Australia is set to become home to hundreds of U.S. Marines – as America moves its servicemen to a military base on the northern tip of the country.
In a bid to combat China’s increase in global military and financial power, between 500 to 1,000 officers are to form a permanent U.S. military presence at a barracks outside Darwin.
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to formally reveal the plans – which will further anchor American influence in Asia but have prompted fears the area could become a target for terrorists – during a visit to the city next week.
The U.S. currently only has a limited deployment in its long-standing ally, including the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility spy station near Alice Springs, which has coordinated air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The move represents a potentially significant geo-strategic shift, which is said to have been under consideration for some years as Washington looks to boost its Pacific Command.
A new base will not be built in the city, instead the marines will use the existing Robertson Barracks nearby.
It is currently home to 4,500 Australian soldiers and will need to be expanded to cater for the US Marines, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.
In a speech to a national security workshop today, Australian defence minister Stephen Smith said: ‘This would potentially see more ship visits, more visiting aircraft and more training and exercising through northern Australia. It would also include the pre-positioning of United States equipment in Australia.’
U.S. Marines are already based at Okinawa in Japan, and on Guam, a U.S. territory 1,500 miles north of Papua New Guinea, as America’s chief combat force in the Pacific theatre. The new plan would intensify the 60 year military alliance between the two countries.
Analysts said the move was largely a response to the rise of China, which is boosting its military spending and capabilities.
China is also becoming increasingly assertive on the high seas, where it claims sovereignty over essentially all of the South China Sea, a key global trading route.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett, chief executive of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said the U.S. strategy had two elements. He said: ‘China looms very large for both Australia and the US.
‘The first concerns strengthening America’s alliances and friendships in the region as an insurance policy that China’s until now very peaceful rise changes course.
‘The second is trying to build a regional economic architecture for the Asia-Pacific.
‘That will be based on the market principles of America and Australia that China over time will have powerful incentives to join.
‘Even if this entails domestic reforms it has been unwilling to undertake up until now.’
Asked about the U.S. potentially stationing troops in Australia, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing had noted the reports.
He said: ‘We hope that bilateral co-operation between relevant countries will be conducive to peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.’
But despite the fears, Andrew Shearer, director of studies at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said the move was ‘not all about China’.
He added: ‘Everyone draws the China connection but it’s as much to do with the rise of India as well. It’s not all about defence, but to be able to conduct disaster relief, counter piracy and keep shipping lanes free.’