Australia and the United States will today hold high-level talks aimed at enhancing military ties, including cooperation on Washington's far-reaching plan for a regional missile defence shield.
The US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet in Sydney today with their Australian counterparts, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister David Johnston.
The ministers are expected to use the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (Ausmin) to pave the way for expanded military ties.
The meetings will conclude the final arrangements for US troops stationed in northern Australia for the past two years.
The number of marines has been building to a maximum of 2,500. This is likely to enable the US to bring in helicopters and heavy equipment and build permanent barracks and landing facilities for more robust training.
In addition, Canberra and Washington want Australia's most elite units, from the Special Air Service Regiment and Commandos, to train with elite US units such as the Navy Seals.
Analysts said the most significant aspect of the talks is likely to be the sensitive topic of joint missile defence.
The US is reportedly keen to accelerate its plan to allow allies to share defence capabilities, so that command posts from various countries can track and share information on missiles in real time.
This could allow a central US-operated command post to order a missile to be shot down from an Australian ship.
Commentator Greg Sheridan said the main nations the US has been looking to for cooperation on the plan are Australia and Japan, as well as South Korea.
He said the main threat currently envisaged is North Korean ballistic missiles, though the system could also be used to defend against China's growing missile capability.
"If Canberra were to join such a system, it would want guarantees of full participation in decision-making so there was no loss of sovereign control," he wrote in The Australian.
The ministerial talks are also expected to focus on expanding the US naval presence off Australia's north-west coast, with access at Australian ports and bases.
Australian officials say that a greater US presence in the Indian Ocean would help to protect the nation's lucrative mining assets. Canberra has long regarded the alliance with the US as the bedrock of its defence outlook. Most observers believe that, if anything, the alliance has only strengthened in recent years.
Australia was a staunch supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has strongly supported US President Barack Obama's so-called Asian pivot.
Canberra has signalled it could potentially lend military support to any US-led operations against Islamic extremists in northern Iraq - an issue that is also likely to arise at Ausmin.
An Australian analyst and former senior defence official, Mr Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said greater US-Australian military ties could help to promote regional stability and cooperation.
For instance, he said, the presence of US troops in Australia was not a threat to China but had instead allowed the first ever US-Australia-China military exercises on Australian soil, planned for October.
"Ausmin ministers should speed up and expand defence cooperation activities," he wrote in the Australian Financial Review yesterday.
This article was first published on August 12, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.