The Saturday Paper

By Hamish McDonald

Funny how Barack Obama has not quite asked Tony Abbott outright for help in bombing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and perhaps Syria, much as Abbott would like to be asked.

Of course, strictly speaking it should be the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who Abbott should be consulting, just as Obama is doing. But Obama and the Pentagon have every reason to be happy with Abbott. They are expecting him to pick up the tab for the US Marines' annual "rotation" through Darwin, according to close observers.

The marines, numbering about 1150 during this year's dry season deployment, will build up in two years or so to a fullscale Marine Air-Ground Task Force of 2500 personnel and perhaps even more in future years. The cost of this deployment was put at $US1.6 billion in a preliminary assessment by the Marine Corps to a US senate committee in October 2012, over what period was not made clear.

Abbott and Obama made a new bilateral "force posture agreement" at their White House meeting in June this year, signed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister David Johnston at the annual talks with US counterparts last month. It covers the marine rotation, plus more visits to Australian bases and airfields by US ships and aircraft.

"Under the agreement, costs will be shared on the basis of'proportionate use', with the details to be negotiated between the parties," says a Defence Department spokesperson in Canberra. "To date, the cost of the initiatives to defence has been limited. The US Marine Corps contributed to costs incurred to support the rotations that occurred in 2012 and 2013, with defence absorbing minimal costs."

Not clear how much the leathernecks contributed for the fairly small deployments in those years, and how much will fall on the Canberra budget when the full force starts coming. But observers, such as Professor Bates Gill, head of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, are on record as saying they expect Australia to pick up most of the tab.

For a new take on Australia's role in the US "pivot" to Asia, read an article on by Vince Scappatura, a Deakin University PhD candidate working on the US–Australia alliance, in which he argues the distinction between "rotation" and "basing" has become almost meaningless.

This article was originally published in The Saturday Paper