The US Air Force secretary has backed calls for Australia to participate in major naval drills in the Indian Ocean.Exercise Malabar has until now been a trilateral exercise involving the US, India and Japan but according to Indian media, there are plans for Australia to be invited to this year’s war games.
Malcolm Turnbull has declined to confirm the report. In 2007, Australia participated in Exercise Malabar but the Rudd Labor government withdrew after concerns were expressed by China. However, talks with India to return to the exercises have been ongoing since 2015.
US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson yesterday weighed in on the issue during her visit to Manila.
“With respect to Australia’s participation in other exercises, Australia is a sovereign country and we encourage its participation and recognise its importance in regional security throughout the region,” Secretary Wilson told reporters on a phone hook up.
The Weekend Australian today reported that Australia has backed a new US defence strategy naming Russia and China as a greater threat to national security than Islamic terrorism in a move experts have labelled a watershed moment in Washington’s strategic planning with potential long-term implications for regional security.
Defence Minister Marise Payne said while terrorism would remain an enduring threat, and while rising powers such as China had every right to question the existing order, Australia shared strategic concerns being expressed in Washington.
“It is for the US to determine what is of concern in relation to its national security, but I would note that Australia shares similar concerns,’’ Senator Payne told The Weekend Australian.
Australia last year wrote formally to the Indian defence ministry asking to send naval ships to join the July war-games — the largest yet — but India rejected the request for fear of antagonising China
Instead, officials suggested that Canberra send officers to watch the exercises in the Bay of Bengal from the decks of the three participating countries’ warships..
At the time, US military officials said the drills were aimed at helping to maintain a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific against the rising weight of China.
The three countries have been concerned about China’s claims to almost all of the waters of the South China Sea, and more broadly, its expanding military presence across the region.
China has in the past criticised the exercises as destabilising to the region.
In Manila, Ms Wilson declined to discuss whether there would be any changes to the size of the US military personnel and aircraft deployment rotation in Darwin this year. “We never talk about that in advance,” she said.
Meanwhile, the former head of Australia’s foreign affairs and trade department is set to hand a report to the Turnbull government in March outlining a possible new economic strategy for India.
Peter Varghese will argue Australia needs to diversify its risk because China and Japan make up 40 per cent of exports.