BEIJING // China has been told by the United States to act as a "responsible player" in the Asia-Pacific, as analysts said Beijing is apprehensive about Washington's growing interest in the region.
This week, the US has strengthened defence links with Australia by pledging to hold more joint military exercises and make frequent use of Australian bases and ports, amid disquiet in the region about an increasingly assertive China.
It comes as the US president, Barack Obama, continues his tour through four Asian countries - but not China. During his visit to India, Mr Obama has emphasised the growing economic importance of Asia to a United States struggling to emerge from the global recession. China's rise is likely to be included in discussions as he travels to Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.
Yesterday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said during a news conference in Melbourne that China should act as a team player.
"As China becomes more of a player in regional and global affairs, then we expect that China will be a responsible player and will participate in the international framework of rules that govern the way nations behave and conduct themselves," she said.
Writing in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, Mrs Clinton and the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said Asia presented "a new and complex mix of challenges", including "the emergence of rising powers", a likely reference to China, as well as terrorism and piracy.
"As a Pacific nation, the US is committed to meeting these challenges and defending our interests in Asia," they said.
"Our future will continue to be tied to Asia's success. This is one reason we are enhancing our defence presence and posture in the Pacific, including the modernisation of our basing arrangements and our air, naval and missile defence capabilities."
While earlier Mr Gates insisted that strengthened military ties with Australia "isn't about China at all", many observers took a different view.
"It's being done to reassure people the US is not leaving the region - subtext China," said Carl Thayer, a professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
He said Australia would likely be warned by Beijing that it should balance ties with the US with its links with China.
"Privately, China will probably pass the message Australia has great economic interests with China and it should be careful," he said.
"China has major economic interests in Australian resources. We need that for our wealth and prosperity.
"We'll constantly get these pressures from China - when they see any light between the US and Australia, they play on it."
Beijing has caused alarm among smaller nations in the region. Recently it had a dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea and it refused to condemn North Korea for its suspected involvement in the sinking of a South Korean ship. Also, China criticised joint South Korean-US naval exercises and it continues to have disputes with several South-east Asian nations over the South China Sea.
Washington and Canberra have the same concerns about a rising Beijing, even though Australia's economy is closely tied to China, said Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, so increasing defence co-operation was "no surprise".
"Both countries share the same threat perception," he said.
However, Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor and associate head of the department of Asian and international studies at the City University of Hong Kong, said this week's developments should not be seen solely as a response to China's rise. He said they resulted from Australian policies dating back to the 1980s, adding that much of the focus of the greater US presence was on humanitarian disaster relief.
Mrs Clinton yesterday insisted the US was committed to the region in the long term, saying "if there were any question or doubt about our intentions, I hope that the last 20 months of the Obama administration has put those finally to rest".
Indeed Mr Thomas said it was "a long time" since the Asia-Pacific had seen "such a level of commitment to the region" from Washington.
"The US has been seeking for the last six to eight years to re-engage with the region. Part of that is no doubt due to China's growing influence, but also due to America's recognition of the importance of the region," he said.
Nonetheless, he said that Asian countries with concerns about China would welcome a stronger US role in the region, especially as it may safeguard shipping lanes vital for trade.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse