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Obama in Australia: US reasserts Pacific role with eye on rising China

President Obama in Australia today pledged to boost the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The significant strategic shift is popular with regional governments wary of China's rise.

By Kathy MarksCorrespondent / November 17, 2011

President Barack Obama waves to the troops after speaking at the Royal Australian Air Force Base in Darwin, Australia, Thursday, Nov. 17.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Sydney, Australia

The planned expansion of the US military presence in Australia underlines US determination to counter China’s growing economic and military might in the Asia-Pacific – and highlights the growing strategic importance of long-time ally Australia, analysts say.

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In a speech to the Australian parliament in Canberra Thursday, President Obama  – who later flew on to Bali to attend the East Asia Summit – declared the region “a top priority.” He told politicians: “As a result, reductions in US defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.”

The agreement between Washington and Canberra, which comes on the 60th anniversary of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (or ANZUS) defense treaty, will see Marines, naval ships, and aircraft deployed to northern Australia next year. While the eventual task force of 2,500 troops will be relatively small, US defense officials say the location will provide easier access to the South China Sea, a vital shipping route, and an area where China is embroiled in sovereignty and territorial disputes. 

Significant shift in policy

Security analysts say that – with the US withdrawing from Iraq and “drawing down” its presence in Afghanistan – the Australian plan reflects a strategic foreign policy pivot away from the Middle East and the war on terror toward Asia, where China appears to be seeking a more dominant role.

Alan Dupont, director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, describes the refocusing of priorities as  “the most significant shift in US strategy since the cold war.”

Professor Dupont believes the US also wants to disperse its forces more widely across the Asia-Pacific – in particular, away from Japan and the US territory of Guam, which are within range of the new generation of Chinese ballistic missiles. There are 50,000 American troops stationed at the Okinawa base in Japan and 28,000 in South Korea.

The Australia and US relationship 

Australia has been one of Washington’s most dependable allies, sending troops to every major conflict in which the US has fought over the past century. Until recently, though, it was regarded as geographically peripheral, experts say. With the shifting power balance in the Asia-Pacific, that is changing.

Obama is the fourth successive president to travel here, which may reflect the country’s growing importance. Before George H. W. Bush visited in 1991, 25 years had elapsed since Australia welcomed a US president, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1966.

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