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US marine company 'pioneers' in Australian deployment
Interview with Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, former US assistant defence secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

The first contingent of what will become a rotation of up to 2,500 United States Marines is now in Australia.

The deployment is part of what's been dubbed a pivot of American forces into the Asia Pacific region.

But Canberra and Washington both deny it's containing any regional power.

Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson is a former US assistant defence secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

He's now at the Centre For the National Interest in Washington and is speaking with Kesha West.
KESHA WEST, PRESENTER: General Gregson welcome to the program.


KESHA WEST: The first contingent of 200 United States Marines has just arrived in Darwin. It doesn't seem like being boots on the ground. What's the real reason for having them here in Australia?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): Well the purpose is we're doing what we've been doing with Australia for some time with the new format. Bilateral training between US and Australian forces has been going on for some time.

The presence in Darwin, the 250 people, basically a company of Marines, are the pioneers, so to speak, and this will be the vanguard to help work out details and make sure everything is all set and gradually increase to about 2,500 by 2017 or so.

KESHA WEST: Australia has repeatedly stressed that this deployment will help improve disaster response in the region. From what you know about the make up of this kind of Marine taskforce, is this primarily a combat unit?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): Yes, it is. It is Fox Company, Foxtrot Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines, and they have recently returned from Afghanistan.

KESHA WEST: How likely is it then they will be involved in disaster response?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): Well, it depends on time, tide and circumstance. As Australia is well aware, that section of the world is certainly not immune from fire, flood, volcanos, tsunami other things; if the need arises, they'll certainly be there.

As they develop the ability to do all sorts of operations, then their ability to do disaster response will increase accordingly.

A disaster response mission, especially in the early days when the military is often called in, uses just about every military skill that we have except for pulling the trigger, of course.

KESHA WEST: As you mentioned, the US deployment of Marines is due to increase to 2,500 by 2017. Aside from those Marines, what else is the US likely to base here?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): I think what you'll end up with by 2017 is something that we often refer to as a Marine air-ground taskforce. It will include ground combat elements, aviation combat elements and some logistics combat elements, all under a single commander. It is deployed to Australia before, units like that, primarily the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit coming down from Japan.

So this is nothing new. But it will be a self contained taskforce unit like very similar to the one that I described, I think.

KESHA WEST: Australia has played down the short term prospects of using the Cocos Islands as a staging point for US spy planes. How likely is it in the future though?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): I would have no idea at this point. I know that's been talked about, but you'd have to ask people that are still in government about any likelihood of that.

KESHA WEST: Certainly the US has expressed interest?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): I don't know about that. I do know that there has been interest in a lot of quarters on increased maritime surveillance to police fisheries, to monitor the movements of people, to prevent - to monitor the movements of shipping to try and prevent man-made disasters. But on the specific idea of spy flights you'd have to ask somebody else.

KESHA WEST: US and Australian leaders have expressed the Marine deployment is not about trying to contain China, but it does come amid growing tensions over marine disputes in the South China Sea, doesn't it.

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): Well, it does, but the presence of 2,500 Marines, let alone 250 in Darwin, seems to me to be hardly something that China need to worry about.

As I said before, we've had numerous training deployments to Australia going back as far as I can remember. And they've always passed without comment. This one happens to be there for a little bit longer and I believe that the unit there will be deploying away from Australia itself to work with partner nations along with the Australians during the six months that they're there.

Containment harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union. And containment was primarily a political and an economic strategy. That's the farthest thing from the world that the United States intends with China. We need China to be a successful prosperous nation. We need China to be a successful, prosperous nation. We need China to be a productive member of the international system, a productive contributor to the international system. I believe that the United States views are very much like Australia's on that. So this is hardly a containment activity.

KESHA WEST: You spoke earlier this year about the US looking for its new best enemy now the Soviet Union is gone. Many would say that the main challenge to US strategic interests, at least in the Asia Pacific, is China, but you disagree?

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): Well my comment about looking for the best enemy was intended to be a bit humorous, besides the historical fact that a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff phrased it that way.

For the entirety of the Cold War the US military planning system, the US foreign policy, all these things, were based on the overriding issue of an existential enemy in the Soviet Union. That is not what China is. And China is not about to become the same type of bipolar relationship that we had with the Soviet Union.

We have a military to military relationship with China that we would like to expand, but China is moving forward at its own pace on that. China is a factor in the area, but we have an Asian policy and China's part of that Asian policy. We do not have an anti-China policy.

KESHA WEST: General Wallace Gregson, thanks for talking to us.

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WALLACE GREGSON (RET): Thank you, it has been a pleasure.
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