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With eye on South China Sea, U.S. might place troops in Australia

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South China Sea is source of much friction between China and many other Pacific nations
  • Head of the U.S. Pacific Command testifies Australians are warm to the idea
  • Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he doesn't want to create new permanent U.S. bases
  • In recent years, China has been building up its military, including its navy

Washington (CNN) -- American troops might soon find themselves serving in Australia as the United States looks for better access to the South China Sea, the source of much friction between China and many other Pacific nations.

During testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Adm. Robert Willard, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said Australians would like to see an increase of U.S. military activities Down Under.

"The Australians have been extremely forward-leaning in their overtures to the United States government, and to the Department of Defense, to consider whether or not increasing our level of involvement with their armed forces," Willard told the House Armed Service Committee.

One of the goals would be improving Pacific Command's presence in that part of the world.

"Taking advantage of some of the existing capacities in Australia would lend to an improved Pacific Command posture in accessing Southeast Asia and the South China Sea region. And we have taken a hard look at that."

In recent years, China has been building up its military, including its navy, and has staked claims on sovereignty in the South China Sea that many nations, including the United States, have disputed.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he has a group studying the idea of U.S. troops rotating through existing Australian bases, but he doesn't want to create any new permanent bases in the Pacific. And he remained diplomatic when asked whether such a plan would be about keeping China in check.

"This is really more about continuing U.S. presence and building these relationships, and it's more about our relationships with the rest of Asia than it is about China."

The United States and Australia have been on the same side of every major war since World War I. Australia has the largest group of troops from a non-NATO country fighting in Afghanistan.

 
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