Air Force One crossed the international dateline as Obama traveled from Honolulu to Australia. Obama was to hold meetings and a news conference Wednesday with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who greeted him upon his arrival.
For Obama and Australia, the third time's the charm. He canceled two earlier visits, once to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care bill, and again in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama's visit has been eagerly anticipated in Australia, and he was welcomed Wednesday with an official arrival ceremony at Parliament House. The president stood with his hand over his heart as a military band played the Star Spangled Banner, and told Australian dignitaries that he was sure he would enjoy his time in their country.
Obama also spent a few minutes shaking hands and talking with school children waiting for him in the marble foyer of Parliament House before signing a guest book and heading into a private meeting with Gillard.
At the center of the president's trip was an expected announcement on the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Australia, positioning U.S. equipment there, increasing access to bases, and conducting more joint exercises and training.
The moves would counter an increasingly aggressive China, which claims dominion over vast areas of the Pacific that the U.S. considers international waters, and has alarmed smaller Asian neighbors by reigniting old territorial disputes, including confrontations over the South China Sea. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the goal is to signal that the U.S. and Australia will stick together in face of any threats.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking with reporters on the flight to Australia, said that serving as a counterweight to China's growing influence was just one factor in the ramped-up U.S. military presence in Australia.
Others included being able to respond more quickly to natural disasters in the region, such as the devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier this year in Japan, and fighting terrorism and piracy on the high seas to help keep sea lanes of commerce open.
An increased U.S. presence would help the United States "protect our interests, protect our allies" and help it "play its critical role as an anchor of stability and security in the region," Rhodes said.Kim Beazley, Australia's ambassador to the U.S., said the mere fact of Obama's appearance in the country was "enormously important" to Australians. And for the U.S., Australia's geographic location in the burgeoning Asia-Pacific makes the longtime ally an increasingly important one as China's might grows.
"It's an area where the United States has got considerable freedom of action, considerable interests, growing interests," Beazley said in an interview. "And Australia is well-located strategically."
Following meetings with Gillard Wednesday, Obama addresses the Australian Parliament on Thursday before traveling to Darwin on Australia's remote northern coast.
It's the first time a sitting U.S. president has been to Darwin, where U.S. and Australian forces were killed in a Japanese attack during World War II, and Obama will visit a memorial to the dead. Obama also will visit a military base in Darwin where he'll speak to Australian troops and U.S. Marines. The visit comes as the U.S. and Australia mark 60 years as defense treaty partners.
In a region of the world where volatility threatens, Obama's visit is in large part about underscoring the tightness and steadiness of the relationship with an ally that has fought alongside the United States in nearly every conflict since World War I.He's doing so in ways large and small, from promoting increased military ties between the two countries, to a planned visit with Gillard to a local school. A school visit was also part of the agenda when Gillard visited Obama at the White House in March.
Obama will use his remarks in Australia to discuss the broad U.S. agenda in the Asia-Pacific, but while economics and trade have been the focus of the days he's just spent in Hawaii hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, in Australia the focus shifts to security.
Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, noted that the U.S. has a military presence in the South China Sea, but he said many of those forces are deployed from the West Coast of the United States or from Japan or South Korea, where the U.S. maintains bases."Any opportunities that we have to locate forces in the(...)More.