Washington: Australia`s defence minister on Wednesday urged a greater role in Asia for India, calling the world`s largest democracy a positive force in a region where attention has long been focused on China.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith made his appeal in Washington one week after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke along similar lines during a visit to India, which she said had "the potential to positively shape" Asia`s future.
In a speech about security in the Asia-Pacific region, Smith reiterated Australia`s view that it seeks cooperation with a rising China but pointedly devoted much of his talk to India and new challenges such as cyber-warfare.
"It is in all our interests that India plays the role it could and should as an emerging great power in the security and stability of the region," Smith said at the Brookings Institution think-tank.
"India`s significance cannot be under-appreciated," Smith said, saying that the country`s democratic credentials helped give it a growing "strategic weight in the world”.
"We see in India a country that combines a remarkable pace of domestic development with an active and constructive role on the regional and world stage," Smith said.
Pointing out that Perth is closer to Chennai than Sydney is to Shanghai, Smith said: "Our region needs to look west, as well as east."
The United States and Australia, along with their mutual ally Japan, have boosted defence cooperation with India including through joint military exercises.
China has been rapidly modernising its military. Tensions have been high on the South China Sea, where Vietnam and the Philippines have accused Beijing of provocations in recent months.
Smith, in response to a question, said it was critical for China and its neighbours to address such friction "in accordance with international law”.
"As China`s economy grows, it`s perfectly entitled on any historical analysis to also grow its military capability and capacity. All we ask of China is that it is transparent when it comes to its strategic intentions," he said.
Smith later held talks with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, becoming one of his first foreign visitors since he took the helm at the Pentagon this month. The pair discussed a range of issues including the war in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Australia has some 1,500 personnel in Afghanistan, mostly in Uruzgan province, making it the largest contributor outside the NATO alliance which leads the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
Australia plans to maintain its troop levels despite growing public weariness worldwide about the war. President Barack Obama has tripled US troops but is beginning a withdrawal scheduled for completion at the end of 2014.
"It has taken the international community too many years to get to this point, but the NATO/ISAF surge, the surge in Afghan security forces and our Special Forces operations are working," Smith said.
War critics point to civilian casualties and the precarious security in southern Afghanistan, where two top political leaders have been assassinated this month.