CANBERRA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday unveiled plans for a deepening of the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific, starting with thousands of U.S. Marines operating out of a defacto military base in the Australian port of Darwin.
U.S. troops in Darwin, only 820 kms (500 miles) from Indonesia, would be able to react quickly to any humanitarian and security issues in Southeast Asia, where disputes over sovereignty of the South China Sea are causing rising tensions.
"With my visit to the region I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region," Obama told a joint news conference with Gillard in Canberra.
Deployment of an initial company of 200-250 Marines would begin in 2012 and expand to up to 2,500 eventually, Gillard said.
"We hope that bilateral cooperation between the countries concerned will be of benefit to the peace, stability and development of the Asia-Pacific region," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.
Some Asian nations are expected to welcome the U.S. move as a counterbalance to China's growing power, especially its expanding maritime operations, and a reassurance that Washington will not scale back its engagement in the region due to a stretched U.S. military budget.
"The United States hopes to militarily strengthen alliance relations with Japan in the north and with Australia in the south, with the clear intention of counter-balancing China," Su Hao, the director of the Asia-Pacific Researcher Center at the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told the Global Times, a popular Chinese newspaper.
OBAMA TO RAISE SOUTH CHINA SEA
Obama's visit to Australia, greeted with a 21 gun salute, marks 60 years of the U.S.-Australia alliance which has seen their troops fight in every major war.
"To the People of Australia, with whom we have stood together for a century of progress and sacrifice. On this 60th Anniversary of our Alliance, we resolve that our bonds will never be broken, and our friendship will last for all time," he wrote in Gillard's guest book.
The winding down of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has opened the door to greater U.S. attention to simmering tension over the South China Sea, a shipping lane for more than $5 trillion in annual trade that the United States wants to keep open.
Obama plans to raise maritime security in the South China Sea at a regional summit on Bali this week, defying China's desire to keep this sensitive topic off the agenda.
China claims the entire maritime region, a vital commercial shipping route rich in oil, minerals and fishery resources.
China has generally sought to avoid flare-ups over tensions with the United States and its allies in 2011.
Obama will make an "anchor speech" outlining the U.S. vision for the Asia-Pacific to the Australian parliament on Thursday before a whistle stop in Darwin. He then flies to the Indonesian island of Bali for the East Asia summit.
Darwin, nicknamed the "Pearl Harbour of Australia" after a World War Two Japanese raid dropped more bombs on the city than those on Pearl Harbour, will give the U.S. military open access to East Asia sea lanes and the Indian Ocean.
Australia says hosting U.S. troops and the pre-positioning of U.S. supplies in Darwin is not the precursor to a U.S. base, but analysts say rotating more than 2,000 U.S. marines in and out of the northern port city, and more frequent U.S. naval visits, will give Washington a defacto base.
"The Chinese have gotten used to the fact that Australia and the United States have a very close military relationship. They expect nothing different," said Australian Defense Minister Kim Beazley.
Australia and the United States jointly operate an intelligence base at Pine Gap in the Australian outback and routinely take part in military exercises. But the Darwin deployment will be the largest in Australia since World War Two when General Douglas MacArthur moved his war headquarters there.
Analysts say Australia needs to balance its military relationship with the United States with its economic dependence on China, which is a voracious buyer or coal, iron ore and other resources.
"Economic cooperation with China is increasingly important for Australia's future development," said Su from the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
"On the other hand, Australia is committed to maintaining its traditional alliance with the United States...That's a security challenge for Australia. I'm sure that Australia won't take this too far."