How Will China Respond to a New U.S. Military Presence in Australia?

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US Marines Humvee four-wheel drive vehicles and a US Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion position themselves for the Talisman Saber 2009 joint exercise on July 15, 2009 on Freshwater Bay Beach near Townsville, Australia. (Photo: Department of Defence / Getty Images)


U.S. plans to station troops in Australia to help counter China’s growing clout might be expected to provoke cries of indignation from Beijing. But the development, which President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard are expected to formally announce on Nov. 17 during Obama’s visit to Australia, has thus far generated little in the way of complaint from the Chinese government. That could change once the plan is formally outlined.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the deal would lead to increased exercises and allow the U.S. to place hardware in Australia, but would not lead to the creation of new U.S. bases. The Sydney Morning Herald added that U.S. Marines will be stationed at an existing Australian base near the northern port city of Darwin, which Obama and Gillard will visit next Thursday.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded to the news Thursday by saying Chinese officials “hope relevant countries’ bilateral cooperation will be conducive to the Asia-Pacific region’s security, peace and stability,” the Journal reported. Earlier this year China launched its first aircraft carrier, and it has been involved in increasingly heated disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over overlapping claims to the South China Sea. The Global Times, a tabloid owned by China’s Communist Party, quoted an unnamed expert yesterday who said that because the U.S. has seen China’s increasing ability to threaten forces in the “first island chain”—the line of islands in the Western Pacific stretching from Japan to the Philippines, it is now focusing on defending positions further removed from China.

The U.S. and Australia already jointly operate two military facilities: the Pine Gap surveillance station near Alice Springs near the geographical center of Australia and the Harold Holt naval communication station in Western Australia. Plans to increase the U.S. presence in Australia have been mooted over the past year at the annual AUSMIN talks between the two countries. In September, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. and Australia were “making steady progress in developing options for our two militaries to be able to train and operate together more closely, including more combined defense activities and a shared use of facilities.”

A poll in June by the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy indicated that 55% of Australians would support allowing U.S. troops to be stationed in Australian, a finding that poll director Fergus Hanson described as “fairly remarkable.” He wrote that it “could well reflect rising concern about the broader implications of China’s rise.” But there will certainly be opposition to an expanded U.S. military presence. China became Australia’s largest trading partner in 2007, and its appetite for energy and raw materials has provided a health boost for the Australian economy. Some Australians have questioned whether Australia should align its defensive posture with the U.S. and treat China as a potential adversary at the same time it is deepening economic ties with China. The Australian Greens, a party that took about 12% of the vote in the 2010 federal elections, say a decision on allowing more U.S. troops shouldn’t be made without a public debate. “Now is the time for Australia to be thinking more independently about its foreign policy and boosting civil aid,’ Greens leader Bob Brown told Sky News.

As the U.S. begins withdrawing forces from Iraq and reducing troop numbers in Afghanistan, it will look to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday in a speech in Honolulu. “After a decade in which we invested immense resources in these two theaters, we have reached a pivot point,” she said. “We now can redirect some of those investments to opportunities and obligations elsewhere. And Asia stands out as a region where opportunities abound.” The bulk of American forces in Asia are stationed in Japan, with 40,000 U.S. troops, and South Korea, with 28,000. Clinton suggested that alignment will shift, though she didn’t specifically mention Australia as a destination. “As this region changes, we must change our force posture to ensure that it is geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable,” she said. “A more broadly distributed military presence provides vital advantages, both in deterring and responding to threats, and in providing support for humanitarian missions.”

For now any additional deployments to Australia are expected to be small, more significant as a symbol than as a fighting force, says Rory Medcalf, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program. But it will allow the U.S. and its allies to work together to respond to natural disasters, terrorism, piracy and other security threats in the region, he says. And it shows that the U.S. is placing an emphasis not just on the Pacific region, but on the Indian Ocean as well. “The notion that there is such a thing as an Indo-Pacific region, that does relate intimately to Australia,” he says. “We are a county on the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific. It makes sense for the U.S. to take advantage of it.”

Austin Ramzy is Beijing correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @austinramzy. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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