The United States and Australia are planning a major expansion of military ties, including possible drone flights from a coral atoll in the Indian Ocean and increased U.S. naval access to Australian ports, as the Pentagon looks to shift its forces closer to Southeast Asia, officials from both countries said.
The moves, which are under discussion but have drawn strong interest from both sides, would come on top of an agreement announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November to deploy up to 2,500 U.S. Marines to Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast.
Possible new station locations for U.S. forces in Asia
(JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES) - President Barack Obama addresses Australian troops and U.S. Marines with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a base in Australia in November.
The talks are the latest indicator of how the Obama administration is rapidly turning its strategic attention to Asia as it winds down a costly decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. government is finalizing a deal to station four warships in Singapore and has opened negotiations with the Philippines about boosting its military presence there. To a lesser degree, the Pentagon is also seeking to upgrade military relations with Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
Although U.S. officials say the regional pivot is not aimed at any single country, analysts said it is a clear response to a rising China, whose growing military strength and assertive territorial claims have pushed other Asian nations to reach out to Washington.
The Pentagon is reviewing the size and distribution of its forces in northeast Asia, where they are concentrated on Cold War-era bases in Japan and South Korea. The intent is to gradually reduce the U.S. military presence in those countries while enhancing it in Southeast Asia, home to the world’s busiest shipping lanes and to growing international competition to tap into vast undersea oil and gas fields.
“In terms of your overall influence in the Asia-Pacific zone, the strategic weight is shifting south,” said a senior Australian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the military talks. “Australia didn’t look all that important during the Cold War. But Australia looks much more important if your fascination is really with the Southeast Asian archipelago.”
Australia is a long-standing ally of the United States, and one of its closest partners in intelligence and military matters. More than 20,000 Australian troops spent time in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. About 1,500 Australian troops are now in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led coalition.
An official interim review of Australia’s military basing structure recently concluded that the chances of the country coming under direct military attack are “currently remote.”
But it urged the government to strengthen its forces along the northern and western coasts, near where most of its mineral wealth is concentrated and where its defenses are relatively sparse. Australia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and has become China’s leading supplier of coal and iron ore.
The strategic review also advises the government to tailor its basing plans by considering U.S. security interests.