US to bolster air, navy activity in northern Australia: Source

US Secretary of State John Kerry (second from right) and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel (right) take part in talks at Admiralty House in Sydney on August 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (second from right) and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel (right) take part in talks at Admiralty House in Sydney on August 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The United States will bolster its air and navy presence in northern Australia, a source said on Tuesday, under a plan to strengthen defence ties with its regional ally and project more power into the Asia-Pacific, where China's influence is growing.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are in Sydney to finalise an agreement reached between US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the deployment of US marines to Australia for joint exercises and training.

Some 1,150 Marines are stationed in Darwin in Australia's tropical north under a 2011 agreement that launched Obama's "pivot" to Asia. The contingent, primed to respond to regional conflicts and humanitarian crises, will swell to 2,500 by 2017.

Officials were also finalising an agreement to boost US air and naval activity in sparsely populated and resource-rich northern Australia with an increased tempo of visits by US fighter jets and bombers, said a source with direct knowledge of the discussions.

"So more US air force visits to northern Australia, where they can use the fabulous Delamere bombing range and they would probably base out of Tindal," the source said, referring to an Australian air force base in the Northern Territory.

The US-Australia meetings will include discussions on cooperation in missile defence, cyber security and maritime security, Hagel told reporters at a briefing with Australian counterpart David Johnston on Monday. Details of the Force Posture Agreement will be released later on Tuesday.

Hagel said the United States was firmly committed to its policy of a strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, something that has irked China and been questioned by allies who wonder about the extent of US commitment to the region.

China has resisted what it sees as US meddling in the region, particularly in the disputed East and South China Seas, and an attempt to contain its growing military, economic and political influence.

A US proposal for a freeze on provocative acts in the South China Sea got a cool response from China and some Southeast Asian nations at a regional meeting at the weekend, an apparent setback to US efforts to thwart China's assertive moves.