North Korea is determined to expand its nuclear arsenal. China is constructing airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea. Russia is increasingly active in Japanese air space.

With key U.S. allies the targets of this aggression, Marine Corps leaders in the Asia-Pacific region say their greatest priority is preserving they remain committed to deterring aggression and promoting stability in the region. And as tensions rise, the service is forging ahead with several big moves that will eventually place nearly 15 percent of the service's personnel in Hawaii and beyond.

Additionally, rising tensions and saber rattling in the region have some U.S. allies concerned. Marines are slated to partner with at least 22 regional militaries throughout there over the next year, including those from some of the most powerful and populous countries in the region — like India, Lt. Gen. John Toolan, the head of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, told Marine Corps Times. Notably, he said, "we are currently exploring options for greater amphibious engagement with India," he said."

The Corps is also forging ahead with several big moves in the region that will eventually place about 15 percent of the service's personnel in Hawaii or beyond.

The Navy Department recently approved the Marine Corps' plan to move 5,000 Marines and their families from Japan to Guam. That will eventually leave about 10,000 Marines in Okinawa, Japan, and 8,800 in Hawaii, Toolan said. 

His command also oversees all members of I and III Marine Expeditionary Units, which includes more than 80,000 troops. That leaves about

And ongoing conversations with Australia are focused continue on how best to expand the Marines' presence there. Currently, a force numbering more than 1,100 Marines deploys for six months annually to Australia's Northern Territory. Officials are finalizing which Down Under annually now. While MARFORPAC officials said details on the units and equipment will go heading to Australia's Northern Territory in 2016, but are still being finalized, Lt. Col. Brian Middleton, commanding officer of the newly reactivated 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, said in a recent speech that his unit is slated to go the following year will deploy there in the spring of 2017.

When the Obama administration announced these Australia rotations, plans called for steadily growing the unit to 2,500 Marines, a full Marine air-ground task force, by 2016. It remains to be seen when — or even if — that will occur whether the U.S. will eventually boost the size of the force to 2,500 — a full Marine air-ground task force — by 2016, as originally planned by the Obama administration. Toolan said those plans aren't tied to a specific timeline and depend on bilateral agreements about things like cost-sharing.

Regardless, with so many Marines cycling through the region, All of these plans, however, go a long way in projecting the service's presence and influence is growing.

"Our evolving partnerships demonstrate our relevance and commitment to the region," Toolan said. "My Marines are postured ... in a distributed laydown across the region to ensure rapid response throughout the Asia-Pacific across the full range of military operations."

Moving Marines

In addition to new basing plans for Marines in Guam, Japan and Hawaii, Toolan and other military leaders are looking for ways to move Marines leathernecks around the vast region.

Next year, The countries Marines will work alongside foreign troops from in the U.S. Pacific Command area of operability in 2016 range from Mongolia, South Korea and Japan in the northern Pacific to Australia and New Zealand in the south, Toolan said. The Corps will also host training exercises as far east as Hawaii and California and alongside troops from India and the Maldives in the western portion of the region.

That has Marine and Navy leaders looking at new ways to transport people and materiel move troops across the vast theater of operations. This summer, for instance, a platoon with the Australia-based Marine Rotational Force-Darwin sailed aboard the dry cargo ship Sacagawea to participate in Exercise Koa Moana in Timor-Leste. Once ashore, the Marines conduced urban terrain and live-fire training alongside local troops.

While Marines are used to heading to sea on amphibious assault ships, Toolan said those in the Pacific could head out on different vessels in the future — possibly even including other country's ships.

"We continue to look for opportunities to find creative solutions to moving Marines around the theater," he said. "Future opportunities may include third country ships."

Responding to crises

The Marine Corps has been the first to respond or lead the effort for the last six major humanitarian crises in the Asia-Pacific region that required foreign assistance, Toolan said.

That makes Marines' presence in the region vital for an area susceptible to devastating natural disasters like typhoons or tsunamis. Marine air assets, including heavy-lift helicopters and MV-22B Ospreys, have allowed the Corps to deliver supplies to those in need and evacuate people trapped without food or water after a natural disaster.

Marines' ability to respond quickly to such rapid response after events, like the April earthquake in Nepal that killed about 9,000 people or the intense typhoon that struck Saipan in August, demonstrates the U.S. commitment to partners and allies in the region, Toolan said.

Marines can expect to continue training for those types of contingencies in the region alongside troops from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Fiji and Malaysia, he said.

Expanding partnerships

For the first time ever, Toolan recently led a U.S. Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium — or PALS — over four days in Hawaii. Toolan and other military leaders from the region's marine corps and naval infantries gathered to discuss amphibious operations and interoperability.

Marines will continue to partner more with Japanese forces.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Luis Vega/Marine Corps

As tensions with China rise and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces takes steps to boost its amphibious capabilities, the service is looking to the Marine Corps for guidance. In June, Japanese troops deployed to Australia with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit to Australia, in June where they participated in a multinational exercise there.

"The introduction of the JSDF into Australia is a milestone," Toolan said.

The service also played a key role during Exercise Dawn Blitz, which was held in California during September. They were also one of the militaries that took part in Toolan's Pacific leaders symposium.

Having the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with partner nations in the region is a priority for Toolan as he looks ahead at leading the Marine Corps' efforts in the region, and it's something MARFORPAC is looking to host again.

"I truly hope to see PALS become a continuing event and I'm looking forward to future iterations," he said.

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