SYDNEY // The US is set to increase its military presence in Australia to help counter China's growing military and economic might in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US president, Barack Obama, is expected to announce the move during a two-day visit to Australia, beginning today.
The plan to station Marines at an existing base outside the northern Australian city of Darwin, on the doorstep of South East Asia, would allow the US to disperse its forces more widely in the region - in particular, away from Japan and the US territory of Guam, which are within range of the new generation of Chinese ballistic missiles.
Alan Dupont, the director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, described the new focus on Asia as "the most significant shift in US strategy since the Cold War".
Mr Obama was due to arrive in Australia today and fly to Darwin tomorrow with the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, to announce that 1,000 US Marines would be rotated through Australian bases, where they would conduct training and joint exercises with the Australian military.
Mr Obama's visit is sandwiched between his attendance at this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting in Hawaii and the East Asian Summit in Bali this weekend.
With China apparently set on usurping the US's role as the dominant power in the region, and the US determined to resist that move, Australia - traditionally seen by its more powerful ally as loyal but strategically peripheral - has taken on a new importance.
The head of the US Pacific command, Admiral Robert Willard, said this week the country offered easier access to the South China Sea and its vital shipping lanes than US bases in Japan and South Korea.
Some analysts warned the increased US military activity in Australia, which could see more US warships and submarines visiting Darwin and US weapons and supplies pre-positioned there, risks exacerbating regional tensions. Hugh White, the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said it was bound to be "greeted with displeasure in China".
The stepping up of US engagement comes amid simmering tensions in the South China Sea, with China accused of harassing Vietnamese and Filipino ships last year.
China is also one of several nations with rival claims to the potentially resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands.
Australia sits in the middle of this unspoken power struggle.
For while it has depended on the US to guarantee its security in the Pacific since the fall of Singapore in 1942, China is now its biggest trading partner, with Australia supplying the iron ore and other raw materials for China's economic development.
"Australia is faced with a difficult diplomatic game of riding two horses simultaneously," said Tom Switzer, a research associate at Sydney University's US Studies Centre.
Analysts believe a greater military presence in Australia would help the US fill a gap between its forces in Japan and South Korea and the Gulf, where it is also planning to station more ground troops and step up Naval visits.
While US troops have been visiting Australia since 1907, and the two countries regularly conduct joint training and exercises, the main US military presence currently consists of a jointly run secret satellite tracking station at Pine Gap, in the Northern Territory, and a Naval communication station near Exmouth, in Western Australia.
The military alliance with the US has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Australia and a recent poll by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an influential think tank, found 59 per cent of Australians regard the alliance as "very important". Mr Obama's visit was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS security treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the US.
New Zealand effectively abandoned the treaty in 1985 when it banned US nuclear-powered or armed warships from entering its ports - a ban that remains in place.
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