First, Australians learned a US Defense Department official had announced that B-1 bombers would be deployed to Australia to counter China's "destabilizing" effect on the region. Then, China quickly expressed "concern," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the official "misspoke," and the Pentagon withdrew the comments.
"We will be moving significant numbers of Marines to Hawaii, Guam, and Australia, so we will have a very strong presence," David Shear, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Wednesday. "We will be placing additional Air Force assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft."
Australia has a long-standing military alliance with the US, and an increasingly strong economic relationship with China. This recent miscommunication, noted the International Business Times, highlights the Land Down Under's dilemma in balancing the two. Over the next six years, Chinese investors are expected to pump up to $60 billion into Australia's housing market, according to Credit Suisse.
The US has maintained a garrison of Marines in the city of Darwin, in the north of Australia, since a deal was struck in 2011. But Australia hasn't hosted long-range bombing aircraft like the B-1 on a long-term basis.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry reportedly expressed "serious concern," with a spokeswoman, adding that China would "resolutely uphold its territorial sovereignty."
Then, in the early hours of Friday morning Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews' office released a statement which said it was "aware of the comments made by a US official in Congressional testimony overnight," but insisted that "the US government has contacted us to advise that the official misspoke."
That stance became more emphatic when Abbott said at a press conference, "The US does not have any plans to base those aircraft in Australia."
A statement by the US Embassy to VICE News confirmed that the Pentagon official had "misspoke" saying, "The United States has no plans to rotate B-1 bombers or surveillance aircraft in Australia."
The statement, did however, not deny that B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft could one day be based out of Darwin. "The United States and Australia continue to explore ways to strengthen our alliance and more effectively respond to shared challenges, both regionally and around the world," said a spokesperson from the embassy. "The specifics of future force posture cooperation have yet to be finalized."
Professor Kerry Brown of the University of Sydney, a former British first secretary for the diplomatic service in Beijing, told VICE News that the remarks in Washington could "betray a mindset among officials at a certain level in Washington that Australia is such a cast-iron ally that it can be assumed it will go along with any US deployment." Although he said that most US officials would recognize Australia's position as trade-dependent on China.
"More sympathetic, less hawkish people in the US administration understand that Australia is in a less comfortable neighborhood and geopolitical situation than the US is," he said. "Whether the official really did mispeak or whether this has been quickly countered and swept under the rug, we might never know."
"But for Australia, this is maybe a moment where policy people begin to think that these challenges are going to be coming thick and fast and that if it is dragged spat between US and China, Australia is going to need to come up with responses, because it is going to be crunched," he added.
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