Enhanced US role vital to Asia: Australia

A larger US military role in the Asia-Pacific region is vital to ensuring the region's stability and prosperity, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said Saturday.

Smith also told delegates attending an Asian security conference that plans for an enhanced US presence, which includes a troop deployment in Australia's northern city of Darwin, would not spark an arms race in the region.

"Australia strongly supports not only the engagement of the United States in our part of the world but its enhanced engagement," Smith said at the Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

"These additional practical cooperation mechanisms in the North and in the West of Australia, in our view, will be an ongoing cause for peace and security in our part of the world because it will continue to ensure a United States presence," he added.

The US move to deploy up to 2,500 US Marines in Darwin, part of a wider plan by Washington to boost its presence in the strategically vital Asia-Pacific, has rankled China as well as some other states in the region.

"We don't in any way see this initiative causing either instability or in any way an arms race," Smith said.

"If there is an increase in arms and armament and capability in our part of the world, it is a direct result of our economies rising and any country is entitled, in our view, to increase its military capability as its economy grows," he said.

Some 200 US Marines arrived in Darwin in April as part of stepped up defence cooperation unveiled during an Australian visit by US President Barack Obama in November last year.

The Marines are in Australia on a six-month rotational basis and will be based at Robertson Barracks on the outskirts of the city, building up to some 2,500 by 2016-17.

Apart from the Marines, the US military only has a limited deployment in long-standing ally Australia, including the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility spy station near the desert town of Alice Springs.

But as part of the expansion of military ties, Australia has indicated it may also allow the United States to use its territory to operate long-range spy drones.

The drones could be flown from the Cocos Islands, atolls in the Indian Ocean off northwest Australia.

Smith also said Saturday that in the longer term, the United States will have greater access to naval bases in western Australia.

Australia's government is reportedly considering upgrading Perth's Stirling naval base to allow larger US warships to operate in Southeast Asia.

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