Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he has been assured United States B-1 bombers are not bound for Australia.
Assistant US defence secretary David Shear told a Congressional hearing B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft would soon be based in Australia as a deterrent to what America described as China’s “destabilising effect” in the region.
“We will be placing additional air force assets in Australia as well as B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft,” he said.
The Pentagon now says the assistant secretary misspoke.
“I understand that the official misspoke and that the US does not have any plans to base those aircraft in Australia,” Mr Abbott said.
Before the clarification, China’s foreign ministry expressed “serious concern” with a spokeswoman, saying the country would “resolutely uphold its territorial sovereignty”.
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Earlier, a spokesman for Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said the department was “aware of the comments made by a US official in Congressional testimony overnight”.
“The US government has contacted us to advise that the official misspoke,” a statement read.
The US Air Force said the B-1 bomber was the back bone of its long-range bomber force.
The aircraft is capable of rapidly delivering 84 bombs weighing 227 kilograms each “against any adversary, anywhere in the world, at any time” and is currently being used to attack Islamic State in Iraq.
Mr Shear told a special congressional hearing on the South China Sea the deployment of air assets to Australia was in addition to the doubling of US marines bound for Darwin, leaving their current base in Japan.
China will resolutely uphold its territorial sovereignty. We demand the relevant side talk and act cautiously and not take any actions that are risky or provocative to maintain regional peace and stability.Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying
“We will be moving significant numbers of Marines to Hawaii, Guam and Australia,” he said.
“So we will have a very strong presence, very strong continued posture throughout the region to back our commitments to our allies, to protect and work with our partners and to continue ensuring peace and stability in the region.
“As well as back our diplomacy vis-a-vis China on the South China Sea.”
The senate foreign relations committee called the hearing to address concerns about China’s continued construction of artificial land masses in the South China Sea including runways.
The US State Department said China’s behaviour was having a destabilising effect on the region.
China’s official news agency Xinhua reported the country’s ambassador to the US as saying Washington had no right whatsoever to intervene in the legitimate activities it conducted in the South China Sea, while urging related parties to resolve the disputes through diplomatic channels.
Features of the B-1 bomber:
- Manufactured by Boeing
- Has the largest internal payload of any current bomber
- Capable of rapidly delivering 84 227-kilogram bombs
- Intended for high-speed, low-altitude penetration missions
- Entered into service in 1986 in United States Air Force as a nuclear bomber
- Is no longer armed with nuclear weapons, but is capable of carrying air launch cruise and short-range attack missiles
Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press conference in Beijing the country was “extremely concerned”.
“We think the United States has to issue a clarification about this. China has always upheld freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but freedom of navigation certainly does not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country’s territorial waters or airspace at will,” she said.
“China will resolutely uphold its territorial sovereignty.
“We demand the relevant side talk and act cautiously and not take any actions that are risky or provocative to maintain regional peace and stability.”
US secretary of state John Kerry is meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping this weekend.
Committee chair Republican senator Bob Corker said the US was not doing enough to deter the Chinese and American allies were questioning Washington’s credibility.
“I think we’re the ones paying the price by no-one seeing any kind of tangible activity relative to this and them actually gaining and paying no price,” he said.
Australia’s force posture agreement with the US does mention “enhanced aircraft cooperation initiatives”.
The focus of that though is “visits for exercises and training”.
It does not specifically mention B-1 bombers being stationed in Australia as a deterrent to China’s territorial claims or being based and operationally prepared to respond to Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
A Pentagon spokesman told the ABC heavy-lift bomber assets had been deployed to Australia in the past, including a B52 visit last December.
Those however, were used for a training exercise.
Earlier, a Pentagon spokesman said “the specifics of future force posture cooperation are yet to be finalised”.