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Nice to have an uncle named Sam

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BRISBANE -- About 200 American marines belonging to a rifle company arrived in the steaming tropical city of Darwin earlier this month, warmly welcomed by locals who, for a century, have regarded the Yanks as brothers in arms.

Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Paul Henderson told the ABC that the troops were anxious to get out and about in the far northern capital, which to those soldiers from below the Mason Dixon line might even feel a bit like home.

"I'm absolutely confident that the community will embrace them," Henderson said.

They will. To a handful of elderly Australians the sight of uniformed Americans in our streets carries fond memories of a time when the nation was enchanted by these "saviours" -- clean cut boys from exotic sounding locations like Idaho who carried cigarette cases, handed out chewing gum and called women "ma'am."

But their presence then, as now, reflected tectonic shifts in geopolitics. Australians are well aware the arrival of the Americans is a disturbing symbol of what a different world the 21st century will be.

Isolated since European settlement from the strategic tensions of Europe and the Middle East, Australia has always regarded war as something that happens in other places.

We went off to war but then we came home to a land never riven by internal armed conflict and never (apart from the Japanese bombing of northern Australia during the Second World War) invaded.

But as the new millennium gets into full stride, Australia reluctantly accepts it's now in the global cross hairs as one of the most strategic countries on the planet, and engagement in armed conflict might not necessarily be preceded by long sea voyages to far off countries.

The rise of China has rewritten the diplomacy handbook. And while the world adapts to the evolving power dynamics of the Asian century, one thing is certain -- America is firming up its foothold in the Land Down Under.

The 200 marines are expected to grow to around 2,500 in the near future. The Americans will make further use of Australia's existing military infrastructure and train with Australian troops. Both Washington and Canberra, however, deny this increased presence amounts to the establishment of "American bases."

"There are no U.S. military bases in Australia, and this will not change,'' Prime Minister Julia Gillard says.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who announced the troops during a recent Australian visit, is also determined a stepped up U.S. presence in Australia not be perceived in Beijing as a threat.

America welcomed "a strong, prosperous and stable China,'' he told his doting Australian audiences but added there were international rules by which everyone must abide.

Soon after Obama's announcement of more troops in Darwin, the ABC reported unease in Beijing. Chinese government spokesman Liu Weimin said on Tony Eastley's AM radio show:

"It may not be appropriate to strengthen and extend this military alliance. Whether it suits the common interests of countries around the region and the whole international community remains under question."

Prof. Jia Qingguo, of the school of international studies at Peking University, was less restrained.

"Personally, I think it's not very smart for the Australian government to do this because it doesn't contribute to Australia's security and it creates additional friction between Australia and China,'' Qingguo said. "So I don't know how much Australia can gain from this.''

What Australia clearly hopes to gain is the peace of mind that comes from having a strong friend backing it in the perilous schoolyard of global politics.

Sections of the Australian community, such as the Australian Greens, are outspoken in opposition to Australian involvement in American wars -- from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

But in 1942, when faced with a Japanese invasion, Australia looked to America with an air of unabashed desperation.

Wartime prime minister John Curtin didn't quite grovel to America as Japanese troops strode southward, down through Papua New Guinea towards Northern Queensland.

But in blunt Australian language he made it clear in March 1942 this nation, until then a child of Britain, desperately needed the world's most powerful nation in its corner.

Curtin, appealing to American self interest, warned that Australia was the last bastion between America and the then hostile Japanese.

"If Australia goes the Americas are wide open.''

Britain had fought alongside America in the vital battle of the Atlantic, he said. "(Britain) has a paramount obligation to supply all possible help to Russia. She cannot, at the same time, go all out in the Pacific.''

The Americans arrived and swiftly settled the matter of the Pacific War from Midway to the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Not a lot has changed. America remains the country capable of going "all out" in the Pacific if the region does erupt.

Australia hopes the changing dynamics of the Asia Pacific bring not war but more prosperity to every country. China's growing economic power fuelled, partly by Australian mineral exports and coupled with an apparent lack of interest in a radical expansion of its borders, indicate that is a feasible scenario.

But in the event of something more unpleasant, it's nice to know we have an uncle called Sam.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press Australia correspondent. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2012 A14

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