U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard have announced a new agreement to expand the U.S. military presence in Australia.
The move is related to a newly announced foreign policy focus from Washington -- the creation of a "trans-Pacific system" for Asia based on the U.S. trans-Atlantic partnership with Europe.
Along with plans to deploy military ships to Singapore, the move also reflects concerns about China's growing military strength in the region.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Canberra on November 16, Obama and Gillard said up to 250 U.S. Marines would be posted in northern Australia beginning next year, with their number growing to 2,500 within five years. Obama said the decision was a commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region.
"We are two Pacific nations and with my visit to the region I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific," Obama said.
The agreement does not include a permanent U.S. base in Australia. But it means there will be more U.S. troops transiting through Australia, where they have closer access to the South China Sea than current U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea.
"Our U.S. Marines will begin rotating through Darwin for joint training and exercises. Our air force will rotate additional aircraft through more airfields in northern Australia," Obama said.
"These rotations, which are going to be taking place on Australian bases, will bring our militaries even closer and make them even more effective."
China questioned the plan, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin saying the U.S. deployment "may not be quite appropriate" and "may not be in the interest of countries within the region."
South China Claims
In Manila -- which was also marking the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington wanted a candid discussion about the South China Sea dispute later this week during a summit in Bali.
"The United States does not take a position on any territorial claim because any nation with a claim has a right to assert it. But they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion," Clinton said. "They should be following international law, the rule of law, the UN Convention on Law of the Seas."
Clinton said disputes in the sea lanes should be resolved through the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines rules on how countries can use the world's oceans and their resources.
"We further seek to see the Law of the Sea used as the overriding framework for handling territorial disputes. So we expect that there will be such a frank discussion," she added. "We have been heartened by the strong response by a number of the countries that are part of ASEAN and part of the broader East Asia Summit."
Washington's position could embolden other Southeast Asian countries to stand up to China, which has said it would not submit to international arbitration over competing claims to the area.
China Must 'Play By The Rules'
China says it has historical sovereignty over the South China Sea and so that supersedes claims of other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
China also says it does not want the issue discussed, putting it at odds with the United States once again after they exchanged criticism on trade and currency policies at last week's meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii.
Obama said the United States did not fear China nor want to exclude China. But he said the future of the entire Asia-Pacific region depended on "robust trade and commerce," and that the only way to advance trade was if there is "a high-standards trade agreement where everybody is playing by the same rules."
"The main message that I've [sent] not only publicly but also privately to China is that with their rise comes increased responsibility," Obama said. "It is important for them to play by the rules of the road."
Obama's visit to Australia follows the announcement last week by Clinton of a shift in emphasis in U.S. foreign policy
that includes what she described as a "trans-Pacific system" for Asia.
Australia is a staunch U.S. ally, and Obama's trip is timed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS military alliance, which is the cornerstone of Australia's defense strategy.
Obama is due to address Australia's parliament on November 17, when he also is expected to focus on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
compiled from agency reports