Charm offensive: Clinton down under

By Greg Ansley

Australia and the United States are today expected to further tighten defence co-operation as part of a shift in focus to counter the rise of China and strengthen America's strategic position in the region.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both confirmed that China and an increased American presence in Australia will be high on the agenda of the Ausmin talks in Melbourne.

The annual meeting between the two countries' foreign and defence ministers replaced the former Anzus talks 25 years ago after the nuclear rift of the mid-1980s ended New Zealand's role in the three-nation alliance.

Clinton last week strengthened Washington's strategic relationship with New Zealand - although it is still restrained - and after Australia will seek to boost co-operation with Singapore and Malaysia.

President Barak Obama is visiting India to build on growing relations with the emerging regional powerhouse as part of a broad strategy to deepen US engagement across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Clinton and Gillard have been careful not to cast China as a threat, but concern at its growing influence and military power - and its recent, brief, clamp on exports of rare-earth minerals - is clear.

"We obviously share the view that we want to see China's rise be successful, bringing benefits to the Chinese people, but [want China] to take on greater responsibility and a rules-based approach towards all of its neighbours," Clinton said in Melbourne.

"We are discussing that within Asean and the Asean regional forum, as you know, when it comes to maritime security and freedom of navigation."

Clinton said Beijing's squeeze on rare-earth minerals - vital for the manufacture of advanced military and commercial technology - had raised questions over the wisdom of relying so heavily on a single source. China accounts for about 97 per cent of the world's supply of the minerals.

Clinton said US-Australian co-operation on diversifying supplies would be discussed at the Ausmin talks.

Gillard told Channel Nine yesterday that she expected the rise of China and the kind of force it would become in the world to be discussed at today's talks.

"I believe we have a shared perspective with the US that we want China to be a force for good, strongly engaged in global and regional architecture, strongly engaged in a rules-based framework," she said.

"I expect that those questions about China's rise and the impact on our region and on our globe will be part of what we discuss at Ausmin."

It is widely expected that Clinton and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates will ask for, and be given, greater military access to Australia in a number of key areas during their discussions with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Defence Minister Stephen Smith.

Already confirmed in part by Rudd and Clinton, a new agreement will allow the US to pre-position equipment and supplies in Australia, probably near northern bases such as Darwin and Townsville, and to train more with Australian forces. The stores will include both combat equipment and material to help deal with natural disasters and other emergencies in the region.

The deal will also involve more frequent visits by patrolling warships, and an expansion of the joint Harold E. Holt naval communications base at North Cape, in Western Australia. Washington is seeking greater co-operation within the region because of crushing defence costs and the failure of a swing to deployments from US bases to adequately stamp its presence and power across the Pacific.

Rudd said in a joint news conference with Clinton that the US was a force for the world's continuing strategic stability and that today's talks would discuss in detail Washington's present force posture review.

"It's been our historical approach, through our joint facilities, our ports, our training facilities, our test firing ranges, to make them available to our American friends, [and] that's the framework we apply for the future."

Rudd and Clinton have already signed a new "Melbourne Statement" marking 70 years of diplomatic relations and reaffirming a fundamental commitment to the two countries' "enduring partnership".

The statement embraced moves to promote democratic freedoms, the maintenance of global and regional security, free trade, a war on poverty, effective regional and global institutions to manage trade, and action on climate change.

But a division has already widened on climate change, with Obama dropping emissions trading in the wake of the Democrats' disastrous mid-term elections, and Gillard renewing her commitment yesterday to carbon pricing.

- NZ Herald

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