17 November 2011

Up to 2,500 Marines Could be Based in Australia

17 November 2011

Darwin, Noth Australia (image : GoogleMaps)

CANBERRA, Australia — U.S. military presence in Australia is expanding, with plans underway to deploy about 250 Marines starting next year and lay the groundwork for up to 2,500 over the next several years.

The Air Force and Navy are expected to expand there presence in the region as well.

The agreement was announced Wednesday at a joint news conference with President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It is widely viewed as a response to China's growing aggressiveness, although the president insisted that the U.S. does not fear Beijing.

China responded swiftly, warning that an expanded U.S. military footprint in Australia may not be appropriate and deserved greater scrutiny.

Obama called the plan "significant," and said it would build capacity and cooperation between the U.S. and Australia. U.S. officials were careful to emphasize that the pact was not an attempt to create a permanent American military presence in Australia.

The Marines will reportedly be organized as a special purpose Marine air-ground task force and be based at Robertson Barracks in Darwin, an Australian military installation on the country’s northern coast. The buildup to 2,500 personnel, expected to be complete within six years, will require an expansion of the base, but no new installations, according to reports. Its not immediately clear what sort of equipment the Marine Corps will send to Australia, but reports suggest the deployments may last only six months out of the year.

In addition to the Marines, more U.S. aircraft will rotate through Australia as part of an agreement between each nation's air force.

Australian media is reporting that plans call for B-52 bombers, F/A-18 attack aircraft, C-17 transports and aerial refueling tankers to operate out of the Australian air force facility at Tindal, near the town of Katherine. That's about 200 miles southeast of Darwin.

Also, more U.S. ships will transit through the Sterling naval base, south of Perth in western Australia, according to Australian media.

Obama and Gillard said the increased air presence would allow the U.S. and Australia to more effectively respond to respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the region.

During his news conference, the president sidestepped questions about whether the security agreement was aimed at containing China. But he said the U.S. would keep sending a clear message that China needs to accept the responsibilities that come with being a world power.

"It's important for them to play by the rules of the road," he said.

And he insisted that the U.S is not fearful of China's rise.

"I think the notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we're looking to exclude China is mistaken," he said.

China was immediately leery of the prospect of an expanded U.S. military presence in Australia.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Wednesday that it was worth discussing whether the plan was in line with the common interests of the international community.

Obama national security aide Ben Rhodes said the agreement was not only appropriate, but also a response to the demand from nations in the region that have signaled they want the U.S. to be present.

The U.S. and smaller Asian nations have grown increasingly concerned about China claiming dominion over vast areas of the Pacific that the U.S. considers international waters, and reigniting old territorial disputes, including confrontations over the South China Sea. China's defense spending has increased threefold since the 1990s to about $160 billion last year, and its military has recently tested a new stealth jet fighter and launched its first aircraft carrier.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the goal of the new security pact is to signal that the U.S. and Australia will stick together in face of any threats.

Rhodes said the U.S. military boost would amount to a "sustained U.S. presence." He distinguished that from a permanent presence in the sense that the U.S. forces will use Australian facilities, as opposed to the United States to building its own bases, as it has in such regional places as South Korea. The U.S. has not signaled any interest in that in Australia.

The only American base currently in Australia is the secretive joint Australia-U.S. intelligence and communications complex at Pine Gap in central Australia. But there are hundreds of U.S. service personnel in Australia on exchange.

Air combat units also use the expansive live bombing ranges in Australia's sparsely populated north in training rotations of a few months and occasionally naval units train off the coast. But training exercises involving ground forces are unusual.


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