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U.S. troops headed to Australia, irking China

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CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA — The Obama administration announced plans Wednesday to establish a permanent military presence in Australia, part of the president’s high-profile foreign policy shift toward Asia that is intended to counterbalance China’s growing power.

The move to send 250 Marines to bases here for six-month tours starting next summer, eventually rotating 2,500 troops through the country, is the first step toward the administration’s larger goal of repositioning the United States as a leader on economics and security in the fast-developing Asia-Pacific region. The pivot appears to be aimed at rethinking Washington’s global commitments at a time when the White House is attempting to draw down troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan and when budget cuts threaten to curtail defense spending.

Though the number of U.S. troops is small — and they will be housed at Australian facilities — the announcement was met with skepticism in Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin questioned whether expanding the military alliance “is in line with the common interest” of countries in the region.

“We think it deserves to be debated,” Liu said.

Obama, who unveiled the plan at a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has sought to engage the Chinese on his nine-day trip to the region and has pressured Beijing to “play by the rules” in international commerce and security.

On Wednesday, Obama said that the U.S. relationship with China is not a zero-sum game and that he could imagine a “win-win” scenario in which both nations prosper.

“The notion that we fear China is mistaken,” Obama said. Rather, he said, the United States wants “a clear set of principles that all of us can abide by so all of us can succeed.”

But he added that China must understand that with its rise on the international stage comes increased responsibility. The president also said he will speak candidly to Beijing about upholding human rights.

If Beijing does not respect international rules, Obama said, “we will send a clear message to them that we think that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power.”

Administration officials said the Australian partnership will allow U.S. forces — part of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force — access to bases in the country’s Northern Territory, including one in Darwin, a city close to Southeast Asia.

U.S. Marines will conduct training and amphibious exercises, and the Air Force will station some of its aircraft at the bases. The American troops will be housed at Australian facilities; the United States will not create its own bases here, officials said.

Given the small initial size of the troop contingents and assets involved, the agreement is more significant, for now, for its symbolic and political impact than for any operational advantages, said Michael Swaine, a security analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It’s really what this could evolve into that’s important. It does diversify the U.S. presence,” he said, noting that it adds another access point for American troops, in addition to bases in Japan, Guam and, to a limited degree, South Korea. “But mainly it sends a signal to the region.”

The partnership is also an important marker of Australia’s strategic alliance with the United States, Swaine said, something that has come into question as Australia’s economy becomes more reliant on China.

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, wrote an editorial shortly after Obama’s announcement, saying that “China has always opposed any move to complicate the disputes with involvement of external forces, insisting bilateral dialogue is the best option.”

The United States “should appreciate the constructive role it is expected to play in the area,” the editorial stated.

Obama had already drawn rebukes from Chinese news media after criticizing Beijing’s economic policies at a summit in Hawaii over the weekend. There, the president called on China to make its currency policy more flexible, to help balance trade and to respect intellectual property rights.

The United States also has voiced alarm about China’s increasingly confrontational stance in the South China Sea, a critical commercial shipping channel that is thought to contain valuable oil and minerals.

The repositioning of the troops comes as a bipartisan congressional committee is examining ways to slash at least $1.2 trillion from the nation’s budget deficit. If that “supercommittee,” whose deliberations have so far been fruitless, fails to find a solution, defense spending would automatically be cut by a significant amount.

Obama pledged that he would not support cutting the defense budget in the Asia-Pacific region.

“I’ve made very clear . . . that even as we make a host of important fiscal decisions back home, this is right up there at the top of my priority list,” he said. “We will make sure we are able to fulfill our leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are here to stay,” Obama added. “This is a region of huge strategic importance to us.”

Without dwelling on China, Obama and Gillard described the expanding alliance as a way to help provide military training to forces from Australia and Southeast Asian countries. U.S. troops also would be able to help in the event of natural disasters or humanitarian crises in the region.

Both Gillard and Tony Abbott, Australia’s opposition leader, thanked the United States for its willingness to be a partner.

“American world leadership may only be truly appreciated when it’s gone,” Abbott said. “None of us want to find out the hard way what a shrunken America looks like. A strong America means a safer world.”

Correspondent Keith B. Richburg in Beijing and staff writer William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.

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