CANBERRA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday unveiled plans to deepen the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific, with 2,500 U.S. marines operating out of a de facto base in northern Australia.
China, already worried the United States is caging it in, immediately questioned whether strengthening military alliances would help the region when economic woes put a premium on cooperation.
“With my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region,” Obama told a joint news conference with Gillard in Canberra.
From next year, U.S. troops and aircraft will operate out of the tropical city of Darwin, only 820 kms (500 miles) from Indonesia, able to respond quickly to any humanitarian and security issues in Southeast Asia, where disputes over sovereignty of the South China Sea are causing rising tensions.
“It is appropriate for us to make sure...that the security architecture for the region is updated for the 21st century and this initiative is going to allow us to do that,” Obama said.
He stressed that it was not an attempt to isolate China which is concerned that Washington is trying to encircle it with bases in Japan and South Korea and now troops in Australia.
“The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken,” he said, adding China was not being excluded from the planned Transpacific Partnership (TTP) on trade.
“We welcome a rising, peaceful China.”
But China’s rising power means it must take on greater responsibilities to ensure free trade and security in the region, he added.
“It’s important for them to play by the rules of the road and, in fact, help underwrite the rules that have allowed so much remarkable economic progress,” he said.
The U.S. deployment to Australia, the largest since World War Two, will start next year with a company of 200-250 marines in Darwin, the “Pearl Harbour of Australia,” Gillard said.
More bombs were dropped on Darwin during a surprise Japanese raid than on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.
A total of 2,500 U.S. troops would eventually rotate through the port city. The United States will bring in ships, aircraft and vehicles, as well as increase military training.
Asked about the proposed deepening of U.S.-Australian military cooperation, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China stood for “peaceful development and cooperation.”
“We also believe that the external policies of countries in the region should develop along these lines,” Liu told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Liu added that “whether strengthening and expanding a military alliance is in the common interests of the region’s countries and the international community is worthy of discussion,” especially amid a gloomy international economic situation and with each country seeking cooperation.
But some Asian nations are likely to welcome the U.S. move as a counterbalance to China’s growing military power, especially its expanding maritime operations, and a reassurance that Washington will not scale back its engagement in the region due to a stretched U.S. military budget.
“The United States hopes to militarily strengthen alliance relations with Japan in the north and with Australia in the south, with the clear intention of counter-balancing China,” Su Hao, the director of the Asia-Pacific Researcher Center at the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told the Global Times, a popular Chinese newspaper.
The winding down of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has opened the door to greater U.S. attention to simmering tension over the South China Sea, a shipping lane for more than $5 trillion in annual trade that the United States wants to keep open.
Obama plans to raise maritime security in the South China Sea at a regional summit on Bali this week, defying China’s desire to keep the sensitive topic off the agenda.
China claims the entire maritime region, a vital commercial shipping route rich in oil, minerals and fishery resources. It insists that any disputes be resolved through bilateral talks and says Washington has no business getting involved.
“The United States is also trying to get involved in a number of regional maritime disputes, some of which concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a commentary from China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei hold rivals claims to at least parts of the sea and tension occasionally flares up into maritime stand-offs.
Obama will make an “anchor speech” outlining the U.S. vision for the Asia-Pacific to the Australian parliament on Thursday before a whistle stop in Darwin. He then flies to the Indonesian island of Bali for the East Asia summit.
Additional reporting by Michael Perry and Jim Regan in Sydney and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jonathan Thatcher