REPORTING FROM CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA –- President Obama said the United States will deploy a total of 2,500 Marines to northern Australia in the coming years, expanding a 60-year-old military alliance with Australia partly as a move to counterbalance a more aggressive China.
Obama, appearing at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday, said the U.S. does not “fear’’ China’s rise. But he added that Chinese leaders must “play by the rules of the road,’’ hinting at consequences should they fall short.
“The main message that I’ve said not only publicly but also privately to the Chinese is that with their rise comes increased responsibilities," said Obama, standing next to Gillard at Parliament House.
“So where China is playing by those rules, recognizing its new role, I think this is a win-win situation," he said. “There are going to be times where they’re not, and we will send a clear message to them that we think that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power."
Obama arrived in Australia on Wednesday, the midpoint of a nine-day trip aimed at signaling to the East-Asian region that his administration will be a reliable trade and military counterpoint to Beijing. He’s been trying to visit Australia for some time. He was supposed to go in 2010, but canceled twice to deal with pressing problems at home -– passage of his healthcare bill and the Gulf Coast oil spill.
At a summit in Honolulu over the weekend, Obama denounced Chinese trade practices in the starkest terms he’s used to date. He said the Chinese are deliberately keeping their currency undervalued to boost exports and are failing to protect intellectual property rights that are especially important to American high-tech firms.
“Enough’s enough,’’ he said at a news conference Sunday in Honolulu.
China is emerging as the running theme through Obama’s trip.
The agreement cemented by Obama and Gillard has been under discussion for years. Beginning in 2012, more than 200 U.S. Marines will begin rotating through Australia’s northern territory. That number will ultimately increase to a Marine air-ground task force numbering 2,500.
In addition, American military aircraft will now make greater use of northern Australia’s airfields.
Beijing reacted coolly to the pact. The Associated Press reported that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, told reporters at a news briefing Wednesday that the world financial crisis necessitates more cooperation between nations. Sending Marines into northern Australia seems at odds with that goal, he said.
But some East-Asian states don’t see China as a force for peace. China is advancing a claim of broad sovereignty over the South China Sea, a major hub of international commerce.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and others contest China’s claim of jurisdiction, creating a tense impasse. Vietnam, for example, has complained of Chinese interference with its oil exploration activities in the South China Sea.
Obama will attend an East Asian summit meeting later in the week in Bali, a forum in which he is likely to address the simmering dispute.
Obama didn’t mention the South China Sea specifically in his news conference. But he seemed to be alluding to the conflict at several points.
“The economy in this area is going to be the engine for world economic growth for some time to come,’’ Obama said. “The lines of commerce and trade are constantly expanding. And it’s appropriate then for us to make sure that not only our alliance but the security architecture of the region is updated for the 21st century, and this initiative is going to allow us to do that.’’
As smaller East Asian states confront a dominant China, they are looking for the U.S. to re-engage in the region as an equalizer, Obama administration officials say. America was diverted by 10 years of war in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq. As those conflicts wind down, Obama has made clear he wants to shift his focus to the Asian-Pacific. He is likely to reinforce that message when he delivers a speech to the Australian Parliament on Thursday.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy National Security advisor, told reporters in Canberra that “the nations of the region have signaled they want the U.S. to be present; would like, again, in many respects and instances, increased partnership with the United States.’’
-- Peter Nicholas
Photo: President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a joint news conference in Canberra, Australia, on Wednesday. Credit: Pool