Obama's priority shift in Asia Pacific
The economic power is gradually shifting to Asia and this has been clearly demonstrated by the fact that the European Union is desperate for China's help to tackle the euro zone debt crisis.
Recently the EU also dispatched Klaus Regling, head of the European Financial Stability Fund, to Beijing to try and secure Chinese funding. France's defence minister, Gerard Longuet, welcomed a Chinese role in Europe's crisis, saying on French radio, "They have money, we need it."
Given the above background, it is no surprise that President Obama has given high priority to Asia Pacific region and during his address at the Australia's parliament on 17th November, President Barack Obama said "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay" Obama said the US diplomatic focus would now shift from the war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan to economic and security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.
The President said that as the US ends its military involvement in Iraq and winds down operations in Afghanistan there would be some reductions in defense spending but he is also committed to maintain America's influence in the Asia-Pacific region and "project power and deter threats to peace" in that part of the world.
Obama said, "As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in US defence spending will not - I repeat, will not - come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific."
"As the world's fastest-growing region and home to more than half the global economy -the Asia-Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority and that is creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. 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," Obama said.
Obama's address to the Parliament in Canberra came a day after announcing that the U.S. would deploy military aircraft and up to 2,500 Marines to northern Australia, a move seen by regional analysts as sending an unmistakable message to China.
From Australia, Obama was the first US President to attend the annual East Asia Summit on 18th November in Bali, a move some countries in the region have welcomed as a counter to China's growing assertiveness in South China Sea which is rich in natural resources such as oil and natural gas. These resources have garnered attention throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
In South China Sea, China has claims over the Spratly Islands, disputed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines and Taiwan and has disputes over the Paracel Islands with Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Island groups also straddle busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China's fast-expanding economy. China wants to control the navigation and sea lines of communication in the South China Sea for its strategic purpose. In peace-time, these ocean routes serve as commercial trade routes; in war-time, they become strategic lines of communication.
After skirmishes between China and the Philippines this year in the contested maritime area, the temperature has been raised further by the US-Australia defence deal, a US offer of a new warship for the Philippines.
Although Obama said that the US-Australia deal was not directed against China, according to BBC, the message is that America has grown warier of Chinese intentions and is ensuring it is strategically poised to project power over the vital trade routes that pass through the South China Sea, and it wants to reassure its partners in Asia it is cementing that position
President Obama welcomed the rise of China as an economic and military power but said he wanted more engagement between U.S .and Chinese forces "to avoid misunderstandings."
China's state news agency accused U.S. President Barack Obama of trying to win votes by using his diplomatic ambitions in Asia to detract from his country's economic woes.
Obama, whose job approval rating continues to slip, seems to be staking his re-election on high-profile diplomatic ambitions in Asia Pacific, as he is failing to bring America's slack economy back to the path of strong growth in his first term.
The latest commentary called on the United States to concentrate on its own economy and accused Washington of stoking security tensions in Asia and meddling in regional maritime disputes.
Xinhua also blasted Obama for "scapegoating" Beijing for his country's economic woes after he hit out at China's currency, which the United States believe is undervalued, giving it an unfair trade advantage. The remarks, the second time in three days that China's official media has criticized Obama by name.
China's foreign ministry said that sending U.S. troops to northern Australia "may not be quite appropriate," pouring cool water on Obama's description of the move as a commitment to the region.
China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has warned "external forces" not to get involved in its maritime disputes with neighbouring countries over the South China Sea while speaking at a regional summit in Bali that US President Barack Obama is also attending. In comments apparently directed at the US, Premier Wen Jiabao said that the disputes should be resolved by "relevant sovereign states".
At Bali it is reported that to soother Chinese concern, Obama met with Wen on the sidelines of East Asia Summit discussed the issue on how to engage other countries in Asia-Pacific region for stability and prosperity.
Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said the arrangement in Darwin would generate a "vicious circle of tension and mistrust".
A strongly worded editorial in The Jakarta Post described the base at Darwin, less than 1,000 kilometres from Indonesia, as "simply too close for comfort. The move is not exactly the kind of signal that they are looking for in terms of greater US engagement with Asia," the paper said.
Indonesia's military commander Admiral Agus Suhartono fears his nation could be drawn into disputes in the South China Sea when 2,500 US Marines are deployed for training near Darwin, if and when the US and China appear to be on a collision course over security in the South China Sea.
Admiral told the Jakarta Post. "Their military fleets would very likely go back and forth through our waters, given the analysis that the planned base will have to conduct [military exercises] due to rising tension in the South China Sea," "We haven't learnt clearly what this deal is but we have been studying the plan and analysing any potential impacts on Indonesia … we have begun consulting all sources."
Obama's election strategy
Observers say United States will hold presidential elections in November next year and some Republican candidates have used China as a political issue to attack the incumbent Obama, tapping into worries about the rising Asian power.
The defence agreement with Australia amounts to the first long-term expansion of the US military presence in the Asia Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. The US has set up military bases in Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, South Korea, Japan and Guam in the Asia Pacific region, almost encircling China.