Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, front left, and Defense Minister David Johnston, rear left, talk with US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Nov. 20 at the conclusion of a signing ceremony and a press conference at the US Department of State in Washington. (Paul J. Richards / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Australia and the United States will launch negotiations next month on a binding deal to govern the stationing of US troops in northern Darwin, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.
He was speaking after annual bilateral talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry and their Australian counterparts Defense Minister David Johnson and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Plans to post more than 2,500 Marines by 2016-17 to the northern city of Darwin were first unveiled two years ago by US President Barack Obama.
And Hagel said that the initiatives “remain on track.”
“Two companies of Marines have rotated through Darwin,” he told a press conference at the State Department, adding that next year, the force would expand to 1,100 Marines and continue to grow.
“These ongoing rotational deployments to Australia are important to making the US military presence in Asia-Pacific more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and also politically sustainable,” Hagel insisted after the two countries signed a statement of principles on their shared regional defense and security objectives.
“Negotiations will begin next month on a binding agreement that will govern these force posture initiatives and further defense cooperation.”
Johnson said the ties to the United States were “Australia’s most important strategic alliance” and hailed the “very effective” and “productive” talks.
The negotiations began with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where the ministers laid wreaths to troops killed in past conflicts — a somber reminder of the wars in which the two countries have fought side by side.
But they also came against the backdrop of a row with Indonesia, amid reports that US and Australian missions in Jakarta had been used for spying on the country.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suspended cooperation with Australia in the sensitive area of human smuggling, denouncing what he called Canberra’s “Cold War” behavior.
It was the latest angry outburst from Indonesia over the reports, based on documents leaked by US intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden, that Australian spies tried to listen to the phone calls of the president, his wife and ministers in 2009.
Kerry and Bishop both refused to answer any questions about the row at the press conference, with the top US diplomat saying that “we don’t discuss intelligence procedures in any sort of public way at this point in time.”
Hagel also revealed that he had earlier signed an agreement with Johnson on relocating “a unique advanced space surveillance telescope to western Australia.”
“This telescope provides highly accurate detection, tracking and identification of deep space objects, and will further strengthen our existing space cooperation,” Hagel said.
The talks, known as AUSMIN, were the first to be held with the new Australian government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and both sides stressed the strength of the ties between the two nations.