The US and Australia have signed a deal to bolster US military presence in the Asia-Pacific as part of Washington's 'pivot' to the region; a development China will continue to push against, analyst Ernest Bower tells DW.
The new military agreement will allow the US to rotate more marines and Air Force personnel through Australia's Northern Territory and expand its military assets in the country over the next 25 years. The "Force Posture Agreement" signed on August 13 is also designed to improve cooperation on ballistic missile defense systems. Some 1,200 US troops are currently stationed in Darwin on six-month rotations, but the number is now set to rise to 2,500.
After signing the deal, the US also stressed it welcomed the rise of China - Australia's biggest trading partner - and said it was not interested in conflict with the Asian nation. The deal came shortly after a US proposal calling for a freeze on "provocative acts" in disputed waters of the South China Sea was rejected by Beijing at an ASEAN regional meeting at the weekend.
Ernest Bower, the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says in a DW interview that China has already been strongly reacting to proactive US engagement in the region, but adds that he believes Beijing understands the strong US presence will enable China to grow and prosper as a regional and global power.
DW: How important is this deal for both the US and Australia?
Ernest Bower: The announcement at AUSMIN is actually consistent with earlier 2011 announcements about US troop levels planned for rotational deployment in Australia. This includes the 2,500 US Marines and additional plans for US Air Force and US Navy engagement in north and western Australia.
Bower: "You can expect to see a continued expansion of US and Australian interoperability, including an expansion of joint capabilities based out of Australia"
These movements are part of the US rebalance to Asia, and they are very important as the United States and the world update their understanding that the geopolitical balancing point for the rest of the 21st century is in the Indo-Pacific, specifically in the link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This makes Australia and Indonesia vital countries at the fulcrum of these two great bodies of water.
Australia understands and has fully internalized what most countries in Asia have come to conclude, namely that a strong and capable US security presence is a fundamental foundation for regional security. That security, in turn, is linked to and necessary for expanding economic growth and integration.
Are there any plans to further boost US military capabilities in Australia?
Yes, you can expect to see a continued expansion of US and Australian interoperability, including an expansion of joint capabilities based out of Australia. These will include Marines and amphibious capabilities; enhanced air lift and air power capabilities, missile defense and naval capabilities projecting into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including both surface and submarine capabilities.
These advancements will vastly increase regional capabilities such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as build a foundation for building newly developing regional security architecture including the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) under the East Asia Summit (EAS).
It is widely believed that this deal between the two countries is directed at China. What impact will the increase in military presence have on the ties between Australia and China?
The United States and Australia have gone to great pains to explain that the new force posture in the region is not directed either at China or at any other specific country, but instead as an investment in regional security. Most countries in the region share this vision and understand it rationally and intuitively.
The strong US security guarantee in the Pacific after World War II contributed to regional peace, stability and growing prosperity. The region wants this guarantee extended into the 21st century, and the United States and Australia are taking concrete steps to deliver the foundation for that reality.
What role does Australia play in US' strategic rebalance towards Asia?
Australia is one of five treaty allies of the United States in Asia. Japan, Korea, the Philippines and the Kingdom of Thailand are the other four. Australia is a partner and co-investor for the United States and other allies and strategic partners in a vision for regional security that is underpinned by balance and the ability to encourage all countries to make and play by the same set of international rules.
The deal includes the 2,500 US Marines and additional plans for US Air Force and US Navy engagement in north and Western Australia, says Bower
China has already been strongly reacting to proactive US engagement in the region, and I suspect China will continue to push against this development. At core, however, I believe China understands the strong US presence will enable China to grow, feel secure and prosper as a regional and global power.
How important is the US for Australia given China's growing military might in the region?
Recent polling in Australia and around Asia shows a clear interest among political elites for the United States to continue and extend its role as a guarantor of regional security. Australia is first among peers in pursuing this goal and has gone out of its way to do its part and invest in this strategic reality.
Australia needs China to feel secure and powerful, economically and it wants China to be prosperous. It also wants enough geopolitical ballast in the region to encourage China to become a benevolent regional and global power, and not test the sovereignty of neighbors on its path to that place.
Ernest Bower is the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.