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Obama to renew, strengthen ties in Australia

HONOLULU (AP) — Simply by showing up, President Barack Obama is making good on a promise — twice deferred — to visit Australia. It also will be an occasion to renew bonds with an exceptionally close U.S. ally and strengthen the two nations’ defense posture in the Pacific region.

Obama set out Tuesday from Hawaii bound for the Australian capital of Canberra. Crossing the international dateline on Air Force One, he was to arrive midafternoon local time Wednesday for a day and a half visit.

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.

The president is expected to announce that the U.S. is expanding its 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.

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