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China Amps Up Its Soft Power in the South China Sea While Washington Shows the Flag

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The federal government shutdown debacle finally ended, but its effects live on. In this case, continuing to effect America's Asia-Pacific pivot, our big geopolitical shift from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific.

China continues in its unusual bid to claim sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most important bodies of water through which much of the world's trade and energy passes, home to vast fisheries, beneath, a vast storehouse of oil and natural gas. This has provided a great strategic opening for the US -- which seeks to further its relations with a flourishing part of the world and contain the only other potential superpower in the bargain -- as most of China's neighbors find China intimidating to deal with. But America's dramatic political woes have spurred the People's Republic to employ the carrot as well as the stick, and of course raised profound questions about America's political stability and overall reliability.

China's new president, Xi Jinping, made great hay out of President Barack Obama having to cancel his long-planned participation in two key rounds of East Asian summitry during the shutdown, pointedly visiting two countries Obama had cancelled on at the last minute and making the point that China abides. Xi buttered up ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as he talked up Chinese backing for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and fast action on the Pan-Asia Railway linking Southeast Asian nations with China's Yunnan Province. Since then Xi and Premiere Li Keqiang have continued the intensive diplomacy, brandishing trade and investment deals that a still troubled American economy cannot match while seeking joint oil and gas deals with their intimidated neighbors.

After concluding investment agreements worth $5 billion with Malaysia and $28 billion with Indonesia and promising greatly expanded trade, Premiere Li even visited Vietnam, America's old enemy in the Vietnam War which lately has been looking to America's military might to aid in its confrontations over South China Sea territories. Again talking up Obama's absence and the destabilizing spectacle of the Washington shutdown, Li induced the Vietnamese leadership to sign a dozen trade and investment agreements in exchange for which Vietnam agreed to a working group on joint PRC/Vietnam exploitation of natural resources in the Gulf of Tonkin. While it's just a first step and resolves nothing with regard to confrontations over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, it's an effective counter with America's self-inflicted weakness on global display. It also moves Vietnam off its previous insistence that all South China Sea disputes be solved in a multilateral process. Which happens to be the preferred American approach, as well. For two reasons. First, because it diminishes China's ability to play divide and conquer with a group of nations each one of which is dwarfed by the PRC and its economic and military power. And second, because the multilateral approach best allows the US to counsel a group of allies and push focus on comprehensive solutions that happen to be in line with US interests.

So, what do you do when you can't send the president, thanks to Washington craziness? Send a ship named after a president, that's what.

The nation's first president, George Washington, the super-carrier named after him, and its strike force, perhaps the US Navy's most powerful. While Obama was sidelined from key East Asian summitry by the shutdown debacle, the George Washington aircraft carrier battle group has been cruising around East Asia and related waters all month.

After a week sailing up and down the South China Sea, virtually all of which China claims as its sovereign territory, engaging in some joint exercises with countries generally overawed by the PRC, it just spent five days on a port call in Singapore, situated at the opposite end of the South China Sea from the PRC. Then Washington headed back out to sea, on continuing patrol in the waters of East Asia. Yes, China has an aircraft carrier, launched with much fanfare last year. But only one, the Liaoning, actually a former Soviet Navy cruiser purchased from Ukraine and painstakingly converted by the Chinese into an aircraft carrier. And so far, the Chinese navy is still working on learning to make successful carrier landings, something the US Navy has been doing regularly for more than 90 years.

Before its lengthy port call in Singapore, which has a new basing agreement with US forces focused on the much smaller littoral combat ships, George Washington hosted a big delegation of Vietnamese officials, flown on board to the ship by US Navy aircraft, and then went to Manila Bay.

Which in a sense is where much of this began for the US, back in 1898 when it crushed Spain's Pacific Fleet in the Spanish-American War's Battle of Manila Bay.

American naval forces, which in those days in the Far East had generally been strung out along hundreds if not thousands of miles of disparate port calls, "showing the flag," had been cleverly pre-positioned in Hong Kong with orders to take on large amounts of fuel and await a potential decisive engagement with Spain in the Philippines before the war ever started. Which is to say before the still rather mysterious sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Cuba's Havana harbor.

Who gave that order to consolidate forces and pre-position in Hong Kong and prepare for a long voyage and decisive action? The young assistant secretary of the Navy, fellow by the name of Theodore Roosevelt.

A few months later, his aggressive readying of the Navy for war complete, Roosevelt quit his office , switched services, and raised a regiment of volunteer cavalry happily known as the Rough Riders, leading them, as an instant colonel in the Army, in a famous (and famously publicized and spun) charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, becoming a national hero in the process as the many disparate elements of Roosevelt's somewhat peripatetic life came together in harmony.

Which enabled him to become governor of New York, which in turn enabled him to get the vice presidential slot on the national Republican ticket with William McKinley. Just half a year into his veepship, after McKinley's assassination, Teddy Roosevelt was suddenly, at 42, America's youngest president.

Roosevelt's overall course leading to the Spanish-American War had been prefigured in an 1897 speech at the Naval War College. That speech, incidentally, Roosevelt's biggest to date, was just 13 months before the charge up San Juan Hill.

We'll return to the Presidents Roosevelt, Theodore and Franklin (who held the same career-defining office of assistant secretary of the Navy, to not dissimilar effect on America's development and their own future presidencies), and the ongoing impact of their acts and vision on America's role in the Asia-Pacific, another time.

For now it's safe to say the cousins Roosevelt would greatly approve of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's successful spade work in helping convince Malaysia to do what it has just done. Which to say establishing a new Malaysian Marine Corps under the tutelage of the US Marine Corps and deciding to build a base in the South China Sea just 60 miles from disputed waters in which China held a major naval exercise last spring.

The George Washington carrier group just held joint exercises with the Malaysian Navy, though not in those same waters.

Since China is not backing off its extraordinary claims and continues its military build-up, most of its neighbors will still look to the US as a counterweight. But even though Barack Obama has not proved to be a George Washington in office, and the George Washington herself is an extraordinarily impressive vessel, there is no substitute for Obama's presence.

Missing the Asian summits during the shutdown debacle was very bad. For even though America, a Pacific nation is the Pacific power that Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt intended it to be, Obama, or any American president for that matter, is disadvantaged by distance. First the vast distances involved in the Pacific itself. Then the distance between Washington, across the country on the Atlantic, and America's Pacific Coast. If the US capital were in San Francisco or Los Angeles or San Diego or Seattle, it would be easier. But of course the capital is still back on the old side of America, as conceived when the country was mostly a coastal strip.

It's not so easy for an American president to jaunt off to Asia. Canceling a trip two years in the making has serious repercussions.

Then there is the matter of finance. Unlike the rising superpower China, America doesn't have it to toss around. After a lost decade of adventures in the desert, America can't afford to bankroll an Asian Infrastructure Bank. China can. Had we not done a Moon shot in Iraq, followed by another Moon shot in Afghanistan -- with no Moon base to show for it, not even a few Moon rocks -- our margin for error, for blowing off important diplomatic work, would be much larger. But it is not.

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