Last week’s freedom of navigation exercises seem to be bearing fruit: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter today was joined Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier stationed in the South China Sea. Reuters:
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
“Being here on the Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea is a symbol and signifies the stabilizing presence that the United States has had in this part of the world for decades,” Carter told reporters as the carrier sailed about 150 to 200 nautical miles from the southern tip of the Spratlys and about 70 nautical miles north of Malaysia.
Asked about the significance of his visit at such a time, he said: “If it’s being noted today in a special way, it’s because of the tension in this part of the world, mostly arising from disputes over land features in the South China Sea, and most of the activity over the last year being perpetrated by China.”
Malaysia has been pretty strongly opposed to China’s behavior in the South China Sea, but such a high-level photo op (particularly following the collapse of the ASEAN talks) is an important gesture from a country that typically walks a fine line between China (its largest trading partner) and the United States. Despite some fears that the U.S. could no longer project power as it used to, standing up to China seems to be playing well in the region so far.