Announcing a new U.S. troop deployment widely viewed as a counterweight to China, President Obama told the Australian parliament Wednesday that pending cuts in U.S. defense spending “will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.”
“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” Mr. Obama said in Australia’s capital, Canberra. “We will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region. We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace.”
Mr. Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that a contingent of U.S. Marines will be deployed at an existing Australian military base in the northern city of Darwin beginning next year. The Marine Air Ground Task Force at Darwin will begin with 250 Marines, build up to 2,500 over a period of several years and include increased rotations of U.S. aircraft.
The president is under pressure at home from Congress and Republican presidential candidates to get tough with China. Mr. Obama tried to reassure Australia and other Pacific nations that America’s trillion-dollar budget deficits won’t affect the U.S. commitment to the region as China expands its reach.
A day before Mr. Obama spoke, the U.S. Treasury Department said the federal government’s debt surpassed $15 trillion. Yet Mr. Obama maintained in his speech to Australians, “We are reducing our spending.”
“After a decade of extraordinary growth in our military budgets — and as we definitively end the war in Iraq, and begin to wind down the war in Afghanistan — we will make some reductions,” Mr. Obama acknowledged, while adding that he has directed his national security team “to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority.”
China immediately expressed wariness about an expanded U.S. military presence in Australia, saying it might not be appropriate. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Wednesday that China questions whether the move is consistent with the common interests of the international community.
But Ben Rhodes, a national security aide to Mr. Obama, said the troop deployment is “perfectly appropriate,” noting that the U.S. military in recent years has had a robust presence in combating terrorism in the Philippines, confronting piracy in the region and providing humanitarian aid to tsunami victims.
“The nations of the region have signaled they want the U.S. to be present,” Mr. Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president.
The U.S. and smaller Asian nations are increasingly concerned about China expanding its military and economic reach over international waters, particularly the energy-rich South China Sea.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that the announcement is “very important” to protecting U.S. interests in the region.
“It’s very important because of the rising challenge of China and the need for us to shift our attention to the Asia-Pacific region as the world’s economy heads in that direction, and we see the increase in militarization of China,” Mr. McCain said.
The visit was Mr. Obama’s first to Australia as president, having canceled two previous trips — once to guide his health care bill through Congress, and a second time in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president will travel from Canberra to Darwin on his way to an Asian summit in Bali, Indonesia.