President Barack Obama announced yesterday that the United States is to station thousands of Marines at a base in Darwin, a move widely viewed as a response to China's increasing bellicosity in the Pacific.
The plan was outlined by Mr Obama during a lightning visit to Australia, marking the 60th anniversary of a security pact between the two countries. Immediately, China questioned whether it was "in the interest of countries within this region" to intensify military alliances. Security analysts said it reflected the strategic "pivot" by the US away from the Middle East and the war on terror towards Asia, where China is seeking to usurp its long-standing dominance. Beijing claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, and has reignited old territorial disputes, including over the potentially resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands.
Northern Australia's proximity to the South China Sea, closer than US bases in Japan and South Korea, is part of its appeal, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, said. Troops, aircraft and equipment stationed in Darwin, only 500 miles from Indonesia, could be deployed swiftly to trouble-spots around south-east Asia, as well as responding to humanitarian disasters.
Mr Obama, who arrived in Australia from the Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation) meeting in Hawaii and will travel on to the East Asia summit in Bali, sidestepped questions on whether the new security deal was designed to contain China. But he said Beijing had to accept the responsibilities that came with being a world power, and "play by the rules of the road".
At a news conference in Canberra with the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, he said: "The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken. We welcome a rising, peaceful China." The US deployment to Australia, the largest since the Second World War, will begin next year, with about 250 Marines sent to Darwin on six-month rotations and troop numbers building to 2,500 by 2016.
Alan Dupont, director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, believes the US is dispersing its forces in the Asia-Pacific, in particular, away from Japan and the US territory of Guam, which are within range of the new generation of Chinese ballistic missiles. China is Australia's largest trading partner, importing vast quantities of iron ore.