Over the next few days around thirteen hundred US marines will begin their six month visit to the Northern Territory. This has increasing political, economic, military and perhaps social implications for the Northern Territory, Australia generally and the southern Asia-Pacific region.
An article from the US military press agency on the arrival of the marine advance guard includes unintended ironies and what has to be humour : "…Australia and the U.S have fought alongside each other in nearly every major conflict since World War II, a relationship the Australian prime minister and U.S. president make sure remains strong and productive" [followed eventually by] "A smile sat below the eyes of every Marine exiting the plane to be welcomed into Darwin, their new home for the next six months."
Most of the marines are from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton in California. Ferrying them around are four very large Sea Stallion helicopters each capable of lifting 55 troops.
The six month visit (called a "rotation" by the military) of the thirteen hundred is up from 250 marines last year. By 2017 the annual visit may amount to what is promised to be a full 2,500 man Marine Air Ground Task Force. In terms of activities - some marines may attend Exercise Hamel near Townsville - perhaps in June-July 2014. Larger numbers of marines may exercise at the Northern Territory's Bradshaw field training area in August 2014. Marine training with military forces from New Zealand and southeast Asia may also occur http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/2014/03/26/16/00/more-than-1000-us-marines-arrive-in-darwin.
In 2011, during the rapidly forgotten Gillard government, President Obama announced the marine rotational scheme. When Obama visits Australia for the G-20 Summit in BrisbaneNovember 15–16, 2014 it's likely he will reaffirm this alliance commitment. Obama's visit to Australia and his reaffirmation that the marine's will continue to visit will provide a needed boost to the Abbott government just as it did to the fleeting Labor governments.
The visits of US marines in increasing numbers may probably provide the most visible and concrete example of America's alliance with Australia. The visits will grow in importance as the forlorn memory of the joint effort to democratise Afghanistan recedes. As a type of payment for the marine visits Australia has spent several $million upgrading facilities at Robertson Barracks in Darwin, where the marines will be mainly based. Australian purchases of US weapons, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, are not so obviously linked, but such purchases contribute to the alliance bond that keeps the marines coming.
In terms of Obama's foreign policy platform the marine visit may also be the most tangible sign of the US pivot or rebalance to our part of the southern Asia-Pacific. The threat always exists that US attention may be distracted by its other global concerns - in Africa, the Middle East or Ukraine-Eastern Europe - instead. Keeping US attention focussed on our own region pays and also costs.
This part-time US marine presence may also be perceived as a largely symbolic counter-weight to a recent increase in Chinese naval activity close to Australia's shores. The surprising appearance in the Timor Sea, two months ago, of a Chinese flotilla of two destroyers and an amphibious assault ship was played down by the Australian and Indonesian governments. Up to eight Chinese warships off Western Australia hunting for MH370 appears excessive, even for such an important search effort. In the face of a relatively low-key (compared to China) US naval presence in the search for MH370 the marine visit is all the more important.
Australian and US authorities insist that these marine six month visits will not build up to a permanent marine base presence in Australia, but some are sceptical. Some in the Darwin community, like BaseWatch have serious concerns about the impact marines will have on Darwin. They don't want a repeat of the issues, including aircraft noise and violent crime, that residents of Okinawa face from permanent US bases. US military public affairs officer Lieutenant Savannah Moyer insists that a midnight curfew on marines, known as the "Cinderella curfew", will reduce the chance of bad behaviour. In any case the Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles has underlined the economic benefits the marines bring when he estimates they contribute around $5 million to the local economy.
So the marines bring a plethora of political, military, economic and possible social issues. Their arrival may be timely for Australia or may just send the wrong signals to China. A six month presence may make more sense if it became permanent. But how important is Australia's autonomy and sovereignty?
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