CATHERINE MCGRATH, REPORTER: Australian Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, is overseeing the preparation of the 2013 Defence White Paper. He's beginning to report back on the emerging view. He's rejecting the notion that US primacy in Asia will be challenged and overtaken by China.
STEPHEN SMITH, AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE MINISTER: Some assume that the economic and strategic influence of the United States, the world's largest economy and superpower, will be rapidly eclipsed overnight as a result of this new distribution of strategic influence in the Indo Pacific. This is not Australia's view.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: He says in future there will be three superpowers in the region, China, India and the United States.
STEPHEN SMITH: The United States is not going away and is balancing towards the Indo Pacific. We are seeing a shift in focus by the United States to our region from United States central command focus on the Middle East to the United States Pacific command, characterised when I was recently in Hawaii as having responsible from Hollywood to Bollywood.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: As part of that shift the US has begun stationing marines on rotation in Darwin. Eventually their number will build to 2,500. Their Commandant, General James Amos, says the agreement is about regional stability and cooperation.
GENERAL JAMES AMOS, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS: There was lots of opportunity to work together, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, to train together, and to actually have an influence on sea lines of communications, commerce free trade, responsible behaviour in the Asia Pacific area. So I don't look at it as sabre-rattling at all.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: Stephen Smith's view on the US is consistent with current Australian policy. He's reinforcing its status and at the same time urging the United States to enhance its defence relationship with China.
But his comments also need to be seen in the context of a wider debate within Australian defence circles. Should Australia be encouraging the United States to make room for China?
One former Labor prime minister thinks so. Paul Keating has long supported the idea of the rise of Asia, and was instrumental in moving Australia towards closer interactions with South East Asia during the 1990s. This week he said the United States must do more to accommodate China's desires for superpower status.
PAUL KEATING, FORMER AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: And this must mean recognising China's legitimacy, its prerogatives as a great power and the legitimacy of its government.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: Former prime minister Keating's comments were made when he launched a new book on the subject by defence expert Professor Hugh White.
PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE, STRATEGIC STUDIES, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: Australia has always seen its place in Asia being kind of mediated by American power. And so our natural instinct is always to hope that America remains the dominant power. But if America tries to stay dominant, if America tries to keep China in the box that it's been in these last few decades, then China's going to push back and that's going to make rivalry more likely. Australia will be faced with that terrible situation of having to make a choice between the US and China, which is really a choice we don't want to make, we can't afford to make. So what's really important for us is that the US and China both find a way to work well together.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: Paul Keating backs Hugh White's thesis that it's time for the United States to allow China some more space.
PAUL KEATING: On my own part I have long held the view that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by a non-Asian power, wspecially by the application of US military force. A point articulated recently by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser.
The failure of United States wars in Korea, Vietnam and outside of Asia in Iraq and Afghanistan should lead the United States to believe that war on the Asian mainland is unwinnable. And that, therefore, the key to Asian stability lies in the promotion of strategic cooperation.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: Defence Minister Smith has played down any suggestion of a rift with the former Labor prime minister. He was speaking at the Lowy Institute and giving an update on the country's strategic thinking as Australia prepares its 2013 Defence White Paper.
Mr Smith is emphasising that Australia can't be a bridge between China and the US but it can encourage cooperation.
STEPHEN SMITH: We want to make sure and help make sure that China and the United States grow the level of their political and strategic and military-to-military and defence-to-defence relationship to the same level as their economic relationship. They have a very deeply, a very deep engagement economically. We want to see that at the political, strategic and military and defence level.
CATHERINE MCGRATH: On wider issues Mr Smith has confirmed Australia will sign a defence cooperation agreement with Indonesia September. And he has promised to keep Australia informed as Australia continues work on 2013 White Paper.
Mr Smith says the White Paper will also reflect Australia's view that the power of India is still underappreciated.