The US and Australia are planning a major expansion of military ties, including possible drone flights from a coral atoll in the Indian Ocean and increased US naval access to Australian ports, as the Pentagon looks to shift its forces closer to Southeast Asia, officials from both countries said.
The moves, which are under discussion but have drawn strong interest from both sides, would come on top of an agreement announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November to deploy up to 2,500 US Marines to Darwin, on Australia's northern coast.
The talks are the latest indicator of how the Obama administration is turning its strategic attention to Asia as it winds down a costly decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US government is finalising a deal to station four warships in Singapore and has opened negotiations with the Philippines about boosting its military presence there. To a lesser degree, the Pentagon is also seeking to upgrade military relations with Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Although US officials say the regional pivot is not aimed at any single country, analysts said it is a clear response to a rising China, whose growing military strength and assertive territorial claims have pushed other Asian nations to reach out to Washington.
"Australia is the only ally we have on the Indian Ocean," said a senior US defence official. "We see the Indian Ocean as an area that we need to spend a little more time on."
(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)