x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Obama: US-Australian defence pact is not about fear

Beijing is concerned that US moves to expand its marine presence and aircraft operations in Australia are aimed at encircling it militarily.

CANBERRA // The US president, Barack Obama, insisted yesterday that the United States does not fear China, but unveiled a security agreement with Australia that is widely viewed as a response to Beijing's growing aggressiveness.

China responded swiftly, warning that an expanded US military footprint in Australia may not be appropriate and deserved greater scrutiny.

The agreement, announced during a joint news conference with the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, will expand the US military presence in Australia, positioning more US personnel and equipment there, and increasing American access to bases. About 250 US marines will begin a rotation in northern Australia starting next year, with a full force of 2,500 military personnel building up over the next several years.

"It is appropriate for us to make sure ... that the security architecture for the region is updated for the 21st century and this initiative is going to allow us to do that," Mr Obama said.

He stressed it was not an attempt to isolate China, which is concerned that Washington is trying to encircle it with bases in Japan and South Korea and now troops in Australia.

"The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken," he said.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, said global financial difficulties had driven home the need for greater international cooperation. In light of those difficulties, Mr Liu said it was worth discussing whether the US plan to deploy marines in northern Australia is in line with the common interests of the international community.

Mr Obama's national security aide, Ben Rhodes, said the agreement was not only appropriate, but also a response to the demand from nations in the region that have signalled they want the US to be present.

Ms Gillard has insisted it was possible for her country to have "an ally in the US and to have deep friendship in our region, including with China".

Yet the Global Times, a newspaper linked to the Communist Party's People's Daily, yesterday dismissed Ms Gillard's words as "merely diplomatic parlance".

"Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached no matter what Australia does to undermine its security," the newspaper said in an editorial.

If Australia "uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests", then it will "be caught in the crossfire".

The Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency accused the US of an "aggressive step venturing into Asia" that was "a hindrance" to US allies in the region.

Xinhua said the United States had "yet to reassure the region its Asia-Pacific policy would effectively serve regional stability and prosperity".

"Obama, whose job approval rating continues to slip, seems to be staking his reelection on high-profile diplomatic ambitions in Asia Pacific, as he is failing to bring America's slack economy back to the path of strong growth in his first term," it said in a commentary.

Some in China see the latest US initiative as part of ongoing efforts by the US to "line up countries of the same values - Japan, South Korea, Australia and so on - to contain China", said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"Certainly in the eyes of China, the US, the Obama administration, has been setting up its return to Asia strategically," he said.

Yet, despite the rhetoric yesterday from the Chinese state media, Mr Cheng said the Beijing authorities "understand the Australian government doesn't want to choose between China and the US".

"The Australian economy is very dependent on China," he said.

The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has said that the goal of the new security pact is to signal that the US and Australia will stick together in face of any threats.

In addition to the expanded marine presence, more US aircraft will rotate through Australia as part of an agreement between each nation's air force.

Mr Obama and Ms Gillard said the increased air presence would allow the US and Australia to more effectively respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the region.

Mr Rhodes said the US military boost would amount to a "sustained US presence". He distinguished that from a permanent presence in that US forces will use Australian facilities, as opposed to building its own bases, as it has in South Korea.

The only American base in Australia is the secretive joint Australia-US intelligence and communications complex at Pine Gap in central Australia. But there are hundreds of US service personnel in Australia on exchange visits.

* Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse

The National correspondent Daniel Bardsley contributed to this report from Beijing