Obama's Message to China: Let's Be Friends, or Else

Obama insisted the U.S. is a "Pacific power" that welcomes China's rise, as long as it's responsible

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President Obama addressed the Australian Parliament in Canberra on Wednesday. Obama addressed the Parliament a day after announcing a commitment to send military aircraft and up to 2,500 Marines to northern Australia / Reuters

In pledging to "project power and deter threats to peace" in Asia and the Pacific, a region where U.S. allies see China as the primary threat looming, President Obama on Wednesday continued a careful diplomatic balancing act on his current overseas trip that has had him both praising and warning China.

His comments on Wednesday at his current stop in Australia were in almost equal measure a continuation of his statements at the previous stop in Hawaii, where he personally communicated his concern to Chinese President Hu Jintao. Throughout the trip, his message to China has been far more modulated than the harsh attacks routinely voiced back home both in Congress and at the debates in which Republican presidential candidates have tried to top each other in saying how tough they would get with Beijing.

Wednesday -- Thursday in Australia -- in what the White House billed as the major address of the nine-day trip, the president sought to reassure nervous allies about the American commitment to the region. Over the weekend at the APEC summit, the focus was on economic security. In Australia, it shifted to military security, especially in the wake of Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea and concerns about impending cuts in U.S. defense spending.

The president acknowledged that "some in this region have wondered about America's commitment." His answer is that cuts are coming -- but not enough to undermine American commitments to the region. "As the United States puts our fiscal house in order, we are reducing our spending," he said. "And yes, after a decade of extraordinary growth in our military budgets -- and as we definitively end the war in Iraq, and begin to wind down the war in Afghanistan -- we will make some reductions in defense spending."

But he added that he has ordered a review to "identify our most important strategic interests and guide our defense priorities and spending over the coming decade." And, he said: "Here is what this region must know. 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, he pledged, "reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia Pacific." He said his guidance to policy makers is clear. "As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region. We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace."

And, he promised: "We will keep our commitments, including our treaty obligations to allies like Australia. And we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century." With many in the region skeptical of that commitment, he added: "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."

Presented by

George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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