Tuesday, January 3, 2012
A Foreign Policy For Asia; "Soft Power" Gets It Done
America finds itself in a different world today.
We possess an Army and Air Force of unquestionable conventional superiority that found itself stymied by Talibs in sandals. We’ve got the largest economy in the world, but are becoming hobbled by servicing the world’s largest outstanding debt. We complain that China is one of our largest creditors, yet their purchases of our debt are funded by our insatiable purchases of Chinese goods – which also enables them to expand their military at breakneck speeds. Allies like Japan, S. Korea, and India look askance at the superficiality and dearth of foreign policy consideration in the current American primaries and wonder if we can be trusted to remain a viable partner. Pax Americana seems to be unraveling daily.
Or perhaps not. Possibly President Barack Obama’s finest foreign policy move was his November 2011 announcement basing 2,500 Marines in Australia. While basically ignored in the U.S., the significance of his joint announcement with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gained immediate attention in Asia. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency complained that the United States was “trying to get involved in a number of regional maritime disputes, some of which concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Ms. Gillard, however, took a long-term regional outlook “We are in a region that is growing economically but stability is important for economic growth, and our alliance has been a bedrock of stability. So building on our alliance through this new initiative is about stability,” she said at the press conference with President Obama.
In addition to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, the agreement calls for a vastly expanded U.S. presence on the western Australian coast: American B-52’s, FA-18’s, C-17 transport planes, and air-to-air tankers will be based at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal, and U.S. Navy ships will berth at Royal Australian Navy base Sterling. But it’s stationing the Marines (who have helicopters and Harrier fighter jets along with their well-known amphibious capacity), in Darwin, only 500 miles from Indonesia, that expands direct American military presence well beyond the existing U.S. bases in Japan and S. Korea and brings it closer to the South China Sea.
A collision course between China & the United States?
Asia has grown up; other than failed North Korea, from India to China the Asian countries are booming. China’s economy is now larger than Japan’s, and both they and India have a middle-class larger than the total U.S. population. Australia supplies the foods and raw materials that power the Asian economies while S. Korea’s electronic giants and auto industry produce world-class products…but with a large part of Asia’s economic growth due to unfettered maritime access for raw material imports and finished good exports – they’re far more worried about muscular China than a North Korea with at best a one-time ability to strike at South Korea.
Although rejected by international law, China claims a 200 mile economic exclusion zone that reaches into the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan. They’ve built the world’s largest fleet of diesel submarines, are building an amphibious fleet modeled after Marine-Navy amphibious doctrine, and now have one aircraft carrier at sea and are planning another. They’re beginning to “project power,” American-style, except without the Marine-Navy uses the ‘soft power’ of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, police & Customs training, and quick medical treatments that makes an American presence requested instead of feared - hence the brilliance of Obama’s pact with Australia.
The key to Asia is relationship-building, and nothing builds long-term relationships more than a three-ship Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) sitting offshore with fresh water capacity, operating rooms, and an ability to deliver emergency supplies by air or sea…think 2010 in northern Japan following their crippling tsunami, 2008-Burmese typhoon, 2007-Bangladesh typhoon, 2004-Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka following the Christmas Eve tsunami. The goodwill built by 19-21 year-old Lance Corporals handing out boxes of M.R.E’s and bottled water to the stricken residents of Bangladesh while a 25-yr old Corpsman treats a baby is priceless…this is the ‘soft power’ of public opinion the Chinese fear because they cannot duplicate it.
The likely-hood of a shooting war with China is remote; both counties need each other economically, and both know it. Instead, the upcoming struggle will be a “war of influence,” as both sides seek to sway local populace and governments. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan Malaysia, and Brunei are also claimants to the South China Sea, the major route to U.S. $ 5 trillion in annual trade which makes freedom of the sea a major concern.
China’s Navy has become increasingly belligerent in the past three years; in addition to their regular claim to the energy-rich Spratley Islands, their Navy-escorted fishing fleet has become increasingly confrontational as it uses the 200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone subterfuge to fish in S. Korean, Philippine, and other Asian waters. While the ASEAN-zone countries are bolstering their navies to counter this Chinese threat, these are small countries and their build-up is limited to a few additional submarines and destroyer-escort sized ships. The Chinese know this, which is why they prefer bi-lateral talks in which they use their military and economic muscle to their advantage – hence it’s the physical presence of a Marine Expeditionary Unit backed up if necessary by conventional air power flying from Australia that reassures our Asian allies as to the depth of America’s commitment to regional security and stability.
The quickest, most effective, and most inexpensive response to a crisis has not been a U.S. Navy carrier battle group lying far over the horizon, but rather has been the very visible presence of a MEU sitting offshore with Marines providing humanitarian aid into a disaster zone or interacting with local citizens. The Obama-Gillard announcement stationing Marinews in Australia provides proof positive that the United States remains able and willing to provide an immediate and influential regional presence.