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Australia to Join US Missile Defense Umbrella - 2003-12-04

Australia's government says it plans to join the U.S. missile defense umbrella - saying such a defensive shield is needed for protection against threats from rogue states. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Parliament Thursday that joining the United States in building a high-tech missile defense system is an important strategic move.

"This is not an offensive system," says Mr. Downer. "It seeks to protect the territory and forces of the United States and its allies from ballistic missile attack and it will help deter rogue states from acquiring ballistic missile technology."

Australia's government says its initial involvement and financial contribution in developing the missile shield will be modest. But Australia's location and radar-systems are considered by many experts to be essential in helping the United States monitor and shoot down any potential ballistic missile launch in the region. The two countries have been staunch allies in the two-year old global war on terrorism.

Australia's decision in principle to join the U.S. program could spark new accusations by its Asian neighbors that Canberra is acting as Washington's policeman in the Asia-Pacific. But Foreign Minister Downer says Australia has already informed many countries in the region of its decision and will keep its neighbors briefed.

Critics also charge that the missile shield is costly and could spark a global or regional arms race.

But Defense Minister Robert Hill says missile defense should not be viewed as a menace to Australia's neighbors but rather insurance that rogue states - such as North Korea - can not threaten other nations with weapons of mass destruction. "This is a defensive mechanism, this is not a threat in any way," he says. "This is a way to defeat threats. This in many ways can benefit all states."

The United States took steps toward setting up a missile defense shield last year when it withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that banned such systems.