China: The View from Hawaii

NATIONAL REVIEW – By MICHAEL AUSLIN – September 1, 2010 8:00 AM

CPA note: Article written 10 years ago, back in September 2010…

While Washington sounds an uncertain trumpet, Pacific Command has no illusions about the rise of China.

Honolulu – Visiting America’s Pacific-based military forces, one gets the clear impression that they feel their countrymen are finally catching up with their views on the growing Chinese threat to Asian stability. Yet they worry that smaller budgets will make their job harder, and they know that the Asia-Pacific region will be watching to see whether Washington follows through on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s newly declared intention to oppose Beijing’s attempts to pressure smaller Asian nations over territorial issues. How the Obama administration shapes its Pacific strategy and manages relations with China will go a long way toward determining whether the United States retains its dominant position as a stabilizing force in the region.

To talk with the professionals at Pacific Command or Pacific Fleet is to return to what most landlubbers consider the bygone maritime world of Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad. Names such as Oceania, Palau, and the Lombok Strait regularly come up in conversation — not as vacation spots, but as places in which the United States is constantly engaged, wary of China, and planning how to maintain or expand its influence. Such is the worldview of the 325,000 U.S. military personnel under the command of Adm. Robert F. Willard.

In Hawaii, the benign view of China often expressed in Washington political circles is all but absent. Though clearly acknowledged, China’s economic power and its ostensibly positive political role in dealing with global issues are seldom discussed. For those at the tip of America’s Pacific spear, China’s aggressive policies and actions in recent years have immediate impact. They are not simply the fodder for talk shows or political salons.

Above all, there is a recognition that America is at a crossroads in deciding how it will play its role as the guarantor of regional stability. The future budget environment looks “lean,” in common parlance, making it harder to maintain U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and making it more likely that America will have to struggle to catch up to changing military balances, political alignments, and multilateral initiatives. For those who are forward deployed in the Pacific, “presence” is more than a description of how they operate; it is, rather, the essence of who they are. They believe that American ships, planes, and personnel must constantly interact with allies, partners, and even those who may be competitors. Such presence is crucial to creating pro-U.S. sentiment and alignments, especially given China’s dramatic increase in diplomatic and economic activity across the region.

Unfortunately, Washington, D.C., has become a growing obstacle to Pacific Command’s ability to do its job. While Pacific Command’s leaders publicly assert that they will continue to fulfill their mission, everyone looking at the issue knows that shrinking budgets, fewer ships in the Navy, and an aging Air Force will put severe stress on the force, diminishing its effectiveness. Shipbuilding plans show shortfalls in submarines, destroyers, and other surface ships over the next 30 years. Already, steaming time and flight hours are down, although officials avoid providing specifics. All of this cuts at the heart of operations in Pacific Command’s 100-million-square-mile area of responsibility, stretching from the West Coast of the United States to the Indian Ocean, and containing half the world’s population and 36 separate countries, including four of the most populous and powerful (China, India, Russia, and the U.S. itself).

Pacific Command’s head, Admiral Willard, is a former fighter pilot and a calm, no-nonsense leader. Previously commander of Pacific Fleet, he has transitioned since October 2009 from being directly involved in operations to managing the world’s largest military command. He now concerns himself with the broader geopolitical and strategic questions related to America’s role in the region, and he publicly asserts on a regular basis that the U.S. is fully committed to maintaining its role there. The leaders of Pacific Command are as much diplomats as war fighters, however, and Willard has to balance Beijing, the U.S. Congress, Tokyo, and myriad others who have a stake in the region.

Of significant concern to Willard and his colleagues are China’s attempts to buy influence among Pacific island nations and gain special treatment for its interests through enticing trade agreements and liberal spending. With a decline in both fleet and discretionary funds, officials both at the Pentagon and at Pacific Command believe that defending U.S. interests and water space against these Chinese incursions must be done increasingly through nontraditional approaches, such as partnership building, confidence building, and infrastructure support and training for less developed nations. Yet budget cuts are making even that difficult.

While a number of administration officials — such as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Chip Gregson — seem to fully share Pacific Command’s views on the threat posed by China’s growing naval and air capabilities, diplomatic heft, and economic influence, the reality is they will increasingly be hamstrung on the security side by budget caps imposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Adding fuel to the fire, Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Tex.) have recently been questioning why the U.S. continues to base troops in Japan. Such comments only confirm the fears of those working in Hawaii that people on the mainland (including national leaders) don’t understand how important it is to remain present in the region. To a degree little appreciated in Washington, every U.S. pronouncement and action undergoes extremely close scrutiny by Asian leaders and analysts, who seek to read the tea leaves regarding America’s credibility and intentions. 

Hence the feeling in Hawaii that Secretary Clinton’s statement on the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July represents a potential turning point. Yet no one, either here or in Washington, is quite sure how the U.S. will back up her words, an uncertainty shared by our Asian friends and partners. Those at Pacific Command are well aware that many outsiders believe Washington caved in to Chinese demands not to conduct anti–North Korean maritime exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea (near Chinese waters) in late July. Though the Obama administration and Honolulu-based military officials assert that the U.S. will indeed conduct exercises in the Yellow Sea in coming months, this “two steps forward, one step back” type of policy raises questions in nations across the region and makes Pacific Command’s assurances of America’s continued role a harder sell.COMMENTS

For now, however, the diplomatic line has been drawn in the water. As I left Pacific Command headquarters, overlooking Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was steaming off into the ocean to conduct multinational combat exercises. With one eye fixed on Washington, the men and women of Pacific Command continue to show the flag around the vastness of the Pacific, defending America’s interests — even when those interests remain unclear in the eyes of their countrymen and underfunded by their political leadership.

– Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

MICHAEL AUSLIN is the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of ASIA’S NEW GEOPOLITICS. He co-hosts THE PACIFIC CENTURY podcast.


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