Obama Says U.S. Presence a Crucial Part of Pacific Security

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama said, “This region has some of the busiest sea lanes in the world which are critical to all our economies.” Photographer: Rick Rycroft/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama said the U.S. troops that will be stationed in Australia’s northernmost city will help ensure the security of vital sea lanes, as the U.S. moves to blunt China’s expanding influence.

Commercial traffic through the area is “critical to all our economies,” Obama said yesterday in Darwin, Australia. “Going forward our purpose is the same that it was 60 years ago: preservation of peace and security.”

The initiative will anchor an American presence in the western Pacific that can help safeguard the flow of more than $5 trillion of commerce, about $1.2 trillion of it U.S. trade. Maritime security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea will be part of the discussion at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, where Obama arrived last night.

In addition to its value for trade, Chinese studies cited by the U.S. Energy Information Agency in 2008 said the South China Sea could hold 213 billion barrels of oil. While the sea borders several countries, China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of it, including oil and gas fields.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is not an appropriate forum to discuss the South China Sea dispute.

Asean is not a party to the dispute, which should be solved bilaterally between nations, not in a multilateral way, Liu told a briefing in Beijing.

Asean Meeting

Obama is meeting with the 10-member Asean in Bali, where leaders also will decide whether to endorse Myanmar’s bid to chair the regional meetings in 2014.

China’s foreign ministry reacted coolly to the U.S.- Australia defense arrangement, saying the agreements needed to be studied to assess their benefit for the region.

U.S. Marines will be stationed in northern Australia under the plan announced by Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The troops will be deployed on a six-month rotation, starting with 250 personnel and eventually expanding to as many as 2,500.

Darwin will become home to joint military training exercises as part of what Obama called a “deliberate and strategic decision” to secure a long-term U.S. role in an area that accounts for half the world’s economy.

“This is part of the entire process of strengthening relationships against China,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

China and U.S.

Obama has spent the past week pressing China on security and economic issues while saying U.S. moves on defense and trade aren’t meant to isolate it.

“All of our nations have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China -- and that is why the United States welcomes it,” Obama said in an address to Australia’s Parliament yesterday.

Darwin, the first Australian city to be bombed by Japan in World War II, is a growing energy hub with companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Total SA and ConocoPhillips planning to spend more than A$150 billion (about $151 billion in U.S. dollars) developing natural gas fields off the northern coast over the next decade. China, the world’s most populous nation and its second-biggest economy, is seeking natural resources in the region to fuel its economic growth.

“Darwin has been a hub moving out aid, caring for victims, making sure we do right by the people of this region, and that is what we are going to keep doing,” Obama said in remarks to U.S. and Australian troops in Darwin.

Impact in Darwin

Australia’s Northern Territory is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world with 0.2 people per square kilometer, compared with Alaska’s ratio of 1.04. It takes as long to fly from Sydney to Darwin as it does to fly from Darwin to Singapore.

The additional U.S. military presence will mean a “direct economic benefit” to the region, the territory’s chief minister, Paul Henderson, said in a Nov. 16 interview.

Not everyone is convinced that those benefits are worth the problems that may come with a greater U.S. military exposure. Darwin Residents Against War, a group formed in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, protested the agreement outside Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, today.

Justin Tutty, a member of the group, said he was concerned about possible social conflicts related to U.S. troops.

“It’s good to have a good economy,” said Tutty, a 39-year-old software engineer. “It’s better to have a safe place for kids to grow up.”

The U.S. helped defend Australia during World War II and 91 U.S. Navy personnel were killed during Japan’s Feb. 19, 1942, raid on Darwin.

Maintaining Defense

While in Australia, Obama sought to dismiss concerns that efforts to shrink U.S. debt would lead to cutbacks in the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

In his 25-minute address to Parliament yesterday, Obama said the U.S. is “a Pacific power and we are here to stay” regardless of spending constraints.

A special congressional committee is closing in on a Nov. 23 deadline to come up with a plan to trim the U.S. budget deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade. Failure to act this year would force $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts beginning in 2013, including $500 billion from the defense budget over 10 years. That would be on top of about $450 billion in Pentagon cuts already planned in the next decade.

“Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” Obama told Parliament. “We will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.”

He said engagement in the region is “critical” for creating American jobs.

The U.S. this year has exported more to the Pacific Rim than to Europe. Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years, to $3.14 trillion a year by the end of 2014.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit he hosted in Hawaii last weekend, Obama announced that the U.S., Australia and seven other nations will form a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord within a year, in what would be the biggest U.S. deal since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE