|Leaders and representatives of the ASEAN countries link hands during the opening of the 19th ASEAN Summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali Thursday. Photo: AFP|
US President Barack Obama Thursday reiterated his country's determination to consolidate its role in the Asia-Pacific, a day after Beijing questioned Washington's decision to expand its military presence in Australia.
"The US is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay," Obama said when addressing the Australian Parliament in Canberra, repeating the exact phrases he used at the APEC summit in Honolulu over the weekend.
"I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in US defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific," the US president said.
Obama acknowledged China's concerns over the growing US presence, saying, "We'll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation."
The AP commented that this is an "unmistakable message" from the White House chief to Beijing on Washington's determination to counter a rising China.
In response, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Liu Weimin said Thursday, "We hold no objection to the development of regular relations between countries. But we hope they can consider others' interests, regional peace and stability before making any move."
"Firmly upholding the development of Sino-US ties based on mutual respect and reciprocal cooperation will benefit the two sides, as well as the whole world," Liu said.
However, a commentary by the Xinhua News Agency said Thursday, "It wouldn't come as a surprise if the US is trying to seek hegemony in the region, which would be in line with its aspirations as a global superpower."
"It is hard to envision what kind of 'leadership' the US aspires to have in the region. What the region really needs is a strong and reliable partner that can help the region stave off the current financial crisis and seek balanced and sustained growth," it added.
Obama arrived in Bali Thursday for the Sixth East Asia Summit starting tomorrow, making him the first US president to take part in the event.
Yuan Peng, director of the Institute of US Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that by joining the summit, the US now formally becomes a force in the region.
"It highlights the complete shift of Washington's strategic focus to the East. The strategic gravity of the US will remain in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming decade," Yuan said.
The US has signaled it will raise the South China Sea issue during the summit despite Beijing's objections.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has also asked ASEAN to host a multilateral summit that would discuss the issue, but a number of the bloc's members, including Malaysia and Cambodia, rejected Manila's initiative.
Liu reiterated China's stance Thursday, warning that interference from other countries would only complicate the issue, and Beijing would not accept any attempts to harm its sovereignty and interests.
Wu Xinbo, a deputy director of the Center for US Studies at the Fudan University, told the Global Times that the South China Sea issue has become more complicated with the greater US presence.
"At some point, the issue will involve several countries in the region, so assembling countries involved in the negotiations could be a supplement to one-on-one talks. However, it should be noted that the multilateral negotiations can only be held among related parties, and any external forces should be excluded," Wu said.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his ASEAN counterparts are expected to issue a joint declaration on boosting cooperation on maritime security and safety in the region during the Japan-ASEAN meeting on the sidelines of the Bali summit.
Japan's Kyodo News commented that although Japan seems to be an outsider in the South China Sea issue, its behavior mirrors Tokyo's own run-ins with Beijing in connection to the East China Sea.
Separately, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also arrived in Bali Thursday to attend the East Asia Summit, the 14th between China and ASEAN, as well as the 14th between ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea and an event that marks the 20th anniversary of the China-ASEAN dialogue.
Wen is expected to reiterate China's policies on deepening cooperation with ASEAN in political, economic and cultural fields. ASEAN and China leaders will also review the development of bilateral ties and map out strategic planning for the future.
"In such a complicated and serious international political and economic situation, the upcoming summits should highlight the theme of unity, development and cooperation," Wen said during talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Thursday.
"China said it plans to set up a fund for maritime cooperation with ASEAN and is preparing about 3 billion yuan ($472 million) to develop cooperation in maritime industries," Indonesian presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said after the leaders' talks.
Zhu Shanshan and agencies contributed to the story
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Indon military warns about Aust-US plan
Karlis Salna, AAP South-East Asia CorrespondentA top Indonesian military chief has warned plans for the United States to boost its military presence in Australia could fuel tensions regarding an ongoing maritime dispute over the South China Sea.
The plan, which was unveiled by US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Canberra on Wednesday, has already caused friction at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali.
Indonesian military commander Admiral Agus Suhartono has now added his voice to concerns the plan could add to an increasingly tense dispute over the resource-rich South China Sea.
China and four ASEAN countries - Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam - have staked claims over the crucial sea lane, which handles more than one-third of the world's seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas.
Admiral Suhartono, who has formerly served as the Indonesian Navy's chief of staff, has warned the increased US military presence, which is seen also seen as a hedge against the growing influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region, could draw Indonesia into the dispute.
Under the plan, announced in Canberra on Wednesday, up to 250 US Marines will train for six months at a time in the Northern Territory, just 800km from Indonesia, rising to a full 2500-strong Marine Air Ground Task Force by 2016.
The US forces will bring ships, aircraft and vehicles.
"Their military fleets would very likely go back and forth through our waters, given the analysis that the planned base will have to conduct due to rising tensions in the South China Sea," Admiral Suhartono told the Jakarta Post newspaper.
Admiral Suhartono said the US military presence in Australia would impact Indonesia in terms of political and security stability in South-East Asia.
"We haven't learned clearly what this deal is but we have been studying the plan and analysing any potential impacts on Indonesia as well as on the South-East Asian region," he said.
"We have begun consulting all sources concerned with this issue."
China has been relatively restrained in its response to the US-Australia military pact.
"As for relations among China, the United States and Australia, I think that further deepening and strengthening Chinese co-operation with the US and with Australia suits the interests of all these countries as well as the other countries in the region and the international community," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
But a spokesman for Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, speaking on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit on Thursday evening, said there was no doubt the increased US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region would strengthen the Philippines' hand against Beijing in terms of the South China Sea issue.
"I think it bolsters our ability to assert our sovereignty over certain areas," spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
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Indonesia fears US forces could create "vicious circle of tension"
Indonesia has expressed concerns that the increased US military presence in northern Australia could provoke a ''vicious circle of tension and mistrust'' in the region.
''What I would hate to see is if such a development were to provoke a reaction and counter-reaction,'' said Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, speaking before the ASEAN and East Asia leaders' summits, which begin in Bali today.
Without stringent efforts to consult with other countries in the region, he added, it could lead to misunderstanding and provoke a ''vicious circle of tension and mistrust''.