TIME is running out for Australia to strike a deal with the United States on cost-sharing arrangements to allow the expansion of the Darwin Marine deployment to go ahead as planned.
US President Barack Obama wants the US military presence in the Northern Territory to form the basis of a new “pivot in Asia”. But that is under threat by the inability of the two countries to agree who should bear the bulk of the costs for the deployment.
The squabble over which party will foot the bill has dragged on since December last year. The original plan was to have a 2500-strong Marine Air Ground Task Force in the Territory but numbers have stalled at 1250.
The deadline to reach a deployment of 2500 Marines has been pushed back to 2020.
With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the US today and a presidential election looming in November, pressure is mounting to hammer out the final details of the deal.
Earlier this year, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said allies with US military presences should “pay up and contribute” to the costs of those deployments, sparking fears Darwin’s Marine contingent could cost Australian taxpayers heavily should he be elected.
Concerns are mounting a new administration will not share Mr Obama’s vision for a large US military presence in the Top End.
The Australian reports senior Government sources have said the talks were not being handled at leaders’ level and had not been discussed in recent conversations between Mr Obama and Mr Turnbull.
It is understood Australia is keen to finalise the agreement at the next meeting of US and Australian foreign affairs and defence ministers – AUSMIN – and there are attempts to hold a meeting in Sydney next month before the November 8 US presidential election.
A formal national analysis of the force posture agreement found failure to implement it would “undermine Australia’s longstanding alliance with the US”, a view endorsed by the parliamentary treaties committee last year.
The training rotations at Robertson Barracks in Darwin also involve aircraft and pre-positioned military hardware for a rapid deployment force.
The fifth rotation began at Darwin airport in April, with the arrival of a US Galaxy C-5 aircraft carrying CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from Hawaii and the first of this year’s 1250 US marines.
US defence officials said it was not known when the target of 2500 troops would be reached.