Pres. Barack Obama’s ten-day swing through Asia represents a significant opportunity for the United States to reestablish its influence in a part of the world that is already defining the 21st century, as China continues to assert its military and economic might in the region, on several fronts. The trade pacts the president announced while in India are a good start. At the very least, they helped put a damper on mounting efforts at home to cut back on free trade and drift into protectionism, which would do little to help the American economy while hardening relations with some of the very nations with which the U.S. needs to work.
But if the United States is to retain its superpower status, trade agreements by themselves will do little to enhance American security, which is key to strengthening the economy, and vice versa. As Sen.-elect Marco Rubio reminded us a week ago, the U.S. remains an exceptional nation with a unique role to play in the world. To continue playing this part, it would do well to follow India’s lead in casting a wary eye on China.
At a time when Chinese military ambitions increasingly threaten other Asian nations, politicians in Washington are seeking to cut back on the most effective tool the United States has in remaining an active presence in Asia: its navy. Even as the president continues on his important journey, his administration and Congress seem determined to cut back on American naval strength. Ill-considered cutbacks on defense — especially in sea power — make for a more dangerous world and a less secure America, as the United States learned to its detriment less than a century ago.
The story of the last two decades has been how China used its growing economic power to enhance its military objectives and, in turn, uses its enhanced military power to achieve its political, diplomatic, and economic objectives. Central to this strategy has been the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As Imperial Germany did on the eve of the First World War, China is deploying advanced attack submarines to overcome the strategic disadvantage it has against larger and more conventional navies (such as ours). It hopes to field an aircraft carrier within the decade
In recent months, China has adopted an increasingly bellicose stance toward its neighbors. It has claimed the entire South China Sea as a “core national interest,” reigniting old territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and India. When Singapore’s foreign minister protested China’s fatuous claim to the entire South China Sea, a Chinese official reminded him, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” While Tokyo and Beijing were engaged in a dispute over a Japanese-detained fisherman, Beijing suspended the export of vital rare earth elements (REEs) to Japan without warning, putting other nations on notice that China is ready, able, and willing to use natural resources as a weapon. It is not only democratic nations that are expressing worry. Vietnam’s sustained efforts to forge closer ties to the United States suggest that it is anxious that it not be pulled into the orbit of an ancient occupier, China.
India, the closest we may come to seeing a strong counterweight to Chinese ambitions, has also felt increased Chinese pressure. In 2009, Beijing warned Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh not to visit Arunachal Pradesh. This Indian state borders China and Beijing has coveted it. Singh disregarded China’s ill-disguised intimidation and proceeded with his visit. In September, China deployed several thousand troops to the disputed region of Kashmir. China claimed that the measure was taken in order to facilitate ongoing infrastructure projects. Perhaps. But large-scale movements of troops along one of the world’s most volatile territories is just cause for wariness, if not alarm.
It is all to the good that President Obama continued in the path President Bush carved out when he, in recognition of India’s democratic character and proven commitment to peace and restraint, welcomed India into the company of nuclear powers, even though it has not been a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. Yet, as in the case with free trade, while the United States makes the right moves and polishes up its rhetorical support for democratic values, some of the tools that are the ultimate guarantors of peace and strength are rusting.
In Asia and elsewhere, the U.S. is losing its maritime edge. In 2007, the U.S. Navy numbered just 279 vessels, the lowest level since the 19th century. When Pres. Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, the Navy boasted 592 ships. While the military has been understandably focused on ground combat since 2001, the dominant trend has been one of neglect towards the service best able to project American power in the Pacific can ensure unimpeded sea access for international commerce. Defense Secretary Robert Gates conceded American maritime supremacy by publicly accepting a reduction in the number of carrier battle groups, the Navy’s most vital tool for power projection. Gates expressed support for reducing America’s carrier fleet because the U.S. Navy currently outnumbers those of all other nations in this area.
Actions such as these suggest that the people formulating current U.S. military posture may have forgotten a vital lesson of the Cold War: that perception can often be just as important as reality. It was America’s unprecedented investments in rebuilding and protecting Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and deterring an outside threat against it through NATO that demonstrated to the Soviet Union America’s commitment to defending the West against aggression. But for the perception that the U.S. was willing to go to war to protect democratic countries on that continent, the history of the last half-century would have been the story of either the loss of freedom through accommodation to Soviet aggression, or war. Absent an overwhelming superiority in naval strength to back up trade and other negotiated agreements, President Obama’s efforts to re-engage in Asia will be worthless. China respects power and will adjust its foreign policy to the realization that the interests of America and its allies are both immutable and capable of being defended. That is the true path to an enduring peace.
In the United Kingdom, the Cameron government’s acceptance of dramatic reductions in the Royal Navy’s capabilities should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States. Clearly, by acquiescing to drastic cutbacks in the service most capable of furthering its national interests, the United Kingdom is preparing to play a significantly reduced role in world affairs. It assumes, of course, that it can always rely upon the United States in a pinch. Should the U.S. follow Britain down this road? President Obama should send a message to the new isolationists who are beginning to make their voices heard in both political parties. If he does not, all of his other proposals of “engagement,” however well-intentioned, will be interpreted by friends and would-be adversaries alike as both impotent and, ironically, provocative, signaling to the world America’s inability to protect our interests and the interests of those who look to the United States to lead. As Pres. Theodore Roosevelt recognized a century ago, “a good navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.” Let us hope that the president, his team, and Congress heed this sage advice.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game and is currently researching a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. The former director of communications for the 9-11 Commission, he currently lectures at Yale and at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Alexander B. Gray studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the War Studies Department of King’s College London.