America is deploying long-range nuclear bombers to Australian airbases after Beijing reinforced its claim to virtually all of the South China Sea.
There are fears that President Xi will restrict foreign ships and aircraft from using the vital waterway for global trade. Beijing is expanding and weaponising several tiny islands in an attempt to strengthen territorial claims in the region.
Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, said yesterday that “every Chinese is obligated to defend” the South China Sea islands, which represent an “integral” part of the country’s territory.
In response General Lori Robinson, commander of US Pacific air forces, announced in Canberra that the US had started discussions with Australia about moving B-1 bombers, B-52 bombers and aerial refuelling tankers to the country’s strategically important northern airbases.
“We’re in the process of talking about rotational forces — bombers and tankers — out of Australia, and it gives us the opportunity to train with Australia,” she said.
She nominated Darwin and the remote Tindal air force base as sites from which the US bombers and tankers would operate, putting the aircraft within about five hours of the contested South China Sea territory, which includes the Spratly and Paracel islands.
General Robinson warned of the “seriousness of tone that is being set by China’s militarisation of the South China Sea” and said that the US must “maintain a credible combat power” in the region.
Although several nations claim sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea, Beijing argues that history, and more than 1,000 years of Chinese fishing, prove that its control is justified.
“China was the earliest to explore, name, develop and administer various South China Sea islands,” Mr Wang said. “Our ancestors worked diligently here for generations.”
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest the sovereignty of the mineral-rich islands and China has stoked tensions in the past few years by reclaiming more land with sand dredgers and building three new airstrips.
America’s plans to deploy bombers across the country is certain to provoke an angry reaction from China, Australia’s largest trading partner.
China has frequently warned Canberra against supporting Washington’s criticism of its military build-up in the South China Sea. Three weeks ago China’s foreign ministry publicly chastised Australia, saying that it should “refrain from doing anything that undermines regional peace and stability”.
The US initiative to deploy long-range bombers follows Canberra’s agreement to allow America to base 2,500 marines in Darwin as part of President Obama’s decision to redirect its military might to the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s influence.
Marise Payne, Australia’s defence minister, said that the US military would be expanding its presence across the country, although she declined to comment on the US bombers.
Ms Payne said that the increase US military presence had been set in motion by Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister, who was replaced last year by Malcolm Turnbull.
“Australia remains strongly supportive of the US rebalance to our near region, and we work together closely in support of our common regional interests,” Ms Payne said.
General Robinson, a four-star general, added that the deployment “gives us the opportunity to strengthen the ties we already have with the Royal Australian Air Force and it gives the opportunity to train our pilots to understand the theatre and how important it is to strengthen our ties with our great allies”.
General Robinson said that the frequency of US bomber deployments across Australia had yet to be decided, as had the mix of equipment.
America’s 1950s-era B-52 bombers have landed in Darwin in the past. Last July two B-52s flew a 44-hour non-stop return trip between Louisiana and Australia’s Northern Territory on a simulated bombing run, widely interpreted as a hostile message to Beijing.
The modern, longer range and more lethal B-1 bombers, which are able to carry the largest weapons of any US aircraft, are not believed to have landed in Australia before. The B-1 strike bombers are capable of carrying cruise missiles and GPS-guided precision bombs. They are being used against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
Their presence would strengthen Australia’s military alliance with the US, formalised under the 64-year-old Anzus defence treaty.
The pact compels the US and Australia to act together to meet a common threat. It also binds Canberra to accept the US policy of neither confirming nor denying that its ships and aircraft might carry nuclear weapons to Australia.
The prospect of US bombers in Australia comes at a sensitive time for Mr Turnbull, who is believed to be gearing up for an election, possibly as early as July. Both Mr Turnbull’s government and the Labor opposition’s leadership are likely to support an increased US military presence in Australia but the US request is expected to be opposed by grassroots Labor activists.
Few analysts doubt China’s determination to strengthen its presence in the South China Sea, even though Beijing announced a smaller-than-expected rise in military spending at the weekend as the ruling Communist party seeks a more effective and streamlined army.
Rejecting foreign criticism of China’s island-building, Mr Wang instead accused the US of militarising the region and repeated Beijing’s refusal to co-operate with an International Court of Arbitration case brought by the Philippines over disputed islands.
The South China Sea “is currently one of the safest and freest shipping lanes in the world”, Mr Wang claimed. China hoped to secure freedom of navigation but he warned that this “does not imply doing whatever you want”, and that any attempts to disturb the South China Sea and destabilise Asia would not be allowed.