As the U.S. reduces its military presence in the Middle East, it is sharpening its focus on the Asia-Pacific – a major shift that will shape the U.S.’s foreign policy agenda in the coming years. President Obama made this much clear during his visit to Australia this week with his announcement that the U.S. would deploy 2,500 troops to the country by 2016 – which has put China in an uncomfortable position.
“With most of the world’s nuclear powers and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress,” Obama said in a speech to Canberra’s Parliament Thursday in Australia.
While the President affirmed a continuation of the U.S.’s strong alliance with Australia, he offered careful words over the future of the U.S.-Sino relationship, indicating that while the U.S. welcomes “the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China,” it would keep a watchful eye on China as the region’s dominant power.
“We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation,” President Obama said. “We will do this, even as continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”
Plans to strengthen American military presence in the region have perturbed China, whose increasing strength has already been reshaping the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. troops remain stationed at military bases in Japan –a highly contentious subject for many Japanese citizens – and South Korea, and an added military presence in Australia has already evoked fears of “encirclement” in Beijing.
Although the Chinese government has not expressed a strong reaction to Obama’s decision publicly, there are several indications of dismay. An editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper owned by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, declared, “The U.S. is carrying out smart power diplomacy that takes China as its target in Asia. Stopping it is not realistic, but it is equally unrealistic to expect China to stand idly by and indulge Asian countries as they join the U.S. alliance to guard against China one by one.”
China’s economic and military prowess has made it a formidable player in regional politics, notably in the currently brewing territorial disputes over access to the South China Sea. China has laid to claim to vast areas of the resource-rich South China Sea, but several others – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – have also made sovereignty claims. The region’s inability to resolve this question of sovereignty has resulted in naval flare-ups in recent months, despite the U.S. urging all parties to seek a peaceful resolution.
In his speech, President Obama also emphasized that the current debate over cutting the Pentagon’s budget would not have an effect on the U.S.’s plans to expand its presence in the region. “Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.