(Reuters) - Some 200 U.S. Marines arrived in Australia late on Tuesday for a six-month deployment, the first of 2,500 troops expected to rotate through a de facto base in Darwin as part of plans to deepen the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
The deployment of Marines to northern Australia has sparked concern in China, where officials have questioned whether it is part of a larger U.S. strategy aimed at encircling it and thwarting the country's rise as a global power.
"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," Australia Defence Minister Stephen Smith said in Darwin.
"And we need to ensure that we do that in a way in which the international community responds to that change, manages that change," he said, adding he believed having the Marines in Australia would enhance those efforts.
The tropical port of Darwin is located 500 miles from Indonesia, allowing the Marines to respond quickly to any humanitarian and security issues in Southeast Asia, where tensions have risen due to disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea.
When the deployment was announced last November by President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, they cast it as a way to increase bilateral military cooperation and training and said it was not an attempt to isolate China.
"The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken," Obama said, adding that "we welcome a rising, peaceful China."
James Hardy, Asia Pacific Editor for IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, said that while the deployment was small, it would give the United States more options in Asia, where it already has bases in South Korea, Okinawa and Guam, as well as strategic relationships with Singapore and the Philippines.
"A company of marines (rising to 2,500) is a very small footprint, and compared to a permanent homeporting or homebasing of naval or aviation assets, which the U.S. could have proposed and the Australians could have accepted, this has quite a limited force projection capability, and so can be seen as a modest statement of intent," Hardy said.
The first group of Marines, from the 3rd Marine Regiment based in Hawaii, will engage in exercises with the Australian Defence Forces and also will travel to other nations in the region for training and exercises, a Marine Corps spokesman said.
The force is expected to grow in size over time to become a 2,500-person Marine Air Ground Task Force, the spokesman said. It is expected to be a rotational force, with different units moving through for short periods of time rather than being based in Australia permanently.
"This is completely irrelevant militarily, but quite important as a signal and that's why it is valued in the region," said a diplomat from the Asia-Pacific region.
Like China, Australia is looking to develop its military capabilities to reflect its increasing economic power and is focusing on its northwest coast, where its offshore oil and gas sector is booming.
Reporting By David Alexander in Washington, James Grubel in Canberra and Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Bill Trott and John Mair