President Barack Obama insisted today that the United States does not fear China, even as he announced a new security agreement with Australia which is widely seen as a response to China’s growing aggressiveness.
The agreement, announced during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, will expand the US military presence in Australia, positioning more US equipment there, and increasing American access to bases.
About 250 US Marines with begin a rotation in northern Australia starting next year, with a full force of 2,500 military personnel staffing up over the next few years.
“This rotational deployment is significant because what it allows us to do is to not only build capacity and co-operation between our two countries, but it also allows us to meet the demands of a lot of partners in the region that want to feel that they’re getting the training, they’re getting the exercises, and that we have the presence that’s necessary to maintain the security architecture in the region,” Mr Obama said.
While the president sidestepped questions about whether the security agreement was aimed at containing China, he said the US would keep sending a clear message that China needs to accept the responsibilities that come with being a world power.
“It’s important for them to play by the rules of the road,” he said.
And he insisted that the US is not fearful of China’s rise.
“I think the notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken,” he said.
The US and smaller Asian nations have grown increasingly concerned about China claiming dominion over vast areas of the Pacific which the US considers international waters, and reigniting old territorial disputes, including confrontations over the South China Sea.
China’s defence spending has increased threefold since the 1990s to about $160bn last year, and its military has recently tested a new stealth jet fighter and launched its first aircraft carrier.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the goal of the new security pact is to signal that the US and Australia will stick together in face of any threats.
The only American base currently in Australia is a secretive joint Australia-US intelligence and communications complex at Pine Gap in central Australia.
It is common for there to be hundreds of US service personnel in Australia on exchanges and training missions, but a rotation of 2,500 ground troops is unusual.
Mr Obama arrived in Australia today, fresh from the Asia-Pacific economic summit he hosted in Hawaii, where the US and eight other nations reached an agreement for a transpacific trade bloc which sets standard rules for commerce.
He said today that, while the US is not intentionally excluding China from the agreement, joining the pact would require Beijing “to rethink some of its approaches to trade”.
The US has accused China of undervaluing its currency to Chinese exports cheaper and US exports to China more expensive. China had a $273bn trade surplus with the US last year and US politicians say the imbalance damages American manufacturers while taking away American jobs.
US officials have also pressed China to end unfair discrimination against the US and other foreign countries and to end to measures which undercut its intellectual property.
During today’s brief news conference, Mr Obama and Ms Gillard also fielded questions on a range of issues, from US efforts to address climate change to the debt crisis in Europe.
Mr Obama reiterated his call for urgent action by European leaders to back the euro and develop a financial firewall to keep the threat of default facing Greece and Italy from spreading across the eurozone.
“The problem right now is one of political will, it’s not a technical problem,” he said. “At this point, the larger European community has to stand behind the European project.”
Asked whether the US would be able to lower carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade system as Australia is undertaking, he conceded the US has been unable to pass such a plan through Congress, but noted US efforts to increase vehicle fuel efficiency and to explore clear energy options. He said emerging economies such as India and China must also assume responsibility for addressing climate change.
For Mr Obama and Australia, it is third time lucky. He cancelled two earlier visits, once to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his healthcare Bill, and again in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I was determined to come for a simple reason: the United States of America has no stronger ally than Australia,” he said.
His arrival in Australia followed a 10-hour flight from Honolulu which took him across the international dateline.
The travelling appeared to being taking a slight toll on the president, who admitted he was having trouble keeping up with the time change.
“I’m trying to figure out what time zone I’m in here,” he said.