President Barack Obama’s nine-day Asian and Australian tour in November was marked by a sudden outburst of bellicose oratory at the sixth East Asian Summit in Bali. China must “play by the rules” and stop her “military advances,” he declared, and the United States “will send a clear message to [the Chinese] that we think that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power.”
Even more surprising was Obama’s subsequent announcement in Canberra that 2,500 U.S. Marines, as well as U.S. Navy and Air Force units, would be deployed to Darwin in Northern Australia. As a Pacific power the United States “will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region,” the President told Australian MPs. “We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace . . . and we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century.”
Obama’s rhetoric and the attendant decision to broaden America’s overseas military commitments are difficult to understand. There is no security crisis in Southeast Asia resulting from China’s aggressive military advances. There is a complex dispute between China and two Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam and the Philippines, over sovereign rights in the South China Sea. Their competing claims are not new, and the incidents involving patrol boats chasing away fishermen and surveyors have been going on for decades. It is unclear what “rules” are being broken by the Chinese and on what grounds Obama claims the right to intervene and stop the violations. From a realist perspective Washington’s involvement in that dispute is as legitimate as Beijing getting involved in a row among the United States, Mexico, and Cuba over drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico.
For the United States, the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Western Pacific is vitally important only within the paradigm of global hegemony, which does not allow any point on the planet to be excluded from the projection of U.S. power and from the effects of U.S. deterrence. In terms of traditional American geopolitical interests it is less important than Europe or the Middle East, not to mention Central and South America. For China, by contrast, this is an area of vital strategic significance—the most important spot in the world, in fact. More than four fifths of China’s oil and gas imports come from the Persian Gulf and Africa. A massive fleet of tankers is constantly on the move, crossing the Indian Ocean, negotiating the Straits of Malacca, and plying the South China Sea. The same route is used to ship two thirds of China’s exports to consumers in Europe and various points en route. Any attempt to change the strategic equation in the region is bound to be perceived by Beijing as a threat to its key interests.
There are already over 100,000 U.S. troops within striking distance of China’s ports, from Korea and Japan to Okinawa and Guam. They should have been brought home decades ago, since our friends in Seoul and Tokyo are perfectly capable of looking after their own defense needs, but now we know this will not happen. The node at Darwin provides a key logistic link in the extended arc from American strongholds in the Pacific to the island base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and to Mombasa on the east coast of Africa.
An enhanced U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific region, accompanied by language seemingly calculated to evoke memories of her subordination to Western powers, is a challenge China cannot afford to ignore. Nobody should be fooled by the calmly Confucian turn of phrase used by Beijing’s foreign-ministry spokesman, who declared that Obama’s new policy in the region “deserves to be debated.” Yes, it will be debated by China’s political and military leaders, and a long-term counterstrategy will be devised. It will include additional investment in China’s already growing naval power and promises of large-scale investments to potential allies. It will also include a judicious use of China’s massive reserves of U.S. dollars and Treasury notes as a means of deterring or countering pressure from Washington. And finally it will include a readiness to respond to each challenge and escalate to the point of armed conflict, rather than accept a subordinate role along the maritime lifeline.
In a time of economic, cultural, and moral decline America needs to redefine her core interests and decide which ones are worth fighting and dying for. Our military-political commitments and self-proclaimed interests overseas already exceed the ability of this country to defend them. The limits of American power are evident and demand a rational correlation between ends and means.