17 Nov 2011

Obama says G'day to opportunities in Australia

President Barack Obama is cosying up to Australia – but the Chinese are not impressed. Read more from our Asia Correspondent John Sparks.

In a cavernous hanger on an Australian airbase, they struck up the band and gave the American president a raucous, Northern Territory welcome.

Rock star treatment this, in the sun-bleached, beer-swilling, speak-your-mind city that is Darwin. Barack Obama didn’t have to work the crowd very hard. He tried out a little “call and response” anyway: “Aussie Aussie Aussie,” he cried – “Oi oi oi” came hurtling back.

He was the bearer of good news in a community located far from the temperate airs of the southern coastal cities.

We’ll construct a new operations centre in Darwin for our military, he said – ships and planes and personnel, located closer to the trading routes and trouble spots of South East Asia and the South China Sea. In four years’ time, say US officials, a taskforce numbering 2,500 will rotate through the area.

The Australians seem delighted. Their prime minister, Julia Gillard, looked positively starstruck as she shuttled the US president between the capital, Canberra, and the country’s northern outpost.

The Chinese however, were far less enthusiastic. A foreign ministry spokesman said he “hoped relevant countries would consider the interests of peace and stability in the region”. The official state news agency was more forthright: the US risked a “new Cold War” while Australia could get “caught in the cross-fire”.

This sort of warning will give many in Australia pause for thought – China is now their largest trading partner – and a similar state of affairs holds with other countries across the region. These are complicated, uncomfortable relationships – made all the more so when China flexes its burgeoning military muscle.

Over the last 18 months, a series of territorial claims over waters in the South China Sea have made countries like Vietnam and the Philippines very nervous indeed.

This is the great American opportunity. The end is in sight in Afghanistan and Iraq – while Europe and its disaster-prone economy seems less and less useful. Asia is the place to be for the US – both the risks and rewards make it impossible to ignore. Expect the rediscovery of other old-time friends like Australia, in the days and weeks to come.

You can follow John Sparks on Twitter: @c4sparks