In a speech to the Australian parliament on Wednesday, President Obama described the US as a “Pacific power“; he added that “we are here to stay” and emphasized that the Asia-Pacific region is the US’s “top priority.” Obama — who spent much of his early life in the region, in Hawai’i and Indonesia — also said that,
“Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region.”
As a sign of this, Obama announced that, by 2016, the US will station a full military base with 2,500 troops in the northern town of Darwin, which he visited on Thursday.
While Obama was given a warm welcome by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who described him “as a friend and an ally as well,” opposition leader Tony Abbott questioned the US President’s leadership and also that of Gillard.
The plan to expand the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region has angered China, which has accused Obama of escalating military tensions in the region. “It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region,” said Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The agreement with Australia will be the first time since the end of the Vietnam War that the US has expanded its military presence in the Pacific and comes at a time when the Pentagon is facing deep budget cuts. The ongoing fight about the US deficit in Congress indeed leaves the “strength of the US commitment in some doubt” even though Obama said that those budget cuts will not “come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific”:
While the new military commitment is relatively modest, Mr. Obama has promoted it as the cornerstone of a strategy to confront more directly the challenge posed by China’s rapid advance as an economic and military power. He has also made some progress in creating a new Pacific free-trade zone [the the Trans-Pacific Partnership] that would give America’s free-market allies in the region some trading privileges that do not immediately extend to China.
Mr. Obama described the deployment as responding to the wishes of democratic allies in the region, from Japan to India. Some allies have expressed concerns that the United States, facing war fatigue and a slackened economy, will cede its leadership role to China.
Saying that “the notion that we fear China is mistaken; the notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken,” Obama said that China would be welcome to join the new free-trade zone provided that it meets free-trade standards for membership. These would require that China allow its currency to rise in value, to offer better protection for the intellectual property rights of foreign producers and to limit or put an end to subsidies to state-owned companies — all of which would require a “major overhaul” of China’s economic development policies.
China has not offered official recognition about how its own “assertive behavior” in the region has led to conditions that have allowed the US to assert itself, including
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s comments at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”; the continued sparring between Chinese vessels and those of its neighbors in the East and South China Sea; and the general unattractive nationalist rhetoric of Beijing’s official newspapers warning that if countries in Asia “don’t want to change their ways” they will need to “prepare for the sound of cannons.”
Some analysts have expressed concerns that US military expansion in the Pacific could backfire and lead to a “cold war-style standoff” with China. Others comment that, if Obama is confronting China, such is an “inevitable consequence of being a power in the region.” There is no question that China is the heavyweight there and, with its economy thriving as those of US and of Europe struggle and slump, that China is charting its path to be dominant on the global stage. In asserting the US’s presence in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, Obama is taking the long view and thinking beyond his own presidency, as BBC editor Mark Mardell says:
President Obama thinks he sees the big picture and where America’s long-term interests lie. The Pacific region gives him a chance to practise his doctrine of leadership through alliances.
But it is also a region with some big, tough and seemingly intractable problems.
What sort of leadership America provides and with what aims will be a critical question not only for him but presidents to come.
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Photo od Darwin's Fort Hill Wharf by kenhodge13