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President Obama was in the Australian city of Darwin this morning. Then he flew off to the Indonesia island of Bali for an East Asian summit. Darwin will be a new center of military operations in Asia for the U.S. It's all part of an agreement to increase military cooperation between the two countries - the U.S. and Australia. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the move also reflects concerns about countering the growing power of China.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The city of Darwin has been a base for U.S. and Australian military cooperation before. Their joint forces came under constant attack there by Japanese bombers during World War II. Now it will be one of several military bases from which the U.S. operates as it seeks to reassert itself in Asia.

Some 250 U.S. Marines will arrive in northern Australia next year. That number will later expand to about 2,500. U.S. jets and warships will also train with the Australians.

Abraham Denmark, a China specialist at the Center for Naval Analysis, sees the new focus on Asia is a natural evolution of American interests.

ABRAHAM DENMARK: It has half of the world's population, three of the world's largest economies, it represents a third of world trade and has several of the world's largest militaries, including some potential adversaries. So it's very important for the United States to be there.

NORTHAM: The decision to increase military cooperation with Australia has been in the works for several years. It's part of a broader strategy calling for more diplomatic and economic cooperation with the region, a repositioning of American troops based in North Asia and a downgrade of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patrick Cronin, with the Center for a New American Security, says placing military assets in Australia was a response to concerns by U.S. allies in Asia.

PATRICK CRONIN: The region was watching the United States over this last decade, get deeper and deeper into this so-called war on terrorism and involved in counter insurgencies, and said don't you understand that this region is changing daily. China's military modernization is affecting everybody's calculations.

NORTHAM: The buildup of China's modern military force has been paid for its economic success. Abraham Denmark says China has the right to invest in its military, but its neighbors - and the U.S. - have grown concerned about Chinese efforts to deny access to critical commercial waterways.

DENMARK: And the South China Sea has become a focal point for these things. In recent years, China has acted very assertively in the South China Sea and started harassing American ships, harassing other country's ships.

NORTHAM: The announcement about increased military cooperation with Australia comes the same week as the U.S. and several Asian nations negotiate a new free-trade deal, which for now, does not include China. That, along with a push to renew ties with Asian allies, has raised questions whether the U.S. is trying to contain China.

Geoffrey Garret, the head of the United States Study Center at the University of Sydney, says that isn't the case. Garret recently told a panel that it's a matter of caution.

GEOFFREY GARRETT: While we believe that China's rise will continue to be benign and good for everybody, it is just prudent for us to ensure against the small possibility that China's rise will turn from being benign to being more malign.

NORTHAM: Patrick Cronin says the decision to base Marines in Australia will help reassure allies that the U.S. is going to be a long-term and important player in Asia. Cronin says it's possible there will be similar agreements with other Asian nations in the future. He points to a plan for the U.S. to station two small combat ships in Singapore.

CRONIN: That could be replicated elsewhere and people are thinking about the Philippines, people are thinking about what could be done with Vietnam. Now, those kinds of cooperative arrangements are much more likely to be red-lines with China than anything we do with Australia.

NORTHAM: But a Chinese spokesman expressed concern, saying the newly sealed military agreement between the U.S. and Australia might not be appropriate and deserved greater scrutiny.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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