The Pentagon is to deploy a record number of US Marines to train in Australia, Australian Minister for Defence Marise Payne said yesterday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.
A total of 1,587 marines are to spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, she said, an increase of nearly 27 percent from the US Marine Corps’ rotation last year for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.
“The US military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Payne said in a statement.
The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a US “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under US President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.
Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have competing claims for all or parts of the South China Sea.
In a move likely to irk Beijing, the marines are to train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
“China will monitor whatever the US does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.
“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.
The marines are also to transport additional military equipment, including helicopters and F/A-18 jets, Payne said.
The deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-China relations.
Australia, a staunch US ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.
However, bilateral relations have soured over the past few months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, which triggered a rare protest from Beijing.
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