US nuclear base blocked by Australia as China's sea power continues to swell

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  08/07/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   china

China’s sea power is swelling and the West will need to become increasingly vigilant if it is to ward off trouble in the waters, which may come about through accident or design.

Last week a fleet of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships arrived in the Mediterranean Sea. The fleet included a Type 052 “Qingdao” destroyer, a Type 054A “Yantai” missile frigate, and China’s “Weishanhu” auxiliary oil replenishment ship. Only in Egypt, who gave permission for the PLAN to traverse the Suez Canal, did the media report on the presence of the destroyer.

With China and Russia vetoing action against al-Assad’s regime in Syria, is the red presence in the region a coincidence? Last month Russia sent 11 warships to the eastern Mediterranean in what many believed to be a show of strength, and possibly intent, as NATO powers continue to push for intervention in Syria.

Washington and London played down the naval movements of the two vetoing powers, with Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, telling the New York Times: “We currently have no reason to believe this move is anything out of the ordinary, but we refer you to the Russian government for more details.”

However, it is sure to increase concerns, not only about the potential for conflict over Syria, but also in the context of China’s rising sea power and its ability to project it globally.

Last month the PLAN set its first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, off on its ninth and longest sea trial to date. It had been thought that the ship would be commissioned on China’s Army Day on August 1st once take-off and landing exercises had been completed with its J-15 fighters, however at the time of writing this has not yet happened.

Once the Varyag, which has been refitted from the old Ukrainian platform, is operational, China’s ability to project power around the globe will increase significantly, leading many in the West to question its intentions.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed off on a new strategy last year which put the Asia-Pacific region at the heart of the United States’ tactical military outlook. Australia, a US ally, is expected to be a central component in that strategy as Obama attempts to increase the US presence and influence in the region. However, last week Australia rejected the proposal for the US to base a nuclear aircraft carrier group near Perth.

Australian Defence Minister, Stephen Smith said, “we have made it crystal clear from the first moment – we don’t have United States military bases in Australia, and we’re not proposing to.”

While Australia attempts to remain on a good footing with China, its largest trading partner, the move to block the US fleet will come as a blow to Panetta and the DoD. As China looks West, and the US East, Australia will become a pivotal power over the next decade as it seeks to placate both its trading partner and its military ally.

“There’s a concern that the more the US builds up its military posture in the Western Pacific as part of … [the] pivot to Asia, the higher the risk that the US-China relationship will become more competitive, more adversarial, more hostile,” Professor Hugh White, head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told Associated Press. “And that pushes Australia close to the point of having to make a choice between the US and China, and that’s something we badly want to avoid.”

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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