''Bizarre dichotomy of language'' … Peter Jennings. Photo: Jay Cronan
AUSTRALIA has been ''spooked'' by its deepening strategic ties with the United States, prompting senior ministers to play down progress on the American military build-up on our shores, a leading defence analyst says.
Peter Jennings, head of the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia lacked confidence and sophistication in its approach to China, which is at the heart of the US strategic ''pivot'' to Asia, including the stationing of US marines in Darwin.
His remarks followed this week's Australia-United States Ministerial Consultation in Perth, where the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, and the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, met their US counterparts, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta.
The meeting discussed progress on the rotation of US Marines through Darwin - announced last November - and the use of airfields in northern Australia, as well as the future use of Australian navy bases by the Americans.
''There's a bizarre dichotomy of language that's being used by the Australians on one hand that talks about 'slow' and 'measured' and 'incremental' and the Americans who say, 'We're getting on with it.' I think the Aussies are spooked. They're actually surprised at the substantive outcomes they've achieved in co-operation with the US.''
Senator Carr stressed at the beginning of Wednesday's post-meeting press conference there was ''no language of containment'' - that is, of China - in the communique and insisted the meeting was ''business as usual, steady as she goes, no new strategic content or announcements''.
Mr Jennings, a former deputy director for strategy in the Defence Department, said the Americans, by contrast, were keen to press the fact that they welcomed the rise of China provided it played by the international rules.
''I think the Americans tend to have a more sophisticated view of China than we do,'' he said. ''If you look at Clinton's comments, I think she actually sketches out a mature understanding of China's place in the region, which is that there's room for all of us … but we can't allow China's rhetoric on American and Australian security co-operation to prevent that from going ahead.
''But I frankly don't think Australia's thought through a confident enough approach to the China relationship.''
The Lowy Institute's China expert Linda Jakobson said both the US and Australia needed to be more frank with the Chinese about the purpose of the US pivot to Asia.
The US and Australia - and many officials in China - are unsure of how exactly China will use its growing power.
The US was trying to manage this uncertainty by maintaining its status as the overseer of international rules.
''Both Washington and Canberra keep repeating that, for example, the Darwin decision, which has become shorthand for this strengthened defence co-operation, is not about China,'' she said.
''Everyone knows it is about China. The Chinese know it, and it would be better to speak more openly about what strengthened defence co-operation is about and the concerns that China's rise evokes.''