First US Marines arrive in Australia
Sydney - The first contingent of up to 2 500 US Marines to be deployed in Australia were settling in on Wednesday as Washington bolsters its military presence in the strategically vital region.
Some 200 Marines touched down in Darwin overnight as part of an enhanced defence co-operation outlined during a visit by US President Barack Obama in November that rankled China.
The troops are in the Northern Territory on a six-month rotational basis and will be based at Robertson Barracks on the outskirts of the city.
In a joint statement, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Henderson welcomed what they said was the latest chapter in a more than 60-year alliance with the US.
"It represents an evolution of existing exercises and activities that the United States already conducts with the Australian Defence Force in Australia," they said.
"The intent in the coming years is to establish a rotational presence of up to a 2 500 personnel Marine Air Ground Task Force, rotating into Northern Australia in the northern dry season.
"There are no US military bases in Australia, and this will not change," they added.
The US currently has only a limited deployment in long-standing ally Australia, including the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility spy station near the desert town of Alice Springs, and the move represents a significant geo-strategic shift.
Peace and stability
The Marines plan has irked Beijing, but reassured some Asian countries who see it as a statement that Washington intends to stand up for its allies and interests in the region amid concerns about China's increasing assertiveness.
In the statement, Gillard said the deployment was part of an ongoing US consideration of its global force posture and moved to soothe any regional concerns.
"It also supports Australia's long-held strategic interests in supporting US engagement in our region in a manner that promotes peace and stability," she said.
"The initiative could also provide new opportunities for Australian and US engagement with our partners in the region."
Last week, Australia said it may allow the United States to use its territory to operate long-range spy drones.
Washington could also reportedly station US aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines in the western Australian city of Perth, as part of the major expansion of military ties.