Maritime issues must be sorted out in accordance with laws of the sea

Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Thursday strongly denied any move to set up a trilateral strategic dialogue among India, Australia and the U.S.

Reports of such a move had led to speculation about another military bloc in the making with the unstated aim of containing China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr. Smith's focus during his meeting with Defence Minister A.K. Antony, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and the Service chiefs was to build India-Australia bilateral defence ties by adding “practical cooperation” to the Strategic Partnership and Security Framework pact inked by the two countries.

Both Australia and India agreed that it is “absolutely essential” for maritime issues to be sorted out in accordance with laws of the sea.

At the same time, Mr. Smith did not want the media to excessively focus on China and the South China Sea “because there are maritime disputes in the world that don't involve China.”

The bulk of the time was spent on discussions on maritime issues and some on the situation in Afghanistan, where Australia had a presence in the restive Uruzgan province, the Minister told journalists.

The two sides also touched upon the prospect of increasing their interaction at regional and multilateral institutions such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the CHOGM discussions on piracy and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus.

Mr. Smith said China's response to the U.S. military basing itself in Australia was “moderate, appropriate and mature.”

He termed reports of the move to hold an India-U.S.-Australia trilateral strategic dialogue “misreporting,” which arose from some think tanks coming out with a paper proposing such a course.

The only government-level formal expression in terms of trilateral engagement was a communiqué issued at the end of Australia-U.S. Ministerial consultations, which said given the importance of India and the Indian Ocean Rim, there should be more cooperation in humanitarian operations and disaster relief.

Mr. Smith said India was briefed in advance about plans to base a U.S. military contingent in Australia. A beginning would be made with a 250-strong complement of U.S. Marines at Australian training facilities, which will increase to 2,500 in five years.

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