their consent,” he told reporters after Sunday’s meetings. Should the US develop weapons with a range of 5500km, southern China would be comfortably within the range of a missile stationed in Darwin. Meanwhile, Mr Pompeo has given Australia a number of options for its potential involvement in helping make the Strait of Hormuz safe for international commercial ships passing Iran.
Canberra is giving the request “very serious” consideration as Washington tries to stitch together a global coalition to hit back after Iran captured foreign oil tankers in the strait.
Mr Pompeo described the action in the Persian Gulf as a comprehensive program to head off a physical military conflict and protect the economies of countries including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
“What we’ve asked 60-plus nations to do is provide assistance in securing … the Strait of Hormuz so that commercial vessels can travel through there,” he told Sky News during a trip to Sydney for ministerial meetings. “Australia could join in a number of ways. It’s a highly capable, sophisticated military. There are many assets it could deploy.”
Senator Reynolds wouldn’t give a timeline on Australia’s decision, saying the proposal was under active consideration.
“We’re not going to take any sudden decisions. We are carefully considering what the request is from the United States,” she said.
“Australia, like so many others, is very reliant on traffic from the Strait of Hormuz. We are keen to ensure shipping can move through there quickly and also securely.”
Australia’s defence minister said it was in nobody’s interest to have a competitive US-China relationship becoming adversarial, as the strategic rivalry between the superpowers heats up.
“For Australia, it’s not a matter of choice between the United States or China,” Senator Reynolds said.
“When it comes to China we have a strong and longstanding relationship and with the United States, they remain our strongest ally.”