US President Barack Obama, fresh from the APEC summit in Honolulu, flew to Canberra and Darwin in Australia and then to Bali, Indonesia, last week to confront China with an olive branch in one hand and a sword in the other.
In an address to the Australian parliament, Obama sought to assure China — and other Asian nations — that the US’ intent was peaceable.
“The United States will continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China,” he said, since all nations “have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China.”
“We will seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation,” he added.
Obama has sought for months to persuade China’s leaders that the US is not trying to “contain” their nation’s spreading influence.
In Bali, at a gathering of political leaders from 18 Asia-Pacific nations, Obama reiterated that assurance, but was also vigorous in advocating maritime security, a code word for keeping open the international sea lanes through the South China Sea.
His stance drew nods of assent from most of the leaders assembled. Those sea lanes are vital to Asian economies because more shipping flows through them annually than uses the Suez and Panama canals combined.
The US has insisted on freedom of navigation through the South China Sea because US warships frequently sail though those waters between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, some US officers contend that whoever controls the South China Sea controls the rest of Asia.
In contrast, Chinese spokesmen said that Beijing had been “consistent and clear” in its position, having repeatedly asserted that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.
Moreover, Beijing argues that disputes should be resolved through bilateral negotiations between China and other nations — enabling it to bring to bear its full power against weaker neighbors one by one.
However, the US has insisted that negotiations should include every nation with interests in the South China Sea, including Taiwan, the US, Japan and South Korea.
Obama, who met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) at Wen’s request on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, presumably reiterated the US position, even though the Chinese press said their conversation focused on economic issues. Wen also met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍).
However, even as he proffered an olive branch to China, Obama sought to add muscle to US security relations in the region. During a stop at a military base in Darwin, Australia, the president met with Australian soldiers and US marines.
“We are celebrating the 60th anniversary of our great alliance,” he said. “And we couldn’t think of a better group to do it with than you. All of you are the backbone of our alliance. It’s an honor to be here with Australia’s legendary Diggers. You are some of the toughest warriors in the world and so are another group of folks here today — our extraordinary United States marines.”
Accompanied by Gillard, he said: “Here in Darwin and northern Australia, we’ll write the next proud chapter in our alliance. As the prime minister and I announced yesterday, some of our marines will begin rotating through these parts to train and exercise with you, and to work as partners across the region for the security we all want.”