United States Senator John McCain has insisted that Washington remained committed to a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific, accusing China of being a "bully" and urging US allies to unite to challenge Beijing's aggression.
During a visit to Sydney yesterday, Mr McCain, a veteran senator and chairman of the US Senate's Armed Services Committee, attempted to assure Australia and others in the region that they should not turn their backs on the US despite its "unsettling" direction and scandals under President Donald Trump.
He insisted that the US would continue to play a leading global role and cautioned against those who have suggested that nations in the region must make a "choice" between Washington and Beijing.
"China has performed an economic miracle - one that not only benefits millions of its own people, but also many Australians and Americans," he said. "The challenge is that as China has grown wealthier and stronger, it seems to be acting more and more like a bully."
Speaking at an event organised by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Mr McCain accused China of offences against the international order, including using trade to coerce its neighbours, refusing to open its economy to fair competition and stealing intellectual property. He also attacked China for "asserting vast territorial claims that have no basis in international law".
Mr McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, said that the US and its partners across the region should not simply allow China's rise to reshape Asia but should work together to "shape the future of China".
"The real question is whether Australia and America are better off dealing with China's strategic and economic challenges together, or by ourselves," he said.
"In places like Japan and India, Korea and Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, people are saying they want to live in a region, and in a world, that has rules - rules that afford all nations the opportunity to grow strong and prosperous."
He added: "More and more nations in this region want to get closer to Australia and America because we treat them as equals - not as subjects or tributaries, but as friends."
In candid remarks about the US President, Mr McCain admitted that he was concerned about his nation's apparently isolationist and protectionist turn under Mr Trump.
He said he accepted that Mr Trump's election had understandably prompted allies to "question" the US' commitment to values such as freedom and the rule of law.
But he insisted that "America needs Australia and our other allies now more than ever". "You will not agree with all of President Trump's decisions. Neither will I," he said.
Mr McCain has been a strident critic of Mr Trump, who claimed in 2015 that the senator was not a "war hero because he was captured". A former navy pilot, Mr McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war.
Mr McCain has criticised Mr Trump's efforts to forge closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an interview with Australia's ABC News, Mr McCain said Mr Putin posed a greater threat to global security than Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"I think ISIS can do terrible things... But it is the Russians who are trying, who tried to destroy the very fundamental of democracy and that is to change the outcome of an American election."
He expressed regret at the US decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal .
He said Australia and Japan should press ahead with the deal and that "hopefully, some day… America will decide to join you".