US bolsters defence alliance with Australia despite Republican opposition

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Washington and Canberra have bolstered their commitment to the Aukus security pact despite growing opposition from Republicans in Congress over a plan to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, speaking on Saturday following ministerial talks in Brisbane, said there was “robust bipartisan support and commitment” for Aukus, which also includes the UK and was designed to counter China’s influence in the Indo Pacific.

There have been mounting concerns that Australia would be caught in the crossfire of a US political fight after 25 Republican senators said last week that the plan to sell three nuclear-powered submarines to Australia would weaken Washington’s fleet. 

The opposition was dismissed as normal political bargaining, however. Richard Marles, Australia’s defence minister, said he was “completely sanguine” about the submarine plan’s progress.

The ministers pledged to work closely together in the Indo-Pacific region and announced plans to boost US troop deployments and maritime patrols and to collaborate on space defence.

Australia will also begin manufacturing and supplying guided missiles to the US by 2025, which Marles said was a “very, very significant” boost to the country’s defence industry.

The talks were overshadowed by a helicopter crash off the coast of Queensland. Four Australian Defence Forces staff are missing. The helicopter was participating in war games as part of the joint Talisman Sabre Exercise between Australia, the US and troops from 13 other countries including the UK, Indonesia, Fiji and Germany. 

Saturday’s announcements are part of a US strategy to enhance security alliances in the Indo-Pacific and to deter China from attacking Taiwan.

That strategy has ranged from agreeing to supply Japan with Tomahawk cruise missiles that can reach China to an agreement with Manila to access four new bases in the Philippines.

In a significant move, US air force nuclear-capable B-52 bombers held their first joint exercises in Indonesia this month. Across Asia, the US is trying to boost co-operation with allies in Asia and also diversify and expand the readiness of forces in the region.

Blinken, who was flanked by Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said the US was engaging China but opposed its efforts to “upend the status quo” across the Taiwan Strait. He added that Washington would counter Chinese “economic coercion or threat” in the region. 

When the US and Australian defence and foreign ministers last met — in Washington in December — Austin said the Pentagon would deploy more fighters jets and bombers to the Pacific nation to oppose “dangerous and coercive” Chinese behaviour across the Indo-Pacific region.

Ashley Townshend, an Indo-Pacific expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said military co-operation had “emerged as the pace setter of a fundamental transformation in the character and purpose of the US-Australia alliance”.

“It will see Australia play an increasingly pivotal role in supporting high-end US war-fighting and combined military operations in the region as part of a strategy of collective deterrence,” said Townshend.

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