About 200 U.S. Marines began a six month deployment in Australia on Wednesday, in the first wave of a buildup of 2,500 troops due eventually to rotate through a de facto base in Darwin, as the U.S. deepens its 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.
"We see this very much as responding and reflecting the fact that the world is moving into our part of the world, the world is moving to the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean. We need to respond to that," Australia Defense Minister Stephen Smith said in Darwin, where he met the Marines off a charter flight.
"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."
The tropical port of Darwin is 500 miles from Indonesia, allowing the Marines to respond quickly to any humanitarian and security problems in Southeast Asia, where tension has 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."
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Australia, a firm U.S. ally with a 60-year old ANZUS strategic and military alliance that includes New Zealand, counts China as its biggest trading partner and is careful not to antagonize it.
After the initial announcement, China said the moves could erode trust and fan Cold War-era antagonism.
But strategic and international relations analyst Rod Lyon, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China, India and Indonesia had been well briefed on the deployment, and should not be overly concerned.
"I don't think it does much to deter China or position the U.S. against China," Lyon told Reuters. "If we are trying to be antagonistic towards China from Darwin, we are starting a long way back.
"China understands that ANZUS is important to Australia, that China does not get to pick Australia's allies, and that our alliance with America will unfold in new ways in the 21st century. While you occasionally get some over excited reactions out of Chinese media, I think official views in Beijing are more moderate and relaxed."
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. It is considering spending up to $100 billion to build a long-range submarine fleet, buy new fighter aircraft and build its naval presence.
James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor for IHS Jane's Defense 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 Defense 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 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.
(Reporting By David Alexander in Washington, James Grubel in Canberra and Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Bill Trott and Robert Birsel)