Canberra defends posting of US marines to Australia under newly signed deal
Minister defends plan to expand American presence as 'natural evolution' of alliance
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop yesterday defended a deal to post 2,500 US marines in the country, and denied it was aimed at curbing a rising China as tensions in the region rise.
Beijing bristled when the deal, signed yesterday at annual security talks, was announced as part of the United States "pivot" to Asia in 2011.
But Bishop, who is hosting US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel in Sydney, said the rotation of troops into the northern city of Darwin was the "natural evolution" of the alliance.
"It's aimed at supporting the long-term peace, stability and prosperity of our region, the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific," she said ahead of the Australia-US talks.
Bishop denied the agreement was aimed at hindering China, with Beijing embroiled in maritime disputes with several of its neighbours.
"That's not what it is directed to do at all. It's about working closely with the US to ensure that we can work on regional peace and security," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"The US is rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific so it is ways we can work together to support economic development as well as security and peace."
There are already 1,100 US marines based in Darwin. Admiral Sam Locklear, who heads the US Pacific Command, said there was no timeline for the increase to 2,500.
Bishop downplayed the prospect of an increased US military presence beyond the 2,500 marines and air force personnel, although analysts have said the allies were likely to look to boost the US presence in future.
"What we are doing today is looking at how we can work together where our interests align with the United States," she said, adding this would cover strengthening regional architecture and engagement in the Asia-Pacific.
Hagel said on Monday the marine rotation emphasised Washington's "rebalance" towards the region, saying the US was a Pacific power which was "not going anywhere".
"It's pretty clear that the US is committed to this part of the world but also this does not mean a retreat from any other part of the world. We have interests all over the world," he said.
Bishop said there was no more important security partner for Australia than the US, adding that the long-standing alliance with Washington was "at the very heart of Australia's foreign and security policy".
But she said she did not envisage Australian troops returning to Iraq, where the US is carrying out air strikes and humanitarian aid to combat jihadist Islamic State (IS) fighters, although Canberra has offered support for humanitarian efforts.
Speaking yesterday at the start of the talks, Kerry said the Australia-US relationship was "essential to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region". "We do face new challenges," he said, citing North Korea and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
Additional reporting by Associated Press