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Panetta Heads to Australia to Ramp Up Marine Presence

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrives in Australia today to discuss ways to increase the U.S. Marine Corps presence in the country as well as secure Air Force access to its bases, a senior U.S. defense official said.

The two countries are in the first phase of deploying 250 Marines to the northern port city of Darwin on six-month rotations with the goal of expanding to as many as 2,500 troops. Panetta will discuss with Defense Minister Stephen Smith how to increase Air Force access to bases in northern Australia and the arrangements necessary to achieve those goals, according to the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced last November the deployment accord as part of an increased American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s rising regional influence. The U.S. presence aids Australia in safeguarding sea lanes that host more than $5 trillion in annual trade.

Panetta is attending the annual Australia-U.S. ministerial meeting along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The bilateral talks come at a time when Australia is cutting defense spending by A$5.4 billion ($5.6 billion) over four years to help eliminate a budget deficit.

Increasing the Marines’ presence in Darwin will require building additional housing for the troops, and the two sides will discuss how to accomplish that, an Australian official told reporters in Washington Nov. 8, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview official discussions.

Panetta and Smith also are likely to discuss improvements to airfields near Darwin that are necessary to allow landing of heavier U.S. aircraft like the B-52 bombers and those questions are unlikely to be resolved in the short term, the Australian official said.

After Australia, Panetta will travel to Thailand, becoming the first top U.S. defense official to visit the country since 2008. He will meet with counterpart Sukumpol Suwannatat as well as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Panetta also will visit Siem Reap, Cambodia, to meet with the defense minister, General Tea Banh, as well as other defense ministers from the region.

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