x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

First deployment of US troops arrives in Australia

200 US marines arrived late on Tuesday. Their deployment comes amid disputes between Beijing and its neighbours over territory in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

BEIJING //

The first contingent of a deployment of 2,500 US troops has arrived in Australia to boost American's power in the Asia Pacific as China continues to flex its muscles in the region.

The initial group of 200 marines, to be stationed near Darwin in northern Australia, arrived late on Tuesday.

Their deployment comes amid disputes between Beijing and its neighbours over territory in the South China Sea and East China Sea - strategic shipping lanes and potentially rich with oil and gas.

China criticised the move to significantly increase US Marine and naval forces in northern Australia, bordering Indonesia and just a few hours' flying time from most of South East Asia, when it was announced in November.

The state-run Xinhua news agency branded it an "aggressive step venturing into Asia" despite assurances from the US president, Barack Obama, that it was not part of an attempt to isolate China.

Speaking yesterday, the Australian defence minister, Stephen Smith, said the agreement between Washington and Canberra for the troops to hold six-month training rotations in Australia reflected a wider geopolitical pivot towards the region.

"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," he said.

Over the next several years, the numbers of US troops will reach a maximum of 2,500. Officials insist there is no plan for permanent US bases in Australia, although the two countries have a joint intelligence centre near Alice Springs.

The US is however reportedly looking to station aircraft carriers and submarines in Western Australia, and may use Australian territory to operate long-range spy drones.

The modest size of the planned US deployment - dwarfed for example by the 30,000 American troops based in South Korea - makes it "more a symbolic move than a real deployment of troops", according to Jia Qingguo of Peking University's school of international studies.

"The number of troops is quite small and it is still quite far away from the South China Sea," he said.

Some analysts however see the deployment as significant to China in the context of a wider programme of American engagement in the region.

Disputes in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea between Chinese vessels and those belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines have raised regional tensions and sparked concerns among China's less militarily powerful neighbours.

Beijing has increased defence spending by double-digit amounts almost every year for the past two decades. However, Beijing's spending remains a fraction of the Pentagon's budget.

Several South East Asian countries are increasing military cooperation with the United States.

The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, said last month more US troops could rotate through his country.

Similarly, the US is likely to station several warships in Singapore and increase deployments in Thailand.

"A few hundred US troops stationed in Australia will not make a big difference ... but the Chinese government and the Chinese military see the Australian issue in a much bigger context. That's the fundamental reason why China has expressed deep concern," said Ding Xueliang, a foreign affairs analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

 

dbardsley@thenational.ae