US may invest in new Australia port capable of housing warships

Joint military exercise Talisman Sabre sees participation of 34,000 troops

Amphibious landing training during Talisman Sabre (Source: Australia Army)

Amphibious landing training during Talisman Sabre (Source: Australia Army)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – The U.S. military is considering spending US$211 million (around NT$6.6 billion) on construction in Darwin, Australia, according to the annual defense bill, the Marine Corps Times reports.

The piece of legislation does not state what will be constructed, but an exclusive ABC News report suggests it will be a new commercial port that could be used to accommodate Australia’s landing helicopter dock ships and the U.S. Marines' amphibious assault ships. Since the U.S. Marine Corps does not currently own any permanent military facilities in Australia, such a construction project is likely to complicate Canberra’s diplomatic efforts to balance its relationship with the U.S. and China.

The commander of the Marine Raiders, Maj. Gen. Daniel Yoo told the Marine Corps Times that even though Australia is a U.S. ally from a military perspective, it has deep economic ties with China. “And so they have a problem internal to their own country as far as there’s some that feel they should be closer to China,” he added.

“As economic power shifts, it’s unsurprising that nations will seek to play a bigger strategic role in our region. China, in particular, is exercising unprecedented influence in the Indo-Pacific,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a November 2018 speech. “Inevitably, in the period ahead, we will be navigating a higher degree of US-China strategic competition.”

Although the U.S. Marine Corps has claimed that it has no plan to establish a permanent presence in Australia, it has been increasing deployments in the country over the past eight rotation cycles, with as many as 1,500 marines taking part in exercises there in 2018. According to the Marine Corps Times, the U.S. sees Australia as a strategic location important to its plans to relocate some of its troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

The two countries just kicked off the Talisman Sabre war games, a biennial exercise that takes place along the coasts of Queensland and New South Wales, in mid-July, reports ABC News. This year’s exercise focuses on a beach invasion, evidently simulating combat on islands and reefs controlled by China in the South China Sea, according to the Liberty Times.

The war games see the participation of Canadian, British, New Zealander, and for the first time, Japanese troops -- about 34,000 personnel in total. The simulation attracted a Chinese spy ship, which stayed just outside of Australian waters and posed no threat to the drill, ABC news reports.

The multinational training exercise can be seen as an effort by the U.S. military to consolidate its alliances and strengthen its military capacity in the Indo-Pacific region. It also shows the importance of Australia in the context of the U.S.-China power struggle.