The US military plans to station B-1 strategic bombers and surveillance aircraft in Australia as part of efforts to deter Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, a senior US government official has revealed in comments later downplayed by the Australian government.
During testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, US Defence Department Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear announced that in addition to the movement of US Marine and Army units around the Western Pacific region, "we will be placing additional Air Force assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft."
Bound for Australian skies? The US B-1 Bomber. Photo: Supplied
The US plan comes as the Obama administration moves to boost US naval forces and air power in the South China Sea to assert the right of free passage and challenge China's efforts to buttress its maritime territorial claims through the construction of airfields and artificial islands.
The B-1 Lancer bomber, commonly called "Bone" (originally from "B-One") was first deployed by the US Air Force in the mid 1980s and is expected to continue as a strategic bomber until the mid 2030s.
US B-52 bombers have previously been temporarily deployed to Darwin, to take part in exercises with the Royal Australian Air Force, in 2012 and in late 2014, as a consequence of a joint Force Posture Initiative agreed by former prime minister Julia Gillard and US President Barack Obama in 2011.
About 1150 US Marines began arriving in Darwin this week for six months training during the Top End's dry season. The marines are the fourth rotation of US troops deployed to the Northern Territory since 2011. The plan is to gradually increase the number of US Marines rotating through Darwin to 2500 troops by 2017.
Disclosed ahead of any statement by the Australian government, the US plan to deploy B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft to Australia comes as part of the US military's broader "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region.
Assistant Defence Secretary Shear made it clear on Wednesday that the US intends to challenge China's claims to sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea.
"We claim the right of innocent passage in such areas, and we exercise that right regularly, both in the South China Sea and globally," Mr Shear told the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Similar views were expressed by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, who also told the Senate committee "No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can't manufacture sovereignty."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has voiced "serious concern" about the US officials's remarks.
Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press conference on Wednesday that China supported freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but "freedom of navigation does not give one country's military aircraft and ships free access to another country's territorial waters and airspace."
She said China would "resolutely safeguard its territorial sovereignty" and urged the US "not to take any risks or make any provocations."
An Australian Defence Department spokesperson said the department was "aware of the comments made by a US official in Congressional testimony overnight."
In an apparent reference to Assistant Secretary Shear's remarks about China added that the US Government "has contacted us to advise that the official misspoke."
The Defence Department spokesperson insisted that military cooperation between Australia and the United States is "not directed at any one country."
However the spokesperson did not dispute the report that the US plans to deploy B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft to Australia and declined to answer specific questions about any such deployments.
"The specifics of the future force posture cooperation are yet to be finalised," the spokesperson said. "Details are subject to continuing discussions between Australia and the United States. A range a different US aircraft already visits Australia for exercises and training. Increased cooperation will build on these activities."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he wasn't aware of the report but backed the Amercian -Australian alliance.
"I think our region knows we have the ANZUS alliance," he said.
"I don't think anyone's ever said we shouldn't have the American alliance but what I think Asian economies and societies want to see is deeper engagement and engagement isn't just trade," he said.