China Gives Cool Response to US Military Activity in Australia

Article excerpt

Chinese officials have reacted cooly to President Obama's announcement Wednesday that US Marines will be based in northern Australia, closer to the disputed South China Sea than any other US land forces.

As Washington and Beijing spar this week in a new round of their heavyweight contest for influence in Southeast Asia, the Chinese have diplomatically ducked a number of American punches. But the resumption of hostilities has alarmed local analysts here.

"They are sending a clear cut message to China, that America is back and wants to hold down or roll back China," says Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies. "This will not facilitate diplomatic cooperation."

Official Chinese spokesmen have reacted calmly to President Obama's announcement Wednesday that US Marines will be based in northern Australia, closer to the disputed South China Sea than any other US land forces.

In the midst of economic crisis "it is debatable whether now is a good time to be strengthening and expanding military alliances, and whether this accords with regional expectations," was all Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin would say on Wednesday.

The latest in a series of US changes

But the Australian deal, which US officials said should be seen in the context of a rising China, was only the latest illustration of a clearly changing US posture in the Asia Pacific region.

Last week the Pentagon unveiled a new Air Sea Battle concept, which military officials said was needed to counter others' "anti- access and area denial" weapons. They did not say the new concept was targeted at China, but they did not deny that China is the only potential enemy with the sort of capabilities the concept is aimed at.

Then, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hawaii, Mr. Obama made progress pushing a free trade Trans Pacific Partnership from which China has been excluded.

In Manila on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took up the cudgels on behalf of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China. She pledged to help strengthen the Philippines Navy, whose vessels have recently clashed with Chinese boats; she warned China not to intimidate its smaller neighbors; and she called the South China Sea "the West Philippines Sea" in an open espousal of Manila's position on sovereignty.

Chinese fears that Washington is seeking to contain China, and drive a wedge between Beijing and neighboring states "are not new," says Bonnie Glaser, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But the US has given China lots of reasons to think it's a real strategy."

China has laid sovereignty claims to almost all of the South China Sea, believed to be rich not only in fisheries but in oil and other mineral resources. Those claims conflict with claims to specific islands and atolls by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei - which have periodically flared up into maritime stand-offs.

Washington says it is neutral in the territorial disputes, and that its interest in the area lies in the security of the shipping lanes that carry $5.3 trillion of world trade each year.

In fact, the US has consistently supported China's neighbors' demand that China resolve the disputes in a multilateral forum such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), against Beijing's insistence on bilateral negotiations.

The issue will come up again at the East Asian Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Friday. …


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