As U.S. Looks to Asia, It Sees China Everywhere

So it was with considerable symbolism that President Obama arrived on Wednesday in Canberra, Australia’s capital, for a trip that will include an announcement that the United States plans to use Darwin as a new center of operations in Asia as it seeks to reassert itself in the region and grapple with China’s rise.

The United States is taking some first steps — bold in rhetoric, still mostly modest in practice — to prove to its Asian allies that it intends to remain a crucial military and economic power in the region as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close. The new Australian base, coming after decades in which the Pentagon has been slowly but steadily reducing its troop presence in Asia, puts American planes and ships closer to trading corridors in the South China Sea, where some traditional American allies worry that China is trying to flex its military muscle.

Over the past year and a half, China has moved to assert territorial claims in the resource-rich but hotly contested waters near the Philippines and Vietnam. Many of the region’s smaller countries have asked Washington to re-engage in the region as a counterweight.

“The U.S. needs to show the Chinese that they still have the power to overwhelm them, that they still can prevail if something really wrong happens,” said Huang Jing, a foreign affairs analyst and visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. “It’s a hedging policy.”

For the United States, the more muscular approach toward China has far-reaching implications, not just geopolitically but also economically. With Republicans at home calling for punitive measures against China for its currency and trade practices, Mr. Obama wants to appear strong in pressing Beijing. He made headway on an ambitious American plan to create a Pacific free trade zone, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that, for now, would not include China.

For the Pentagon, which faces sweeping budget cuts in Congress, shifting its focus toward Asia provides a strong argument against cutting back its naval presence in the Pacific — something that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta explicitly ruled out in a recent visit to the region. He and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have been prime proponents of the emphasis on Asia, with Mrs. Clinton shoring up old alliances, like those with Japan and South Korea, and cultivating new partners, like India and Indonesia.

Inside the White House, that emphasis has been reinforced by the president’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, who has argued that the United States needs to “rebalance” its strategic emphasis, from the combat theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan toward Asia, where he contends that Washington has put too few resources in recent years, because of its preoccupation with the two wars.

China has become the largest trading partner with most of the countries in the region, undercutting American economic influence. It also is projecting military power more broadly than at any other time in modern history. Its true military budget is not made public, but experts say it has at least tripled over the past decade, allowing China to strengthen a relatively weak maritime presence by building more modern ships that can operate with greater range and arming its first aircraft carrier. It has shown off what appears to be new stealth aircraft and has bought advanced weapons from Russia.

United States military spending remains many times larger than analysts’ projections of China’s real military budget, but much of that has been sucked into the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. Further, the Obama administration has committed to cutting $400 billion over 10 years, and budget battles may result in further cuts.

The American situation widens the opening for a more assertive China.

Earlier last year, Chinese officials warned administration officials visiting Beijing that China would not tolerate any interference in the region. This year, Chinese ships or planes began taking more forceful action. Officials in the Philippines say Chinese forces entered Philippine waters or airspace six times, including once when a Chinese frigate fired in the direction of a Philippine fishing boat. Vietnam has reported that Chinese ships cut the cables of two exploration ships carrying out seismic surveys. NYT