Obama Heralds Shift in US Policy Toward Pacific

In a sweeping address before the Australian parliament, President Obama heralded his administration’s “deliberate and strategic decision” to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific, anchoring its new approach in the “unbreakable” 60-year alliance with Australia.

“The bonds between us run deep,” Obama told a packed House chamber in Canberra, Australia. “In each other’s story we see so much of ourselves.”

Recalling his first visit to Australia as a young boy, Obama told his hosts he’s always identified with “your optimism, your easy-going ways, your irreverent sense of humor” — even on occasions when he couldn’t always understand their “foreign language.”

But more than a personal fondness for the “land down under,” Obama offered a glowing appraisal of the economic and military ties with Australia, which is the largest foreign investor in U.S. markets and whose troops have fought alongside U.S. soldiers in every major conflict of the past hundred years.  He reaffirmed the bilateral partnership that he said he’s tried to deepen since taking office.

“Today, I can stand before you and say with confidence that the alliance between the United States and Australia has never been stronger,” Obama said.

Laying out his vision for the future, Obama said the “new focus” of America would be on the Asia-Pacific region, particularly as U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down.

“As the world’s fastest-growing region – and home to more than half the global economy – the Asia-Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people,” Obama said. “With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.”

“As president, I’ve therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends,” he said.

Obama stressed the U.S. would be making its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region a “top priority,” notwithstanding any potential cuts to defense spending that may come from ongoing budget debates.

“Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

On Tuesday, the administration announced that the U.S. was establishing a permanent military presence “down under,” in part to boost ties with allies like Japan and South Korea while counterbalancing potential threats from North Korea and China.

While Obama acknowledged, as he has several times over the past few days, that the U.S. supports the rise of “peaceful and prosperous China,” he offered a veiled jab at the rising power over longstanding differences on fair trade, currency manipulation and intellectual property rights.

“We need growth that is fair, where every nation plays by the rules, where workers rights are respected and our businesses can compete on a level playing field, where the intellectual property and new technologies that fuel innovation are protected, and where currencies are market-driven, so no nation has an unfair advantage,” Obama said.

Obama also spoke on the importance of promoting human rights across the Pacific region, saying “they stir in every soul, as we’ve seen in democracy’s success in Asia.”

“As two great democracies, we speak up for these freedoms when they are threatened,” Obama said.

“The currents of history may ebb and flow, but over time they are moving, decidedly, decisively, in one direction: History is on the side of the free – free societies, free governments, free economies, free people,” he said. “And the future belongs to those who stand firm for these ideals in this region and around the world.”