U.S. Expands Military Ties to Australia, Irritating China

The agreement with Australia amounts to the first long-term expansion of the American military’s presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. It comes despite budget cuts facing the Pentagon and an increasingly worried reaction from Chinese leaders, who have argued that the United States is seeking to encircle China militarily and economically.

“It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region,” Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in response to the announcement by Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia.

In an address to the Australian Parliament on Thursday morning, Mr. Obama said he had “made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

The president said the moves were not intended to isolate China, but they were an unmistakable sign that the United States had grown warier of its intentions.

China has invested heavily in military modernization and has begun to deploy long-range aircraft and a more able deep-sea naval force, and it has asserted territorial claims to disputed islands that would give it broad sway over oil and gas rights in the East and South China Seas.

While the new military commitment is relatively modest, Mr. Obama has promoted it as the cornerstone of a strategy to confront more directly the challenge posed by China’s rapid advance as an economic and military power. He has also made some progress in creating a new Pacific free-trade zone that would give America’s free-market allies in the region some trading privileges that do not immediately extend to China.

Mr. Obama described the deployment as responding to the wishes of democratic allies in the region, from Japan to India. Some allies have expressed concerns that the United States, facing war fatigue and a slackened economy, will cede its leadership role to China.

The president said budget-cutting in Washington — and the inevitable squeeze on military spending — would not inhibit his ability to follow through. Defense cuts “will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

Some analysts in China and elsewhere say they fear that the moves could backfire, risking a cold war-style standoff with China.

“I don’t think they’re going to be very happy,” said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based senior researcher at the National Bureau of Asian Research, who said the new policy was months in the making. “I’m not optimistic in the long run as to how this is going to wind up.”

The president is to fly north across the continent to Darwin, a frontier port and military outpost across the Timor Sea from Indonesia, which will be the center of operations for the coming deployment. The first 200 to 250 Marines will arrive next year, with forces rotating in and out and eventually building up to 2,500, the two leaders said.

The United States will not build new bases on the continent, but will use Australian facilities instead. Mr. Obama said that Marines would rotate through for joint training and exercises with Australians, and the American Air Force would have increased access to airfields in the nation’s Northern Territory.

“We’re going to be in a position to more effectively strengthen the security of both of our nations and this region,” he said.

The United States has had military bases and large forces in Japan and South Korea, in the north Pacific, since the end of World War II, but its presence in Southeast Asia was greatly diminished in the early 1990s with the closing of major bases in the Philippines, at Clark Field and Subic Bay. The new arrangement with Australia will restore a substantial American footprint near the South China Sea, a major commercial route — including for American exports — that has been roiled by China’s disputed claims of control.

The United States and other Pacific Rim nations are also negotiating to create a free-trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would not initially include China, the world’s largest exporter and producer of manufactured goods. NYT