U.S. to base Marines in Australia as it asserts presence in Pacific
WASHINGTON – President Obama rolled out the red carpet for Chinese President Hu Jintao at the White House in January, promising to "build a baseline of trust" in order to "solve the friction or irritants that exist" between the two nations.
Ten months later, Obama is in China's backyard, announcing trade alliances and military partnerships with other Asia-Pacific nations that could add more friction than trust.
By sending up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in waves to northern Australia and moving ahead with a nine-nation regional trade pact that could grow to include Japan, Obama sent signals to Chinese leaders that its rising economic and military power will prompt increased U.S. involvement in the region.
"The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken," Obama said in Canberra on Wednesday.
He added, "The United States is going to be a huge participant in both economic and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, and our overriding desire is that we have a clear set of principles that all of us can abide by."
At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the Philippines, addressing concerns about territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. She referred to it as the "West Philippine Sea" and said neither side has a right to pursue its claim "through intimidation or coercion."
The military action prompted an immediate — and negative — response from Beijing. "It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
While the U.S. strategic and economic actions should not detract from what have been improving relations between Washington and Beijing, experts say the rhetoric accompanying those actions just might.
"Words count. Our words are parsed by everyone with great care throughout the region," says Jonathan Pollack, an expert on China at the Brookings Institution. "I don't think we're looking for a confrontation, but we ought to be asking ourselves, what is it that we are specifically trying to do here."
What Obama is doing is following through on plans that have long been in the works.
Since the U.S. stopped basing troops in the Philippines in 1992, it has had little presence south of Japan and Korea. The new arrangement calls for 250 Marines to conduct exercises and training with Australian troops in Darwin beginning next year. That could eventually grow to 2,500 troops.
Speaking to the Australian Parliament on Thursday morning, Obama said even the need to reduce defense spending won't deter his efforts.
"We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace," he said. "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."
He lauded U.S. relations with most Asia-Pacific nations but reserved cautious words for China.
"We will continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China," Obama said, later adding, "even as we continue to speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms."
China has greatly expanded its military might over the past 20 years, developing missiles that could disable U.S. aircraft carriers. It says the weapons are defensive. It also has sought to extend its reach into the South China Sea, generating complaints from several neighbors.
"We're going to continue to play the role of underpinning security in this part of the region," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Part of that context is a rising China."
Some experts on the region say the movement of troops to Australia is reasonable and actually could lead to a lighter overall footprint in the region.
"It's definitely not saber-rattling," says Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting the United States has invited China in the past to join in military training and exercises.
The risk, however, is that China perceives the U.S. move as an effort at containment, says Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who just completed a book on U.S.-Chinese engagement.
"The Obama administration is in danger of overplaying this shift and really creating more alarm, particularly in China, that is certainly necessary," Swaine says. "The region does not want to see the situation … evolve into a new Cold War."