CANBERRA, Australia – President Barack Obama has fulfilled his promise to visit Australia after a long delay, arriving in the capital city of Canberra today for a day and a half trip focused on renewing bonds with an exceptionally close U.S. ally.
Air Force One crossed the international dateline as Obama traveled from Honolulu to Australia. Obama was to hold meetings and a news conference today 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 with an official arrival ceremony at Parliament House.
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.