Australia’s diplomatic relationship with mainland China remained tense Thursday after the government signalled it would not veto U.S. plans to use Australian bases for a missile defence system.
The determination of U.S. President George W. Bush to forge ahead with plans to develop a missile defense system drew a harsh response from Beijing on Wednesday.
And Australia risked being drawn into a confrontation with Beijing if the U.S. uses its Pine Gap base here to deploy a missile defense shield providing umbrella coverage of the United States, analysts said.
“We could not conceive of a situation where Australia as a strong ally of the U.S. would not agree to joint facilities being used to warn the U.S. of a missile attack,” Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s office said late Wednesday.
But former prime minister Malcolm Fraser warned: “If we allow U.S. facilities in Australia to be used to help establish an anti-missile defense shield for the U.S., concerns throughout Asia would magnify.
“If Pine Gap comes to be used as the forward reach of the U.S.’s missile defense, the nature of those facilities will have been altered.
“Simply gathering information is one thing — being the forward arm of a U.S. defense shield is quite another,” Fraser wrote in a newspaper article this week.
Meanwhile, mainland China’s director-general of arms control, Sha Zu-kang, became the most senior official to criticize Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s support for Bush’s commitment to “do what it takes” to defend Taiwan against communist Chinese aggression.
“I don’t think Australia has any reason to get involved in this kind of matter,” Sha told Australian broadcaster SBS.
“This issue is exclusively one between China and the US and we don’t see any necessity for a third country, like Australia, to create noises on this issue.”
Australia’s feted military commander and army chief Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove later conceded the country was walking a diplomatic tightrope.
He said rising Sino-U.S. tensions were “a policy issue for guys like the prime minister, foreign minister and Cabinet of the day, that the military virtually lapses into being a cheer squad.
“We walk a practical tightrope, obviously the U.S. is our major ally, while China has a vast economy, is a major power with huge influence in our area,” Cosgrove said.
“We have … to maintain our appropriate solidarity with our major allies yet encourage every constructive way for China to expand, develop and engage with the region.”
Cosgrove also downplayed the likelihood of Australian involvement in the defence of Taiwan.
“Our defence force is not structured for remote military expeditions. North Asia is a very long way from Australia.”
The Chinese communist navy confronted three Australian warships en route to Hong Kong from South Korea in the Taiwan Strait on April 17.