U.S. and Australia expand military ties into SE Asia

Source: Washington Post

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.

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 the only ally that we have on the Indian Ocean,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategic planning. “We see the Indian Ocean as an area that we need to spend a little more time on, where we have fewer well developed relations with countries, compared to the western Pacific.”

Elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, the United States operates a key joint naval and air base on the British island territory of Diego Garcia, about 1,000 miles south of the tip of India. But U.S. officials said operations are crowded, with little room to expand. In addition, the base’s future is uncertain; the U.S. lease will expire in 2016.

Partly as a result, U.S. officials are eyeing another coral atoll 1,700 miles to the east: the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory.

U.S. and Australian officials said the atoll could be an ideal site not only for manned U.S. surveillance aircraft but for Global Hawks, an unarmed, high-altitude surveillance drone. The U.S. Navy is developing a newer version of the Global Hawk, known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance drone, or BAMS, that is scheduled to become operational in 2015. Aircraft based in the Cocos would be well-positioned to launch spy flights over the South China Sea.

Pentagon officials said they are intrigued by the potential offered by Perth and the Cocos Islands, as well as another Australian proposal to build a new fleet base at Brisbane, on the east coast. But U.S. officials cautioned that nothing has been decided…….

 This is all about China, of course,” said White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University in Canberra. “Australia is in a very complicated position in this. None of us want to live in an Asia dominated by China, but none of us want to have an adversarial relationship with China.


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