U.S. Marines have started to arrive in northern Australia as Washington strengthens its presence in the strategically vital Asia-Pacific region. Two hundred troops touched down in Darwin late Tuesday as part of a deployment outlined during a visit to Australia by President Obama in November, a move that has irritated China.
The detachment is the first batch of an expected deployment of 2,500 military personnel to be posted to northern Australia.
The troops are based in Australia’s Northern Territory on a six-month rotational basis and will be stationed at Robertson Barracks on the outskirts of Darwin.
The Australian government says the arrangement was the latest chapter in a six-decade military alliance with the United States.
Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith says the stationing of U.S. Marines in Darwin is in the interests of global peace and stability.
"The world is to essentially comes 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 and we need to ensure that we do that in a way in which the international community responds to that change, manages that change and we believe very strongly that what we are doing will enhance that rather than detract from it," he said.
Australia is keen to stress that the U.S. military presence will only be temporary and that there are no plans for any permanent American bases on its soil. U.S. officials also say that they want to expand their disaster relief capabilities in Southeast Asia.
Some analysts believe the deployment appears to be sending a clear message to China that Washington is preparing to counter Beijing’s growing military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. China has said the deployment is proof of Washington’s "Cold War mentality."
But Jonathan Blaxland, senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, says the deployment in merely the continuation of Australia's bilateral relationship with the United States.
"It's not meant to be an overt message to anybody, other than to say that Australia is looking to work closely with the United States, as a means of bolstering regional security," said Blaxland. "Now there are a lot of people that are anxious about the rise of China and that's something that I think is for the Chinese to deal with. But in terms of Australia's position, we have a long-standing alliance with the United States, the ANZUS [Australia, New Zealand, United States] alliance, that goes back 60 plus years."
Australian officials say that Indonesia and even China could be included in future joint military exercises.
As part of the expansion of military ties, Australia last week said it might allow the United States to use its territory to operate long-range spy drones.