Australia Rolls Out The Red Carpet For Obama's Visit

Australia is the latest stop on President Obama's tour of the Pacific Rim countries that the president thinks should be the new focus of U.S. foreign policy. It is already the focus of a competition for influence with China.

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President Obama is in Australia today, on a brief but highly anticipated visit. He'll be stopping in nations on the Pacific Rim all this week.

His visit to Australia is part of an important display of the greater role the U.S. hopes to play in the Asia-Pacific region. From the Australian capital, Canberra, Stuart Cohen reports.

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STUART COHEN, BYLINE: Its third time lucky for Australia, when it comes to President Obama. He had to cancel two previous planned trips, including a vacation with his wife and kids, because of more pressing issues back in Washington, like getting last year's health care reform passed. But now that he's finally made it, Canberra has rolled out the red carpet.

DR. JOHN HART: Oh, look it's always big when an American president comes to Australia. And it does Australia good. It puts Australia on the map.

COHEN: Dr. John Hart is a professor of American politics at the Australian National University and one of the country's leading experts on the U.S.-Australia relationship. He says here, Barack Obama still has a bit of a rock star status.

HART: It's faded a bit, because we're aware of the fact that in the United States, the performance hasn't matched the promise. But still, it's not everyday we get an American president coming to talk to the Australian parliament.

COHEN: The visit coincides with the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS military treaty between the U.S. and Australia, and defense issues loom large on the president's agenda. Mr. Obama announced a new placement of American forces here. While U.S. troops have often conducted joint-training with Australian forces, in the new agreement, as many as 2,500 marines will eventually be stationed permanently at a base in Australia's northern territory.

President Obama says it will strengthen the U.S.-Australia relationship. But it also sends a clear message to China that the U.S. is not backing away from the region.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are two Pacific nations. And with my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia Pacific.

COHEN: But the permanent presence of U.S. troops in Australia is likely to be a sore spot with some members of parliament, as well as the public, which never really warmed to Australia's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president is also keenly aware of the promise Australia and the greater region holds for the struggling American economy.

OBAMA: There's a reason why I'm spending this time out here in Asia, and out here in the Pacific region. First and foremost, because this is the fastest growing economic region in the world and I want to create jobs in the United States, which means we've got to sell products here.

COHEN: On Thursday, the president will deliver his address to a special joint sitting of parliament and pay a visit to a local school. Then it's off to Australia's frontier town of Darwin in the northern territory. Known more for its sightings of large man-eating crocodiles than heads of state, he'll be the first U.S. president to visit Darwin. Then, after just a couple hours on the ground, it's off to Bali for the East Asia summit.

For NPR News, I'm Stuart Cohen in Canberra.

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