Confronting anxiety about China’s growing political and economic clout, President Obama announced a strategic shift by the United States to reassert its role as the dominant military power in the Pacific as it pulls back from post-Sept. 11 wars.
Speaking Thursday in the Australian capital, Canberra, Obama pledged to support the dispatch of more U.S. troops, joint training operations and military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region as the Pentagon draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called the commitment to boost the U.S. military presence a top priority.
“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” Obama said in an address to the Australian Parliament.
Although initial steps to broaden America’s security umbrella in the region appear more symbolic than dramatic, Obama’s message marked a clear change after Washington’s near-constant focus on battling terrorism over the last decade. Many governments in Asia considered Islamic extremism secondary to broader economic challenges and the growing assertiveness of China.
Obama, who is midway through a nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia, is seeking to strengthen military and trade alliances to ease potential sources of conflict.
“After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
“With most of the world’s nuclear powers and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress,” he added.
Cuts in U.S. defense spending to help rein in huge budget deficits “will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
It has been clear throughout Obama’s trip that his focus is on China.
The United States does not fear China’s rise, he said at a news conference Wednesday with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But he said that Chinese leaders must “play by the rules of the road.”
“So where China is playing by those rules, recognizing its new role, I think this is a win-win situation,” he said. When they’re not, “we will send a clear message … that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power.”
Regional tensions have risen in recent years as China asserted a claim of broad sovereignty over the South China Sea. It has joined long-standing territorial disputes in resource-rich waters near the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
China’s military has become more active in the region. Officials in Manila have complained that Chinese forces entered Philippine waters or airspace six times this year, once when a frigate allegedly fired toward a Philippine fishing boat. Vietnam has complained that Chinese vessels cut the cables of ships conducting seismic surveys.
A Pentagon assessment released in August says China’s military is closing technical gaps with the U.S. and its Asian allies, developing a stealth fighter plane and conducting sea trials of its first aircraft carrier. But several ambitious efforts are still years away from completion, the report says.
Administration officials say the U.S. has a vital economic and strategic interest in maintaining open and peaceful sea lanes in the South China Sea. About $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transits the region every year, they say.
An increased U.S. military presence in the region also is popular with many of China’s neighbors.
But Chinese officials indirectly criticized Obama’s message. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing questioned whether “strengthening and expanding a military alliance is in the interests of the region or the international community” at a time of global economic turmoil.
Obama’s decision comes after several decades in which the U.S. has closed bases and withdrawn troops and warships from the region. The immediate moves will be modest, however.
They include stationing 2,500 Marines at an Australian military base in what officials called the first constant U.S. troop presence in that country since the Vietnam War era. The first 200 to 250 Marines will arrive next year, and the unit will grow over several years.
Deploying the contingent in Darwin, on Australia’s remote northern coast, gives U.S. planners a way to quickly project power in the crucial sea lanes of the South China Sea and the chokehold straits near Singapore, U.S. officials said. The U.S. Air Force also will gain increased access to military airfields in northern Australia.
The effort to confront China is popular in Washington. Members of Congress have called for punishing China for what they view as predatory currency and trade practices.
And as it grapples with sharp budget cuts, the Pentagon supports shifting its focus from ground-based conflicts of the Middle East to Asia, where large naval forces play the major role.
There are potential political benefits for Obama as well, as he gears up for his reelection campaign.
“Anytime an administration declares a big strategic shift, part of it has to do with politics,” said Victor Cha, who served in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
“The idea here is that President Obama has fulfilled his promise to get out of two wars and cut spending, and the shift to Asia is about jobs,” Cha said. “It’s about doubling exports and creating jobs through trade.”
The Pentagon maintains large military forces in Japan, South Korea and Guam but has largely withdrawn from Southeast Asia since the closing of major naval and air bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have both emphasized reengagement with the area, including new alliances or partnerships with regional giants such as India and Indonesia.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, told reporters in Canberra that governments in the region have signaled that they want “increased partnership with the United States.”
Behind the drive to boost the U.S. military presence in Asia is the belief that added security protects economic opportunities and opens new ones, said Evan Feigenbaum, adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations.
“U.S. economic and security interests are quite closely intertwined in Asia,” he said. “Economic opportunities don’t exist without security, and security wouldn’t exist without certain kinds of American commitments and activities.”