AUSTRALIA has committed to tightening defence co-operation with Japan as American-led efforts to widen and tighten alliances in the face of a rising China are drawing new controversy.
Along with their Japanese counterparts after a meeting in Sydney yesterday, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, and the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, declared Australia and Japan ''natural strategic partners'' and pledged to work more closely on defence and security.
The Japanese Foreign Minister, Koichiro Gemba, repeated an earlier statement that Tokyo ''valued and welcomed'' the stationing of US marines for six months every year, a deployment widely seen in Japan as helping spread the burden of hosting American forces.
But across town, the Perth media baron Kerry Stokes, whose Seven group controls the Seven Network and The West Australian newspaper, was telling a conference the US marine deployment was turning public opinion in China against Australia.
''I am physically repulsed at having foreign troops on our soil and not under my control,'' Mr Stokes told a conference on China held by two conservative News Corp newspapers, The Australian and the Wall Street Journal. ''We give the impression that we're joining sides. We never had to join sides. China always accepted our relationship with America. Allowing the troops in Australia has just aggravated something that was accepted before and made it more dominant.''
At the annual foreign and defence ministers meeting with Japan, Mr Smith, who is also from Perth, did not respond to Mr Stokes directly but emphasised that the marine ''rotation'' in Darwin was being seen as ''very positive'' in the region, with Indonesia and other Asian nations interested in joining US and Australian forces for exercises. The rising frictions between China and its Asian neighbours over disputed maritime territories also intruded on the meeting. Immediately on landing in Sydney yesterday, Mr Gemba learned that six Chinese government ships had entered the waters around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in response to Japanese moves to tighten ownership and control.
He immediately ordered his ministry to call in the Chinese ambassador to receive a formal protest. ''We made a strong case that Chinese ships should leave the Japanese territorial waters,'' he said.
Mr Gemba also announced he was departing Sydney last night, instead of today to take charge of the crisis. ''We should never let the situation get escalated, and we have a strong hope for the Chinese government to respond to the situation in an appropriate and also in a calm manner.''
The Japanese and Australian ministers agreed that while pursuing ''positive, comprehensive relationships'' with China, the two US allies would enhance bilateral security co-operation, build three-way co-ordination with the United States, and strengthen security ties with India, south-east Asian countries and South Korea.
The Defence Minister, Mr Smith, said he would visit Japan within the next few weeks to discuss closer defence links, including transfers of defence science and technology in the light of Tokyo's lifting in December last year of its postwar ban on exports of defence equipment.
The Japanese Defence Minister, Satoshi Morimoto, said specific technologies could be discussed in the visit, including possible access by Australia's navy to the design of Japan's new Soryu class of conventional submarines for its planned new underwater fleet.