U.S. Marines Headed to Australia as Part of New Pact

The first 180 of about 2,500 Marines were greeted at a welcome ceremony by Defense Minister Smith in the northern coast city of Darwin on Wednesday.

The Marines will be engaging in training exercises with the Australian Defense Force during their six-month rotation as part of an agreement signed in November by President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The president has publicly stated that the American military’s long-term focus will be shifting toward an increasingly assertive China.

Beijing authorities have accused President Obama of escalating military tensions in the region.

“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,” Mr. Smith said in an interview  with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We need to respond to that. 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.”

The United States has had military bases in the North Pacific since the end of World War II, but much less of a presence in Southeast Asia since the early 1990s. The South China Sea is a major commercial shipping route that has been increasingly the focus of Chinese territorial disputes.

Prime Minister Gillard confirmed last week that there are ongoing discussions with Washington about the flying of long-range American surveillance drones from the remote Cocos Islands, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

A spokesman for Mr. Smith told The Australian newspaper that the top three priorities of last year’s bilateral agreement were the deployment of the Marines over five years, the expanded use of Australian Air Force bases for American aircraft and increased U.S. ship and submarine visits to the Indian Ocean through a naval base outside of Perth, on the country’s west coast.

Jeffrey Bleich, the American ambassador to Australia, was quick to dismiss any assertions that the increased military presence in the region was aimed primarily at containing China.

“There’s this kind of sexy, fun narrative that you hear from pundits and others trying to suggest this is about China, but it’s not,” he said in an interview with Sky TV over the weekend. “If you just look at the Darwin decision, for example: we’ve had our Marines stationed in Central Asia, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are mostly an amphibious force. So they need to start training and doing amphibious maneuvers again, and we’re looking for the best place to do it and the best partners to do it with, and Darwin is an ideal spot for it.”

But Michael Fullilove, director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that addressing China’s recent assertiveness was definitely one of the major aspects of the policy. Australia views the presence of American forces in the region as a counterbalance to what it sees as Beijing’s sometimes erratic foreign policy, he said.

“Given that we know that rising powers can disrupt the system,” he said, “it makes sense to balance against the risk of future Chinese recklessness by keeping the U.S. engaged in the region. The more that power can be diffused so that it is spread across different capitals, the less likely you are to have unreasonable actions where one power ignores the other’s needs.”

And the empire grows ever larger.

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