Obama tells Asia, US ‘here to stay’

(Reuters) ― President Barack Obama said today that the US military would expand its role in the Asia-Pacific region despite budget cuts, declaring America was “here to stay” as a Pacific power which would help shape the region’s future.

China voiced misgivings about Obama’s announcement of a de facto military base in Australia and has longstanding fears that its growing power could be hobbled by US influence.

Obama acknowledged China’s unease at what it sees as attempts by Washington to encircle it, pledging to seek greater cooperation with Beijing.

The US military, turning its focus away from Iraq and Afghanistan, would be more broadly distributed in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, more flexible and help build regional capacity, he told the Australian parliament.

“As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority,” Obama said in a major speech on Washington’s vision for the Asia-Pacific region.

“As a result, reductions in US defence spending will not ― I repeat, will not ― come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.”

He added: “We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation.”

Nervous about China’s growing clout, US allies such as Japan and South Korea have sought assurances from the United States that it would be a strong counterweight in the region.

A first step in extending the US military reach into Southeast Asia will see US Marines, naval ships and aircraft deployed to northern Australia from 2012.

That deployment to Australia, which by 2016 will reach a taskforce of 2,500 US troops, is small compared with the 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.

But the new de facto US base in Australia expands the direct US military presence in Asia, beyond South Korea and Japan and into Southeast Asia, an area where China has growing economic and strategic interests.

It will also put more US troops, ships and aircraft much closer to the South China Sea over which Beijing has sovereignty disputes with several countries.

China questions US deployment to Australia

China has questioned the new US deployment, raising doubts whether strengthening such alliances helped the region pull together at a time of economic gloom.

Chinese newspapers today ran reactions ranging from restrained to stern. One said Beijing need not worry but another accused Washington of stirring regional trouble.

Indonesia, southeast Asia’s largest country and long wary of any expanded foreign military presence in the region, also warned that Australia deal came with risks.

“What I would hate to see is if such developments were to provoke a reaction and counter-reaction precisely to create a vicious circle of tension and mistrust or distrust,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters.

Obama said the United States would seek to work with China to ensure economic prosperity and security in the region, but would speak candidly about issues such as human rights and raise security issues like the South China Sea through which US$5 trillion (RM 15.8 trillion) in trade sails annually.

China has broad claims over the sea, also rich in oil, minerals and fishery resources. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei hold rival claims that have triggered several disputes in recent years.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly visited the Philippines yesterday, saying that no claimant should resort to intimidation to push its cause.

Obama also referred in his address to reforms undertaken by Myanmar’s new civilian leaders, including the release of political prisoners. But he said they had to do more on human rights in order to secure better relations with Washington.

Essential for US economy

Obama said the increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region was essential for America’s economic future.

“As the world’s fastest-growing region – and home to more than half the global economy – the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority: creating jobs and opportunity for the American people,” he said.

In 2010, China was ASEAN’s biggest trade partner, while ASEAN was China’s fourth largest. ASEAN exports to China rose 39 per cent to US$113.5 billion last year. In comparison, the United States and ASEAN remain each other’s fourth largest trading partners.

US foreign direct investment to ASEAN was US$7.5 billion in 2010, accounting for 12.6 per cent of total FDI in the region, compared with Chinese investment of US$2.7 billion.

Yesterday, Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the deployment of US Marines, ships and aircraft in Darwin, only 820km from Indonesia, which will allow the United States to quickly reach into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Today, Obama also cited increased US naval ship visits and training in the Philippines and Singapore, working with Indonesia to fight piracy, partnering Thailand for disaster relief and India’s role in regional security.

He flies to Bali late today, where he will seek to underscore a focus on Asia by becoming the first US president to participate in the security East Asia Summit.