Demonstrators hold a sign depicting US President Barack Obama smoking and advocating the legalization of marijuana in Canberra yesterday. Photo: AFP
Beijing Wednesday questioned Washington's decision to expand its military presence in Australia, with analysts warning that the US is seeking to box China in with military bases and is flexing its muscles over the South China Sea issue.
"It may not be appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances at a time when the economy is still recovering. The move may not be in the interest of countries in the region," said Liu Weimin, a spokesman of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Liu was responding to questions regarding a joint statement made by US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Wednesday on stationing a 2,500-strong US Marine Air-Ground Task Force by 2016 in Darwin.
"The US has repeatedly said it has no intention to constrain China, and has expressed its support of a strong, prosperous and stable China. We hope the US will fulfill its pledges," Liu said.
According to Obama, deepened military relations with Australia would "meet the demands of a lot of partners in the region that we have the presence that's necessary to maintain the security architecture in the region."
"I am making it clear that the US is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region. … The notion that we fear China is a mistake. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is a mistake. We welcome a rising, peaceful China," Obama said.
However, China's rising power means it must take on greater responsibilities to ensure free trade and security in the region, and it is important for China to play by the rules of the road, he added, repeating remarks made at the APEC summit in Honolulu over the weekend.
The military boost will be accompanied by a new raft of exercises involving joint training and combat operations, live firing, evacuations, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.
Shi Yinhong, director of the Center of US Studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times that the expansion is another move to contain China despite its mainly symbolic nature.
"The US already has military bases in South Korea and Japan, but the seemingly redundant presence in Australia is closer to the South China Sea, a possible target of this expansion," Shi said.
The Xinhua News Agency commented that Obama's aggressive step is both premature and risky, as well as being more of a hindrance than help to his Asian allies.
"The last time the remote Australian city of Darwin played a significant role in US military planning was during the early days of WWII. So it is with considerable symbolism that Washington intends to use Darwin as a new center of operations in Asia as it seeks to reassert itself in the region and grapple with China's rise," it said.
Yu Tiejun, a professor at the School of International Studies of the Peking University, noted that the US has shown some anxiety over the rapid growth of China.
"Although the US has shifted its focus back to the Asia-Pacific region, its impact is still limited. The priorities of the White House are still domestic, and we cannot rule out this re-engagement is a campaign tactic for Obama," Yu told the Global Times.
Obama introduced his back-to-Asia strategy in 2009, when he described himself as "America's first Pacific President."
He will leave for Bali on Thursday to attend the Sixth East Asia Summit.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday in Manila that the US would raise the South China Sea issue during the summit, despite China's opposition to any broader international dimension to the dispute.
Clinton also vowed to provide military support for the Philippines as the two countries marked the 60th anniversary of the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.
Regarding Clinton's remarks, Liu reiterated Beijing's objection to discussing the South China Issue during the Bali summit.
"The South China Sea issue is not on the agenda of the summit, and we believe it should not be brought up. Any attempt to raise the issue would harm the atmosphere of the gathering and bring nothing beneficial. The interference of other countries will only complicate the issue," Liu said.
Shi noted that China should not hold any unrealistic expectations of US intentions in the region.
"China needs to learn a diplomatic lesson from the South China Sea issue. It is time to rethink and repair relations with those countries involved to deal with their affiliation with the US," Shi said.
Yang Jingjie and agencies contributed to this story