WASHINGTON: The US presence in the remote northern Australian port of Darwin will soar from its current 250 troops to 1,000 next year and ultimately to 2,200, granting a full Marine Expeditionary Unit an effective base of operations. Although the general agreement had been made in 2011, the renewed commitment is likely to elicit a negative reaction from China, already irked by the Australian’s agreement to effectively base Marines in their country at the most useful port closest to the People’s Republic.
The news dribbled out in bits during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies by the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos on the future of the maritime force . The Marines “will build up to a MEU-size force operating out of Darwin,” Greenert said, restating the basic agreement reached in 2011. Later, Amos said that the number of Marines operating from Darwin would grow to 1,000 in 2014.
Amos was careful about Australian political sensibilities, saying, “we will proceed at whatever pace our partners believe is the right pace.” While Australia’s very close military, intelligence and political relationships with America are generally supported by the populace, the Labour Party (currently in power) includes a significant element that is, at least, skeptical of American benevolence. When President Obama visited Australia in November last year and the Darwin move was announced, both China and some elements of the Australian political spectrum criticized it.
I understand senior Australian Defense Ministry officials were in Washington the last week of June negotiating the latest agreement. No word of compensation or forces agreements has leaked out.
“People want to engage with us,” Mabus said, “but they are very cognizant that they don’t want a large footprint on the ground.” He wasn’t speaking specifically about Australia, but his intent was clear.
On the wider subject of the Pacific, Greenert noted that the Chinese were enthusiastic and committed participants in the next annual “Rim of the Pacific” mega-exercise, RIMPAC 14. He said the Chinese came to the initial planning conference and engaged “in a very serious discussion about command and control structure,” among other topics.
In other news, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus — who has been refreshingly public and specific about his concerns about the stupidity of sequestration and the longer-term issues of the general budget drawdown — sent a clear signal to the Congress that “there is zero peace dividend coming out of Afghanistan.”