WASHINGTON • The United States is in talks to base long-range bombers in Australia, US defence officials said, within striking distance of the South China Sea.
The deployments could include B-1 bombers and an expansion of B-52 bomber missions, said Lieutenant-Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesman for the US Air Force in the Pacific. He stressed that discussions were continuing and no decisions had yet been reached.
"These bomber rotations provide opportunities for our airmen to advance and strengthen our regional alliances and provide (Pacific Air Forces) and US Pacific Command leaders with a credible global strike and deterrence capability to help maintain peace and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region," he said.
The US does not currently fly B-1 bombers from Australia, but does conduct periodic B-52 missions.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declined to comment on the discussions. "I can just assure you that everything we do in this area is very carefully determined to ensure that our respective military forces work together as closely as possible in our mutual national interests," he told reporters yesterday.
Should an agreement be reached, it would position further US military aircraft close to the disputed South China Sea and risk angering China, analysts said.
China yesterday expressed concern over the prospect of having the bombers based in Australia. "Cooperation among relevant countries should protect regional peace and stability, and not target the interests of third parties," said its Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims.
In recent years, an increasingly assertive Beijing has been backing up its territorial claims with land reclamation, as well as construction of ports and airstrips on the tiny reefs and islands of the Spratlys and the Paracels.
Analysts said the build-up had made it easier for Chinese ships to operate for long periods in the Spratlys without returning to the Chinese mainland. "Now Chinese ships can stay out in the Spratlys whenever they want, pretty confidently," said Mr Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
China's activities in the South China Sea again came under the spotlight this week, with new satellite imagery showing a marked expansion of dredging and land filling at North Island in the Paracels.
The satellite imagery from March 2 shows new terrain linking North Island with Middle Island, along a long and straight reef structure that could accommodate a runway and parallel taxiway, according to an article on The Diplomat website. The dimensions of the new terrain were equivalent to those recently built by China at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, said the article.
The new landfill is 12km north of Woody Island, which grabbed headlines last month with reports that China had deployed HQ-9 surface- to-air missiles there.
The deployment, said analysts, is aimed at sending a message to Washington. The US Navy has been carrying out freedom of navigation exercises, sailing and flying near disputed islands to underscore its rights to operate in the seas.
Last week, it sent aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and four other American warships into the South China Sea for what were described as routine exercises.
But numerous Chinese naval ships were operating nearby, the US Navy said, noticeably more than in past years.
A Chinese officer told the state media that the ships were there to "monitor, identify, follow and expel" foreign vessels and aircraft, depending on how close they came to "our islands".
The encounter, which passed without incident, was the latest episode in a wary stand-off between the two major powers over the South China Sea.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES