Australia is set to play a greater military role in Donald Trump’s new Asia-Pacific strategy to counter a rising China, influential US senator John McCain said.
The chairman of the powerful US Senate armed services committee told The Australian that beefed up naval forces developed by both the US and Australia would jointly target “peace through strength” in the Pacific. It would help to ensure freedom of navigation in the face of China’s increasingly belligerent behaviour in the South China Sea. His comments are the strongest sign yet that Australia is being viewed by the Trump administration as a pivotal partner in Washington’s plans to challenge China’s growing hegemony in the region.
In an interview with The Australian in Washington ahead of his visit to Australia early next week, Senator McCain said the threat of Islamic State and the challenge posed by a rising China and a rogue North Korea made the US-Australia alliance more important and relevant than ever. The former Republican presidential candidate will visit Australia next week and meet Malcolm Turnbull to reinforce the value of the US alliance as part of a four-nation visit to the region.
His visit comes at a time when the Trump administration is reviewing its Asia-Pacific strategy with a promise to spend billions of dollars to beef up US naval power in the region. The Pentagon this month endorsed a plan by Senator McCain, known as the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative, to inject $US8 billion over five years into US military strength in Asia.
The money would be used to deploy more ships and troops into the region, upgrade infrastructure and conduct more drills, including with Australia.
Senator McCain said Australia would play an enhanced military role in the new US strategy.
“The new (US) national security team … are developing strategies for the Asia-Pacific region and I think that strategy will have a lot to do with our relationship and strategic co-operation with Australia,” he said. “I think Australia could play a key role particularly since we are witnessing a very large investment in an upgrade and expanded (US) navy in the decade ahead.
“That is an affirmation of Ronald Reagan’s commitment, which is peace through strength, and we see the Chinese asserting control in areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea that is clearly in violation of international law.”
Mr Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, released yesterday, called for an increase in military spending to $US574bn, 10 per cent more than last year and about 3 per cent more than was projected by the Obama administration.
The Defence Department said the funding increase would help “rebuild fighting readiness and will restore program balance by fixing the holes created by previous budget cuts”.
But Senator McCain said this increase was still not enough and would be “inadequate to the challenges we face”.
He welcomed the Turnbull government’s $89bn plan to replace and expand the Royal Australian Navy’s frontline fleet. “I think it’s very important that the Australian navy be improved, I applaud that decision … and this is important for our alliance,” he said. “We do not see confrontation with China, nor do I believe there will be, but … one of the fundamentals of US and Australia policy is freedom of navigation. With a big build-up of our capabilities we can ensure this fundamental principle is respected.”
Senator McCain, who has previously described China as a ‘‘bully’’ for its militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea, said he understood the importance of Australia’s trade relationship with Beijing.
“That’s one of many reasons why I deeply regret the (Trump administration’s) abandonment of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact),” he said.
Senator McCain, a Vietnam veteran whose father John “Jack” McCain was a submarine commander based out of Perth in World War II, is one of America’s staunchest advocates of the US- Australia alliance. A former navy fighter pilot, McCain was held prisoner for 5½ years after being shot down during the Vietnam War, suffering torture before his release in 1973.
He is a frequent critic of Mr Trump but he believes the alliance is as strong as ever despite the fractious phone call in February between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull. “I think it was nothing more than an unfortunate phone call,” he said. “I think this president has learned as he has experienced the office of the presidency and I’m glad that he has affirmed the importance of the relationship later on from the unfortunate phone call.”
By CAMERON STEWART