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Australian frigate embeds with US Navy at Yokosuka, Japan

Australian navy sailors secure the frigate HMAS Sydney at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on May 6, 2013. The Australian ship will embed with the USS George Washington Strike Group for the next three months.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — An Australian Navy frigate joined the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet on Monday for a three-month embed, the latest example of tightening links during a time of heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

The modified Perry-class frigate HMAS Sydney is now docked at Yokosuka’s naval harbor, where its 217-member crew will prepare for a patrol as part of the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group.

HMAS Sydney commanding officer Cmdr. Karl Brinckmann said the ship’s sailors will learn more about the U.S. Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system, which Australia will begin adopting when its first Hobart-class destroyer rolls out in 2016.

While the ship will maintain links with its home command, it will take its orders from the U.S. commander while at sea.

“For all intents and purposes, we’ll be a U.S. ship embedding in the task group,” Brinckmann said.

This is not the first deployment of an Australian ship with the U.S. Navy. The HMAS Darwin sailed with 7th Fleet ships in 2011, a time that, despite some angst over Chinese ship movements, now seems placid in comparison.

Since then, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died, leaving his son to establish his leadership by threatening ballistic missile strikes on Japan, South Korea and the United States. In the East China Sea, China and Japan scrambled fighter jets over an ownership dispute involving the uninhabited, Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands; and, in the South China Sea, Chinese ships have held standoffs over territory with Philippine and Vietnamese vessels.

The U.S. has strenuously opposed North Korea’s belligerence, which has broad given Pyongyang’s widely condemned nuclear program.

However, Australian officials and analysts have differed on how to handle U.S. arguments with China. Any disagreement between the two countries pits Australia’s closest security partner in Washington against what has rapidly become its biggest trading partner in Beijing.

For the time being, Australia’s policy appears to be conflict avoidance, according to a white paper released Friday that offered the first revision to Australia’s overarching defense strategy since 2009.

The 2009 white paper warned that China’s pace and scope of military modernization were planting the seeds of future conflict in the region.

The new version aims at “encouraging China’s peaceful rise,” according to the document.

“The Government does not believe that Australia must choose between its longstanding Alliance with the United States and its expanding relationship with China; nor do the United States and China believe that we must make such a choice,” the white paper stated.

Official Chinese news outlets viewed the white paper as conciliatory. People’s Daily Online, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, ran the headline “China threat off the Australian radar” in response.

Such claims appear to be overstated, defense analysts said Monday.

Ross Babbage, a former assistant defense secretary who served as a special adviser on the 2009 white paper, told Stars and Stripes that both the U.S. and Australia want to see a peaceful China grow into a world leadership role, though not at the expense of other allies in the region.

Each country remains wary of China’s defense buildup and territorial claims that conflict with generally accepted international standards.

Shortly after the new white paper was released, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard “went out of her way twice to emphasize the deep concern, in public statements Friday, about the lack of transparency in Chinese military development,” Babbage said.

In the meantime, Babbage said, he expects the U.S.-Australia military relationship to grow. He predicted that current operations in Australia, which include the rotation of 2,500 U.S. Marines, will eventually expand to include more naval and air operations.

Babbage cited a recent multinational exercise with the U.S., Australia and the Japan Self-Defense Force in Guam as an example of where Australia’s security alignment is heading. Multinational exercises involving Australia’s most advanced weaponry were rare about five years ago.

“They are becoming larger and more routine,” Babbage said.

Along with the Aegis system on its future destroyers, Australia’s announcement on Friday that it will purchase up to 100 F-35 joint Strike Fighters and 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft ensures that the two militaries will have an easier time operating together during future exercises.

“Especially with the rebalancing of U.S. activities in the region, I think we’re going to see further new elements of cooperation likely revealed in the next few years,” Babbage said.

slavin.erik@stripes.com

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