May 27, 2016

US International Role Keeps Rebalance to Australia Way Below 2,500 Marine Target

 2,500 Marines won't rotate to Australia in 2016 or 2017 - this may not happen until 2020 - if not later. The grand vision for US rebalancing to the southern Asia-Pacific (ie. Australia) discussed between President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard in November 2011 has not happened. So there has been no steady increase in Marine numbers rotating through Australia. Major reasons include Western force buildups in the Middle East, inability to withdraw quickly enough from Afghanistan, concern about Russia in Eastern Europe, North Korean missile-rattling, and Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

Perhaps out of deference to a Chinese company that began a 99 year lease on the Port of Darwin in late 2015, the regular US Marine rotation in April 2016 was a minimal media affair.

The annual 6 month deployment of the US Marine Rotational Force-Darwin kicked off on April 13, 2016. Most of the Marines are from 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. Prior to the rotation US Navy ships unloaded a large quantity of needed supplies, vehicles and helicopters at China Port-Darwin.

The rotation is part of Obama's envisaged US "rebalance" or "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region. This rotation, negotiated by the President Obama and the Gillard Labor Governments in November 2011, is of considerable Australian defence and foreign policy importance. The rotation is also intended to reassure US allies in the Southeast Asian and South Pacific region while reminding China not to be too ambitious. Another, less visible US activity, is what is thought to be an increasing number of US Air Force bomber and refuelling aircraft flights to RAAF Base Tindal, 320 km southeast of Darwin. The least visible but still significant activity is the ongoing visit of US nuclear submarines to Australia’s Fleet Base West (HMAS Stirling, Rockingham, Western Australia).

It may be embarrassing to the Australian and US governments that the number of US Marines rotating is unlikely to increase to 2,500 by 2017 as predicted. While 1,300 Marines rotated in 2014, then down to 1,150 marines in 2015, this year’s rotation is only a slight increase (or return) to 1,250  Marines. Obama had hoped for no return to Iraq and an almost complete withdrawal from Afghanistan as his legacies – but this won't happen. US concerns about the Russians in Eastern Europe, North Korea and China (South China Sea) have kept Marines in more pressing areas.

The deadline for full deployment to 2,500 has been pushed back till 2020. Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles has blamed Canberra for the delay.The Northern Territory’s complaints may be more to do with the delay in full economic benefits of 2,500 Marines spending money in Darwin rather than strategic benefits. The Northern Territory after all, was quite enthusiastic about having China buy/lease the Port of Darwin at above market prices.

During the six-month rotation, the Marines are participating in activities and exercises with the Australian Defence Force and other armed forces (including Japanese and Chinese forces) in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US chose Darwin as a place for rotation (an economical form of deployment) for several reasons:
-  Alliance value to Australia. Australia has felt vulnerable about Darwin since the WWII Japanese 
   bombing raids.
-  Darwin is close to major shipping lanes (Straits of Malacca and lesser known Straits in the 
   Indonesian archipelago)
-  But far enough away from the Strait of Malacca flashpoint to defend RAAF Base Darwin 
   and Tindal Air Base from Chinese air/missile attack.
-  The Marines can be part of the defence force for these Air Bases.
-  The Darwin region has low-traffic skies for aerial training and a bombing range near Tindal.
-  There are huge, sparsely populated, interior regions of land for Marine live-firing exercises.
Please connect with Submarine Matters article US told 2 Days After Sale of Port of Darwin to a Chinese Company, November 24, 2015. 

An Osprey in Australia during the 2013 Marine rotation.


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