SYDNEY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Australia said on Friday a senior U.S. defence official misspoke when he told U.S. lawmakers the Pentagon planned to send B-1 bombers to Australia, while a Pentagon spokesman said future military rotations to Australia were not finalised.
Assistant Defense Secretary David Shear told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday the deployment of B-1 strategic bombers to security ally Australia was part of the Defense Department’s effort to ensure it had enough military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific.
Shear’s testimony was delivered at a time of growing concern in Washington and parts of Asia over China’s rapid creation of artificial islands in the disputed Spratly chain of the South China Sea.
“I understand that the official misspoke and that the U.S. does not have any plans to base those aircraft in Australia,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters.
A spokesman for the Australian defence minister said Washington had been in contact with Canberra about the matter.
U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman, said the United States had routinely deployed bombers through Australia in the past, including a B-52 last December.
“We are currently exploring a range of options for future rotations with our Australian counterparts,” he added, noting “the specifics of future force posture cooperation are yet to be finalised”.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia, among other things, calls for 60 percent of U.S. warships to be based in the Asia-Pacific by 2020, up from about 50 percent.
Shear told lawmakers on Wednesday that the U.S. military was “engaged in a long-term effort to bolster our capabilities in the region”.
He said the United States would be deploying Global Hawks and the new radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the region and would be adding to the number of tilt-rotor V-22 Ospreys in Japan.
“Under the ... medium to long-term redeployment of Marines in Okinawa, we will be moving significant numbers of Marines to Hawaii, Guam and Australia,” Shear added. “We will be placing additional Air Force assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft.”
He noted that the Navy would have four littoral combat ships in Singapore by 2020. The Navy also will deploy high-speed vessels to Singapore and Guam. An additional Virginia-class attack submarine also would be sent to Guam.
Abbott added that Australia supported Washington’s stance on maintaining freedom of movement through the South China Sea, a vital waterway for trade. China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, including the Spratlys.
“We’ve got to maintain freedom of navigation of the seas and in the air,” Abbott said when asked about China’s land reclamation in the disputed waters.
Reporting by Matt Siegel in SYDNEY and David Alexander in WASHINGTON; Editing by Dean Yates