Barack Obama has used his address to the Australian parliament to send a powerful message to the Asian region, and particularly to China, that America’s fiscal problems will not be an opportunity for expansion at the expense of the United States.

While the president’s speech lacked the eloquent oratory for which he is renowned, it had more substance than previous presidential addresses, which have made usually focused on the Australia-US relationship, our military ties and shared values, and the importance of engagement with the region. While Obama covered that familiar territory, he also bluntly made clear that the United States was “here to stay” in the Asia-Pacific and would be stepping up its role in the region.

To this end, he stressed that looming cuts to a US military budget hypertrophied by two wars in the last decade would not affect the US presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Obama didn’t rule out some cuts — he said its forces might shift to a more “flexible posture” which, as Donald Rumsfeld showed, tends to be code for lower capital investment and fewer troops. Nonetheless, the speech was a clear signal that China should not hope to exploit America’s budget problems to strengthen its role in the region.

Coupled with the agreement with Australia to establish a training program designed to eventually handle over 2000 Marines and associated aircraft in the Northern Territory, the speech continued Obama’s more aggressive stance toward China that was noticeable at the weekend’s APEC meeting. There, the president didn’t bother to disguise US irritation at China’s continuing recalcitrance on its currency, and US officials slapped down Chinese objections to the trans-Pacific partnership agreement proceeding without Chinese involvement.

While much of that stance was for US domestic consumption, Obama’s speech today was also a clear signal to US allies that America’s economic problems will not be the occasion for a withdrawal or disengagement from a region. An annoyed China has already labelled the training agreement “inappropriate”.

As always with such occasions, the speech was — rather in contrast to prime ministerial addresses to Congress — delivered to a chamber packed with MPs and senators amid extraordinarily tight security that had even press gallery members being put through security in order to access the chamber — Canberrans have had the persistent company of fighter jets and helicopters overnight as part of the temporary transformation of the capital into Fort POTUS.

While the prime minister kept her address to history and rhetoric, Tony Abbott again chose to use the occasion to inject a note of partisanship, but rather more subtly this time than the inappropriate lengths he went to when New Zealand Prime Minister John Key addressed parliament, choosing to refer to carbon pricing and the mining tax in his remarks.

After leaving the chamber, from which Obama managed to extricate himself after shaking the hand of seemingly the entire parliament, he headed to Canberra’s Campbell High School to return the visit he gave to Julia Gillard when she visited Washington DC earlier in the year. After that, he’s off to Darwin, now home of the newest and most controversial symbol of the latest round of US re-engagement with the Asia-Pacific.

Peter Fray

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