During oral testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13, United States Assistant Secretary of Defence David Shear mentioned that as part of a set of military measures to respond to China’s provocative acts in the South China Sea, United States Air Force B-1 bombers would be deployed to Darwin.
This caught officials on both sides of the Pacific off guard and, quickly, Mr Shear was described as having “misspoken”. While B-1s are unlikely to be based in Australia any time soon, the comment – even if “misspoken” – was the latest example of a distinct sharpening of American intent towards the South China Sea disputes.
Senior officials have more forcefully condemned China’s actions for some time. US Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris publicly criticised China for building a “great wall of sand” in late March.
Mr Shear’s comments followed reports last week that Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter has asked the military to look at options to challenge China’s claims.
Washington is reportedly considering deploying naval vessels in the contested waters, conducting surveillance over the reclamation works and even holding a freedom of navigation exercise off the disputed features.