Barack Obama Says Asia-Pacific is ‘Top US Priority’

Signaling a determination to counter a rising China, President Barack Obama vowed Thursday to expand U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region and “project power and deter threats to peace” in that part of the world even as he reduces defense spending and winds down two wars.

President Barack Obama waves to people in the gallery after addressing the Australian Parliament in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Nov.17, 2011. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House

President Barack Obama has vowed to expand US influence in the Asia-Pacific region and “project power and deter threats to peace”, even as he reduces defence spending and winds down two wars.

“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” he declared in a speech to the Australian parliament, sending an unmistakable message to Beijing.

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

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

“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 U.S. defense 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.”

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.

Obama’s speech came the day after he announced he would send military aircraft and up to 2,500 marines to northern Australia for a training hub to help allies and protect American interests across Asia. He declared the US was not afraid of China, by far the biggest and most powerful country in the region.

Emphasizing that a U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region is a top priority of his administration, Obama stressed that any reductions in U.S. defense spending will not come at the expense of that goal.

“Let there be no doubt: in the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in,” he said.

While stressing his intent to increase influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Obama avoided a confrontational tone with China in his speech to the Australian parliament.

“We’ve seen that China can be a partner, from reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula to preventing proliferation,” he said. “We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation.”

In a note of caution, however, the president added: ” We will do this, even as continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”

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’s visit to Australia is intended to show the tightness of the relationship and he hailed the long ties between the US and Australia.

“From the trenches of the first world war to the mountains of Afghanistan Aussies and Americans have stood together, fought together and given their lives together in every single major conflict of the past hundred years. Every single one,” he said.

About 250 U.S. Marines will begin a rotation in northern Australia starting next year, with a full force of 2,500 military personnel staffing up over the next several years.

The United States will bear the cost of the deployment and the troops will be shifted from other deployments around the world. Having ruled out military reductions in Asia and the Pacific, the Obama administration has three main areas where it could cut troop strength: Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.

Australia’s Gillard said, “We are a region that is growing economically. But stability is important for economic growth, too.” She said that “our alliance has been a bedrock of stability in our region.”

Obama’s visit is intended to show the tightness of that relationship and he hailed the long ties between the United States and Australia, two nations far away that have spilled blood together. [via Reuters, Guardian and MSN]

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