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.

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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."

He sought to balance his obvious warnings to China with repeated statements "welcoming" China's growing influence. "I've said repeatedly and I will say again today that we welcome a rising, peaceful China," the president said at his press conference with the Australian prime minister. He tried to reassure China that the newly announced deployment of American troops at an Australian military base is not aimed at China.

The new deployment, he said, "allows us to respond to a whole host of challenges, like humanitarian or disaster relief, that, frankly, given how large the Asia Pacific region is, it can sometimes be difficult to do. And this will allow us to be able to respond in a more timely fashion and also equip a lot of countries, smaller countries who may not have the same capacity -- it allows us to equip them so that they can respond more quickly as well."

But he said his "main message" to the Chinese is that they need to start playing by the rules in their dealings with other countries, whether in the South China Sea or in the valuation of China's currency. "With their rise comes increased responsibilities," he said. " It's important for them to play by the rules of the road and, in fact, help underwrite the rules that have allowed so much remarkable economic progress to be made over the last several decades.  And that's going to be true on a whole host of issues."

He added: "So where China is playing by those rules, recognizing its new role, I think this is a win-win situation. There are going to be times where they're not, and 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."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent another clear message to Beijing with comments in Manila on Wednesday, saying that those with a claim on the South China Sea "do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion." She recommended that the countries in the region have a thorough and open discussion of the controversy -- something China strongly opposes. China does not want the subject broached when the president goes later this week to Bali and attends both the ASEAN and East Asia summits.

Reuters reported that Beijing struck back immediately. "Introducing a contentious subject into the meeting would only affect the atmosphere of cooperation and mutual trust, damaging the hard-won setting of healthy development in the region," Reuters quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin saying on Wednesday.

State media in China this week also stepped up complaints about foreign interference in China's affairs, focusing on both the South China Sea and Obama's complaints about the valuation of the yuan. AFP reported that the state media accused Obama of "scapegoating" China and blaming Beijing for American financial problems. "Squeezing China, especially on the yuan, is an old trick in the run-up to [the] U.S. presidential election," according to a commentary by the official Xinhua news agency. "Such a tactic of scapegoating others may attract some voters' attention, but is definitely no answer to America's real problems."