About 200 US marines began a six-month deployment in Australia yesterday, in the first wave of a build-up of 2,500 troops due eventually to rotate through a de facto base in Darwin, as the US deepens its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The deployment of marines to northern Australia has sparked concern in China, where officials have questioned whether it is part of a larger US strategy aimed at encircling it and thwarting the country’s rise as a global power.
“We see this very much as responding and reflecting the fact that the world is moving into our part of the world, the world is moving to the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. We need to respond to that,” Australian Minister of Defence Stephen Smith said in Darwin, where he met the marines off a charter flight.
“The world needs to essentially come to grips with the rise of China, the rise of India, the move of strategic and political and economic influence to our part of the world,” Smith said.
The tropical port of Darwin is 820km from Indonesia, allowing the marines to respond quickly to any humanitarian and security problems in Southeast Asia, where tension has risen because of disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea.
When the deployment was announced in November last year by US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, they cast it as a way to increase bilateral military cooperation and training and said it was not an attempt to isolate China.
“The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken,” Obama said, adding that “we welcome a rising, peaceful China.”
Australia, a firm US ally with a 60-year-old ANZUS strategic and military alliance that includes New Zealand, counts China as its biggest trading partner and is careful not to antagonize it.
After the initial announcement, China said the moves could erode trust and fan Cold War-era antagonism.
However, strategic and international relations analyst Rod Lyon, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China, India and Indonesia had been well briefed on the deployment, and should not be overly concerned.
“I don’t think it does much to deter China or position the US against China,” Lyon said. “If we are trying to be antagonistic towards China from Darwin, we are starting a long way back.”
“China understands that ANZUS is important to Australia, that China does not get to pick Australia’s allies, and that our alliance with America will unfold in new ways in the 21st century. While you occasionally get some over-excited reactions out of Chinese media, I think official views in Beijing are more moderate and relaxed,” Lyon said.
Like China, Australia is looking to develop its military capabilities to reflect its increasing economic power and is focusing on its northwest coast, where its offshore oil and gas sector is booming. It is considering spending up to US$100 billion to build a long-range submarine fleet, buy new fighter aircraft and build its naval presence.
James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, said that while the deployment was small, it would give the US more options in Asia, where it already has bases in South Korea, Okinawa and Guam, as well as strategic relationships with Singapore and the Philippines.