CANBERRA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday that the U.S. military would expand its role in the Asia-Pacific region despite budget cuts, declaring America was "here to stay" as a Pacific power which would help shape the region's future.
China voiced misgivings about Obama's announcement of a de facto military base in Australia and has longstanding fears that its growing power could be hobbled by U.S. influence.
Obama acknowledged China's unease at what it sees as attempts by Washington to encircle it, pledging to seek greater cooperation with Beijing.
The U.S. military, turning its focus away from Iraq and Afghanistan, would be more broadly distributed in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, more flexible and help build regional capacity, he told the Australian parliament.
"As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority," Obama said in a major speech on Washington's vision for the Asia-Pacific region.
"As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -I repeat, will not - come at the expense of the Asia Pacific."
He added: "We'll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation."
Nervous about China's growing clout, U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea have sought assurances from the United States that it would be a strong counterweight in the region.
A first step in extending the U.S. military reach into Southeast Asia will see U.S. Marines, naval ships and aircraft deployed to northern Australia from 2012.
That deployment to Australia, which by 2016 will reach a taskforce of 2,500 U.S. troops, is small compared with the 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.
But the new de facto U.S. base in Australia expands the direct U.S. military presence in Asia, beyond South Korea and Japan and into Southeast Asia, an area where China has growing economic and strategic interests.
It will also put more U.S. troops, ships and aircraft much closer to the South China Sea over which Beijing has sovereignty disputes with several countries.
CHINA QUESTIONS U.S. DEPLOYMENT TO AUSTRALIA
China has questioned the new U.S. deployment, raising doubts whether strengthening such alliances helped the region pull together at a time of economic gloom.
Chinese newspapers on Thursday ran reactions ranging from restrained to stern. One said Beijing need not worry but another accused Washington of stirring regional trouble.
Indonesia, southeast Asia's largest country and long wary of any expanded foreign military presence in the region, also warned that Australia deal came with risks.
"What I would hate to see is if such developments were to provoke a reaction and counter-reaction precisely to create a vicious circle of tension and mistrust or distrust," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters.
Obama said the United States would seek to work with China to ensure economic prosperity and security in the region, but would speak candidly about issues such as human rights and raise security issues like the South China Sea through which $5 trillion dollars in trade sails annually.
China has broad claims over the sea, also rich in oil, minerals and fishery resources. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei hold rival claims that have triggered several disputes in recent years.
Obama also referred in his address to reforms undertaken by Myanmar's new civilian leaders, including the release of political prisoners. But he said they had to do more on human rights in order to secure better relations with Washington.