U.S. Marines Land In Australia: What's The Message?

This week, U.S. Marines landed in northern Australia. Just 200 Marines, but they're the first wave of a deployment that will eventually increase to 2,500. The Chinese military has expressed disapproval. Host Scott Simon is joined by the U.S. ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

This week, U.S. Marines landed in northern Australia. Just a couple hundred Marines, but they are the first wave of a deployment that will eventually increase to 2,500.

The Chinese military has expressed disapproval. Last fall, an official with the Chinese Defense Ministry said the U.S. military build-up in the region reflected a Cold War mentality.

We're joined now from Canberra, by the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY BLEICH: Well, Thank you for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: When the deployment was announced last year by President Obama, he said it was just a way to increase bilateral military cooperation and training. But the Australian defense minister, when he greeted U.S. Marines this week said, quote, "The world needs to essentially come to grips with the rise of China, the rise of India. The move is strategic and political and economic influence to our part of the world."

How do you reconcile these two statements?

BLEICH: Oh, I think they are perfectly consistent with one another. The reason to realign our forces - and we're doing this globally - is because the world has shifted in places where we had a lot of resources devoted are no longer as compelling as the Asia Pacific.

Right now, 70 percent of the world's trade is going through, passes through the Asia Pacific, and so we really have to be more considerate about having people who are trained to operate in this region and capable of ensuring that those trade routes remain open and that the area stays peaceful and stable.

SIMON: And then what might you say to the Chinese military spokesman who refer to this as a Cold War mentality?

BLEICH: He couldn't be more wrong about that. That's just a false narrative. If you think about the Cold War, you had two different economies that were in competition with one another and today we have one economy with China. We're betting on each other's success. The U.S. has a major trade relationship with China and China has invested heavily in the United States. We're not in a rivalry, we're actually working very closely together economically. And it's in China's interest as much as any other nation's interest for this to be a peaceful, stable, prosperous rise of the Asia Pacific for every country.

SIMON: And Australia's been enjoying an economic boom while the rest of the world has been - if not bust, at least in decline.

BLEICH: You know, that's exactly right. One of the interesting things for me when I go back and talk to people in the States who haven't been out here and haven't really focused on Australia is there's a very cuddly version of Australia to them. It's koalas and kangaroos and Crocodile Dundee and shrimp on the barbie and Fosters for beer maiden, you know, that sort of thing, and they haven't really thought about the major transformation in the Australian economy over the last 20 years. It's now the 13th largest economy in the world. It was the best performing economy coming out of the global financial crisis. In fact, it was the only one of the major economies that didn't have a recession. Their debt is only 9 percent of GDP. So in every dimension this is a robust economy. But I think it's a story that hasn't made it into any of the recent movies.

SIMON: The U.S. ambassador to Australia, Jeff Bleich. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much.

BLEICH: Oh, well, thank you, Scott. I really appreciate it.

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