No request to base US missiles near Darwin, defence minister says

By Paul Karp

The US has not asked Australia to host mid-range missiles near Darwin and does not expect to make such a request, the defence minister, Senator Linda Reynolds, has said.

But Reynolds said Australia would seriously consider a proposal to take part in a coalition to patrol the Strait of Hormuz to prevent the interference of oil shipments by Iran, raised at Australia-US ministerial consultations in Sydney on Sunday.

The talks were dominated by concern about the role of China in the region, with both countries expressing “serious concerns” about the continued militarisation of the South China Sea.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also publicly warned Australia not to prioritise economic ties with China over defending national security and the rule of law.

The US is reportedly considering deploying mid-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region after withdrawing from a cold war-era treaty with Russia on Friday that banned the deployment of the warheads.

On Monday Reynolds said she had discussed the issue with the US defense secretary, Mark Esper, and “he confirmed there was no ask of Australia and none was expected”.

“I can confirm that he made no request and that he wasn’t anticipating any request,” Reynolds told Radio National.

She said it was “in no one’s interests for the competitive relationship between China and the US to become adversarial”, and Australia values its relationship with both.

Reynolds said Australia would “carefully assess” the request to patrol the Strait of Hormuz, acknowledging it had a “sovereign interest” in free cargo movement in the region but insisting that no decision had yet been made.

She had spoken to the new UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace – “to get a steer on what the United Kingdom is doing”.

“Like us the UK are equally alarmed by the increasing tensions in the Gulf region and they also strongly condemn Iran’s attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman, given some of their vessels have been subject to attack,” Reynolds said.

On Monday the energy minister, Angus Taylor, confirmed that Australia is in negotiations with the US to access its strategic petroleum reserve while Australia conducts a fuel security review, due by the end of the year.

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Australia has just 28 days of reserve supplies, despite an International Energy Agency agreement to keep a 90-day stockpile.

Reynolds said the issue was “why Australia remains so concerned about what is happening in the Straits of Hormuz”.

“Australia is reliant on traffic through the Straits of Hormuz for a percentage of our oil supply, so we’re doing everything we can … to be prudent and get a good continuity of supply.”

On Monday the Labor MP Nick Champion, the deputy chair of of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade, called for the long-term lease of Darwin port to the Chinese-owned company Landbridge to be scrapped.

“I think there was not enough consideration of the national interest in that particular privatisation of this port,” Champion told the ABC.

Reynolds said the lease “went through the appropriate decision-making process at the time and all foreign investment proposals take national security considerations into account”.