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Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama pledged that U.S. troops to be stationed from next year in Australia’s northernmost city will help ensure Asia-Pacific security, as the U.S. moves to blunt China’s expanding influence.
“This region has some of the busiest sea lanes in the world which are critical to all our economies,” Obama said today in Darwin, Australia. “Going forward our purpose is the same that it was 60 years ago: preservation of peace and security.”
The city will become home to joint military training exercises as part of what Obama earlier today called a “deliberate and strategic decision” to secure a long-term American role in an area that accounts for half the world’s economy. Obama is seeking to allay concerns the U.S. won’t be able to check China’s rising military and economic influence because of domestic budget constraints.
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 developing natural gas fields off the northern coast over the next decade. China, the world’s most populous nation, 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 a 25-minute parliamentary address in the capital of Canberra earlier today, Obama said the U.S. is “a Pacific power and we are here to stay” regardless of spending constraints.
His trip comes as a special Congressional committee closes 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.”
U.S. Marines will be stationed in northern Australia under the plan that Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced yesterday. The troops will be deployed on a six-month rotation, starting with 250 personnel and eventually expanding to as many as 2,500. The two leaders also agreed to increase more cooperation between the U.S. and Australian Air Forces.
‘Back You Up’
“Doing this with Gillard is a way to tell everyone in Asia ‘look, the U.S. is in town and the U.S. will back you up if you need to be backed up,’” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “This is part of the entire process of strengthening relationships against China.”
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 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 today.
Justin Tutty, a member of the group, said he’s concerned about possible social conflicts related to American 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 the Second World War and 91 U.S. Navy personnel were killed during Japan’s Feb. 19, 1942 raid on Darwin.
Obama pledged that the U.S. is committed to defending South Korea and reiterated his call for North Korea to abandon its atomic weapons program. 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 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.
Obama, who 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, kept to those themes today.
“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. “We will do this, even as we continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”
The defense initiative with Australia will anchor an American presence in the western Pacific that can help safeguard sea lanes that carry more than $5 trillion of commerce, about $1.2 trillion of it U.S. 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. The issue will be part of a discussion on maritime security at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Obama’s next stop.
He will meet with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bali tomorrow, where leaders will decide whether to endorse Myanmar’s bid to chair the regional meetings in 2014.
--With assistance from Margaret Talev in Canberra and Benjamin Purvis in Sydney. Editors: John Brinsley, Patrick Harrington
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