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.”