The US President is in town and he’s brought US troops with him. In a significant military alliance move, Australia will have 2500 US Marines stationed in the Northern Territory within five years. Barack Obama announced the news in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday afternoon, during his whirlwind day-and-a-half trip of Australia.

“This deepening of our alliance sends a clear message of our commitment to this region — a commitment that is enduring and unwavering,” announced Obama. “This is a region of huge strategic importance to us. We are here to stay.”

Gillard was equally gushing. “And our alliance has been a bedrock of stability in our region. So building on our alliance through this new initiative is about stability. It will be good for the Australian Defence Force to increase their capabilities by joint training, combined training, with the US marines and personnel.”

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But as virtually all media commenters noted, when the politicial leaders say “region”, they mean China.

An increased US military presence in Australia sends a clear message to the growing power of China, notes Peter Hartcher in The Sydney Morning Herald:

“Australia and the US now unequivocally share the same approach to China — hedging. That means working for the best but preparing for the worst. The joint preparations are now under way.”

This is like buying national insurance, a way of protecting Australia’s interests, says Daniel Flitton in The Age:

“[it] … shows Australia believes that the countries in the region can’t be trusted to look after their own affairs and need the US as a ”stabilising” force.

Oh, and by region, read China.”

The military decision takes the US-Australian Alliance to a much deeper level, argues Paul Kelly in The Australian:

“In Obama, the PM has the perfect partner. His popularity in the Labor Party and with the Australian public means Gillard can seal a depth of military closeness that would have provoked domestic rebellion if tried under George W. Bush.”

When Obama first came to office he went out of his way to strengthen US-China relations. Now, he acts tough, says Greg Sheridan in The Oz:

“Barack Obama made a powerful statement to Asia on the first day of his Australian visit — the US is here to stay. He made an equally powerful statement to China — America expects you to play by the rules.”

After a state dinner last night, Obama will head along to a Canberra primary school with Gillard today for some chatty banter with the kids, a media event replicated from Gillard’s last visit to Washington.

He got a taste of Aussie school kids treating him like a rock star at his arrival in Parliament House yesterday, reports Jamie Walker in The Oz:

“The 21-gun salute that boomed out across Canberra was matched in volume by the reception he received from an excited crowd of school children assembled inside in the marbled foyer. With Gillard at his side, Obama told the kids: “Whoa! Hello, everyone.”

He hugged one girl and shook hands with others as a noisy throng engulfed him.”

Another colour piece, albeit a particularly cringe-inducing one written by Patrick Carlyon in the Herald Sun, examined how thrilled Gillard was to have Obama in town.

“Julia Gillard and Barack Obama are a touchy pairing. Their hands, like disembodied life forms, seek out the other’s shoulders and backs.  When such targets are out of reach, digits settle on forearms or the nearest available body part.

Obama constantly bares his American teeth. His smile alone could power a Third World country. Gillard blushes, like a high school girl who has, finally, after much bedroom plotting, captured the gaze of the football captain.”

This afternoon Obama is off to Darwin — where US troops will be based — for less than three hours before he flies out to Indonesia.

The NT News — which has a souvenir Obama newspaper hat to cut out in its print edition today — continues to dine out on Obama’s trip to the Top End, but Nigel Adlam notes that most of Darwin’s locals are unlikely to spot the president:

“Only a select few Territorians will get to see US President Barack Obama in Darwin. The Territory government tried to persuade American secret service bosses to allow the most powerful man in the world to meet the people, but they refused — saying the risk of assassination was too great in the modern world.

Two-metre-high fences at the RAAF Base Darwin and along The Esplanade will be draped with sheets of black plastic to hide the President from public view.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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