THE Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, has flagged in the clearest terms yet that Australia will deepen its long-term involvement in the United States' strategic ''pivot'' to Asia by boosting the role of the naval base at Perth in the build-up of American forces in the region.
Ahead of the high-level AUSMIN talks with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (pictured, right) and the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, in the West Australian capital on Wednesday, Mr Smith said Perth's HMAS Stirling would rise in prominence as the Indian Ocean gained strategic importance.
''I've been an advocate and an arguer of the point of view that India is on the rise, the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean is on the rise,'' he said. ''The enhanced importance of Stirling and its utility is to me something that will occur as sure as night follows day.''
He stressed it would like take ''years, rather than weeks or months''. While HMAS Stirling has previously been floated as a possible site for a greater US naval presence - including even an aircraft carrier - the strength of Mr Smith's remarks signify that Australia will play a long-term and expanding role in the pivot. Prime Minister Julia Gillard met with Ms Clinton and Mr Panetta on Tuesday night, joined by Mr Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr.
Wednesday's talks will cover the next stage of the rotation of US marines through Darwin, the first 250 of whom spent part of this year in the Australian base there. They will also canvass cyber security, how to tackle the amount of used satellite junk in space, and the post-2014 military contributions to Afghanistan.
Australia has indicated it would consider keeping a presence for counter-terrorism, as well as continue training Afghan officers.