SYDNEY - US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Sydney on Monday for annual talks expected to deepen military engagement with close ally Australia, but the focus will also be on hotspots abroad including Iraq and Ukraine.
Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meet Australian counterparts Julie Bishop and David Johnston at the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) on Tuesday, which focus on regional security and enhanced military cooperation.
"Australia is a close ally and fantastic partner to the United States," a State Department official told AFP.
"It is an opportunity for them to align their defence policies as allies to explore ways that they can extend and expand security cooperation as well as strategic planning."
The talks come after Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Monday that Australia will likely join US airdrops of supplies to thousands of Iraqi civilians besieged by jihadist militants on a mountain, and may even participate in airlift operations to carry them to safety.
Regional security issues in Southeast Asia and the Pacific will be discussed in Tuesday's talks, along with Myanmar, where Kerry and Bishop have just attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum.
The ministers will also talk about Northeast Asia, comparing notes about their respective relations with China, and the challenges posed by North Korea, as well as international hotspots.
"That will include issues related to Ukraine and Russia, the Middle East, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, and Syria and importantly Afghanistan where there is an extraordinary record of Australia-US cooperation," the official said.
Troops deal rankles China
The meeting will confirm details of the rotation of US Marines through northern Australia, first announced by US President Barack Obama in 2011 as part of his "pivot" towards Asia.
Under this strategy of withdrawing US military, economic and human resources from Middle East wars and deploying them to emerging Asia - referred to as a "rebalancing" - Washington plans to move 2,500 Marines to the northern Australian city of Darwin by 2016-17. Hundreds have already arrived.
Analysts said the troop numbers were unlikely to be further increased, but the agreement could include upgrading facilities in Australia's north to better enable amphibious operations.
An agreement to intensify training between the nations' elite forces is also on the cards, said Ben Schreer, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
Schreer said a concrete agreement that American destroyers or smaller warships might start rotating through Stirling base in Western Australia was likely still premature.
"I think what you might see... is that both sides agree to continue exploring possibilities for greater or increased use of naval facilities by US warships and submarines," he said.
"Making an announcement on upgrading Stirling, permanently basing US warships there - that's quite a step forward and I don't think that both sides are prepared to do that now."
Bates Gill, chief executive of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said the talks would be an important next step in what appeared to be "a growing degree of access and presence for American assets both human and materiel on Australian territory".
Gill said progress had been slow but careful since the announcement that Marines would rotate through Darwin, an agreement which rankled China.
It also caused concern for some Asian neighbours who saw it as a statement by Washington that it intends to stand up for its interests in the region amid concern about Beijing's growing assertiveness.
Despite this, US officials are clearly taking the rebalancing of US interests towards Asia forward, Gill added.
"If one looks at what America is doing, it is quite clear that the rebalance is alive and well and there is increased engagement across a number of areas," he said, adding that this included both military and diplomatic activity.
The United States currently has only a limited deployment in longstanding ally Australia, including the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility spy station near Alice Springs.