The Asian Great Game welcomes its newest big league player: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. His debut trip to Asia is something of a pep-talk express for America’s allies, bringing good tidings of continued American military and maritime presence despite deep budget cuts and increased Chinese assertiveness. From the NYT:
Mr. Panetta said, “I’ve made clear that even with the budget constraints that we are facing in the United States,” there is “no question that in discussions within the Pentagon, and discussions in the White House, that the Pacific will be a priority for the United States of America.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Panetta was blunt about his worries. “We’re concerned about China,” he told American service members in Naples, Italy. “The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific — to have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.”
Maintaining a strong US presence in the Pacific is good policy. American warships stabilize rather than exacerbate the region’s competing territorial claims over the South China Sea. Host to a third of the world’s shipping, the South China Sea ranks along side the Suez Canal and Straits of Hormuz as one of the world’s strategically vital global waterways. America’s role is vital: walk on water and carry a big stick – expensive, but necessary.Keeping up America’s military presence in Asia is, thankfully, good politics too. Between the US Senate, China-baiting Republicans and the upcoming election, Obama can’t afford to be seen as soft. Nor should he destabilize the status quo. America’s position in Asia is strong, and the rise of China is less of a challenge to that position than many armchair geopoliticians understand. China isn’t rising alone; a complex Asian state structure and balance of power is rising around it, and America has the opportunity to promote stability, growth and peace in a vital part of the world.