CANBERRA, Australia — President Barack Obama insisted Wednesday that the notion that the United States fears China or wants to exclude the growing power from American economic alliances in the Asia-Pacific region is mistaken. But he said the United States will keep sending a clear message that China needs to accept the responsibilities that come with being a world power. “It’s important for them to play by the rules of the road,” Obama said during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Obama and Gillard announced a joint security pact that would increase U.S. military presence in Australia, a move widely viewed as an attempt to address China’s growing aggressiveness in the region. About 250 U.S. Marines will begin a rotation in northern Australia starting next year, with a full force of 2,500 military personnel staffing up over the next several years. “This rotational deployment is significant because what it allows us to do is to not only build capacity and cooperation between our two countries, but it also allows us to meet the demands of a lot of partners in the region that want to feel that they’re getting the training, they’re getting the exercises, and that we have the presence that’s necessary to maintain the security architecture in the region,” Obama said.
Officials in both countries have emphasized that the agreement does not create a permanent U.S. presence or military base in Australia.
Obama sidestepped questions about whether the security agreement was a direct attempt to counter China’s growing military aggressiveness. The U.S. and smaller Asian nations have grown increasingly concerned about China claiming dominion over vast areas of the Pacific that the U.S. considers international waters, and reigniting old territorial disputes, including confrontations over the South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the goal is to signal that the U.S. and Australia will stick together in face of any threats. China’s defense spending has increased threefold since the 1990’s to about $160 billion last year, and its military has recently tested a new stealth jet fighter and launched its first aircraft carrier. Obama arrived in Australia Wednesday afternoon following the Asia-Pacific economic summit he hosted in Hawaii last week. A central part of the summit was an agreement for a transpacific trade bloc that includes eight countries in addition to the United States.
The agreement sets standard rules for commerce. Obama said that while the U.S. is not intentionally excluding China from the agreement, joining the pact with require Beijing “to rethink some of its approaches to trade.”
The U.S. has accused China of undervaluing its currency to Chinese exports cheaper and U.S. exports to China more expensive. China had a $273 billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year and U.S. lawmakers say the imbalance hurts American manufacturers while taking away American jobs. U.S. officials have also pressed China to end unfair discrimination against the U.S. and other foreign countries and to end to measures that undercut its intellectual property.
During Wednesday’s brief news conference, Obama and Gillard also fielded questions on a range of issues, from U.S. efforts to address climate change to the debt crisis in Europe. Obama reiterated his call for urgent action by European leaders to back the euro and develop a financial firewall to keep the threat of default facing Greece and Italy from spreading across the Eurozone. “The problem right now is one of political will, it’s not a technical problem,” Obama said. “At this point, the larger European community has to stand behind the European project.”
Asked whether the U.S. would be able to lower carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade system as Australia is undertaking, Obama conceded the U.S. has been unable to pass such a plan through Congress, but noted U.S. efforts to increase vehicle fuel efficiency and to explore clear energy options. He said emerging economies such as India and China must also assume responsibility for addressing climate change. For Obama and Australia, the third time’s the charm. He canceled two earlier visits, once to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care bill, and again in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “I was determined to come for a simple reason: The United States of America has no stronger ally than Australia,” he said.
Obama arrived in Australia’s capital Wednesday afternoon following a 10-hour flight from Honolulu that took him across the international dateline. The extensive travel appeared to being taking a slight toll on the president, who admitted he was having trouble keeping up with the time change. “I’m trying to figure out what time zone I’m in here,” he said.