The United States is set to permanently base troops in Australia amid concerns about the threat of China’s growing military reach across the region.
By Jonathan Pearlman in Sydney
President Barack Obama is expected to reveal plans to station about 500 to 1000 Marines at a barracks in Darwin and to expand the US navy’s use of bases at the Northern Territory capital and in Perth in Western Australia.
He will make the announcement in Australia next week during a visit that includes Hawaii and Indonesia designed to assert America’s commitment to the Asia Pacific region.
The bases would be beyond the expanding range of new Chinese missiles, which can reach the main US Pacific bases on Okinawa island in Japan and the small island territory of Guam, east of the Philippines.
The US Marines are reportedly due to be positioned at the Robertson barracks in Darwin, effectively the nearest mainland Australian military base to China. But the fresh US presence would also involve additional use of aircraft of air bases in the north west of the country and further access to training ranges.
The move comes amid a realignment of US forces across the Asia-Pacific and growing pressure to lighten its presence on Okinawa, where local politicians have called for a troop reduction as part of a planned relocation of a controversial US base.
Kevin Rudd, the Australian foreign minister, said: “From the Australian perspective, here we are with a vast coastline, a population of just 23 million. It has always made national security sense to have a strong security alliance with America.”
But there are also heightened concerns across the region about China’s strengthening military capability and its apparent growing willingness to assert its presence across the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. In June, China was accused of harassing Vietnamese and Filipino vessels in the South China Sea, while the arrest by Japan of a Chinese trawler last year led to a diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Tokyo.
During a visit to Australia next week – his first as President – Mr Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are expected to unveil their plans as they mark the 60th anniversary of the alliance. No US troops are stationed in Australia – though forces have visited since 1907 – and analysts say the move is likely to be badged as a “rotation” rather than a permanent deployment.
“The US could build their forces up quickly in places like Australia out of missile range from China,” a professor of international security at Sydney University, Alan Dupont, told the Telegraph.
“A lot of Japanese facilities in Okinawa are quite vulnerable to the new generation of Chinese missile capabilities. It is arguably one of the most important shifts in both US and Australian strategic policy in the past 20 years.” Australia’s defence minister, Stephen Smith, said Australia would seek to expand “practical cooperation” with the US but would not agree to a Marine base in the country. At present, the main US military presence in Australia is limited to a joint satellite tracking station at Pine Gap, in the Northern Territory, and a naval communication station in Western Australia.
President Obama, who was born in Hawaii and calls himself “America’s first Pacific president”, has overseen a shift in focus away from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. The US has signalled an expansion of defence ties across the region, including with Vietnam and Singapore.
However, the plan to expand the US presence in Australia has raised concerns among some analysts that it could escalate regional tensions and damage relations with China.
Hugh White, a former senior Australian defence official, said a dramatic expansion of US troops in the country was “a very significant and potentially very risky move for Australia”.
“In Washington and in Beijing, this will be seen as Australia aligning itself with an American strategy to contain China,” Dr White, a professor at the Australian National University, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “In the view from Beijing, everything the US is doing in the western Pacific is designed to bolster resistance to the Chinese challenge to US primacy.”