The Financial Times

By Jamie Smyth

Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe and Tony Abbott on Sunday agreed to deepen their countries’ military co-operation and work together on strengthening maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting between the US president and the prime ministers of Japan and Australia risked antagonising Beijing after a week in which Mr Obama reached an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping on climate change and trade, and Mr Abe held a landmark summit with Mr Xi to improve their countries’ relationship.

In a joint statement after the meeting, the three leaders said they had agreed to “deepen the already strong security and defence co-operation” between their countries and work on boosting “maritime security capacity building”, in a region rife with disputes between China and its neighbours over claims to waters and islands.

On Saturday Mr Obama sought to allay concerns among allies about the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, vowing it would remain a “fundamental focus” of US foreign policy and that America would not be distracted from it by global events.

He also delivered a thinly veiled warning to China about the danger that aggressive actions involving territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea could “spiral into confrontation”.

“Any effective security order for Asia must be based — not on spheres of influence, or coercion or intimidation where big nations bully the small — but on alliances for mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” said Mr Obama in a speech delivered on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Brisbane.

Mr Obama said the US had invested its “blood and treasure” in the region during past conflicts and no one should ever question American “resolve or our commitment to our allies”. Although he did not mention China directly, his comments about disputes over “remote islands and rocky shoals” were a reference to tensions between Beijing and neighbours in the south and East China Sea.

This year Chinese ships rammed Vietnamese ships during a showdown following Beijing’s decision to erect an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China sea. Tensions over territorial disputes between China, Japan and the Philippines have also heightened over the past year.

Sunday’s meeting came towards the end of Mr Obama’s eight-day trip to Asia, during which he has attempted to reaffirm his administrations’ “pivot” towards the region. The strategy aims to boost American presence in the Asia-Pacific region through increased military deployments, trade and diplomatic contacts in an area experiencing rapid economic growth.

Since the strategy was announced in 2011, the US has been drawn into conflicts in the Middle East leading commentators to question whether the Asia-Pacific region really is at the centre of US foreign policy.

“The US has been distracted by other crises and there is a sense that China has been able to get away with things in the Asia-Pacific region that it may not otherwise have been able to,” says Brendon O’Connor, associate professor at Sydney university.

“This speech is about providing reassurance to allies,” he said.

Mr Obama acknowledged on Saturday that there were times when people had been sceptical of the US rebalance towards Asia and whether America had the staying power to maintain the policy.

“I’m here to say that American leadership in the Asia Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy,” he said.

Mr Obama said events in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Ebola outbreak in Africa had intervened. But he said this was not distracting the US from its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, where he noted more than half of America’s naval and air force would be deployed by 2020.

He said the US would continue to pursue a constructive relationship with China but would not put aside its own values and ideals in doing so.

His speech to an audience of students at the University of Queensland included a call for action to tackle global warming and a pledge of US$3bn to a fund to help developing nations tackle climate change.

Mr Obama had sought to place action on climate on the agenda of the G20 summit — a move resisted by host Australia, which wanted the meeting to focus on economic reforms.

This article was originally published at The Financial Times