Foreign Policy Blogs

The U.S. Navy: Winning Friends and Influencing People

For those interested in the growing U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea, a very good read here.  It opens thusly:

The nations of Southeast Asia are building up their militaries, buying submarines and jet fighters at a record pace and are edging closer strategically to the United States as a hedge against China’s rise and its claims to all of the South China Sea.

…and continues farther down:

Concerns in Southeast Asia about China’s rise were on display in Hanoi in mid-July during a regional security forum that included the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the United States, China and other Asian powers.  During the meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the first time effectively rejected China’s claims to sovereignty over the whole 1.3 million-square-mile sea.  Eleven other nations, led by Vietnam, backed the United States, leaving Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi noticeably shaken by the offensive, diplomats present said.

And a notable fact:

In 2009, when asked to choose a country that would be the greatest source of peace and stability in the region in 10 years, “strategic elites” in the region overwhelmingly chose the United States according to a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.  The country that posed the greatest threat to security in the region, the survey found, was not North Korea but China.

(Courtesy: WikiCommons)

(Courtesy: WikiCommons)

There is a lot that can be said about the substance of this issue and the way it is unfolding.  The point I’d like to focus on here is what a great illustration this is of the value of the U.S. military as a diplomatic asset.  There is more to the U.S. military’s role in American foreign policy than its ability to defeat adversaries.  With its overwhelming size and reach, it can also be a powerful tool for attracting allies.  This is especially true of the U.S. Navy, which can quickly mobilize in response to humanitarian crises like the 2004 Asian Tsunami, maintain generally free shipping lanes and, as in this case, prevent a bigger power from dominating smaller ones.  These capabilities grant the U.S. diplomatic leverage around the world and present great opportunities to make and strengthen alliances; another good demonstration of this is the U.S. military’s ongoing role in delivering aid to Pakistan in response to the severe flooding there.

More importantly, the U.S. Navy dominates the seas in a way that much of the world supports, especially when the alternative would be the economic uncertainty of a return to naval rivalry.  Far better to have one country, in this case the U.S., serving as the “System Administrator” (to use Thomas Barnett’s phrase) on the high seas to enforce clear and fair rules.  The long-time U.S. emphasis on promoting open markets and the rule of law abroad is key here; trade-reliant Southeast Asian countries would be far less likely to invite an active U.S. presence in the South China Sea if they did not view U.S. policy there as beneficial to their interests and preferable to that of the Chinese.

A lot has been written recently about the politics of the South China Sea; one solid piece can be found here.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.