The view from an aircraft carrier is a lesson in the optics of power. As an iconic embodiment of the naval reach of the nation it belongs to, an aircraft carrier’s gigantic dimensions overwhelm the contours of the landscape. The surroundings look small and polite in proportion to the size and destructive capacity of the carrier. So it was at the end of October, when I found myself at a reception aboard the USS George Washington, berthed at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. Seen from that floating citadel, the city-state of Singapore looked more like a city than a state. I felt a sudden urge to jump off the ship and hug my country before it shrank further.
The George Washington would be in the news soon as it carried out a mercy mission for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban and Guiuan in the Philippines. The humanitarian assistance was a formidable display of soft power by the United States in its relations with Southeast Asia.
But the relations are two-way. America’s forward presence in Southeast Asia (like its naval presence in Japan and South Korea) is crucial to its strategic and economic security. Its treaty allies, the Philippines and Thailand; Singapore, a close security partner although not a formal ally; and Vietnam, a former adversary whose warming ties with Washington are testimony of how quickly changing times can alter the legacy of conflict, help to facilitate the US presence in the region.
For example, the transfer of the US logistics command group for the western Pacific to Singapore and US naval access to Changi’s deep water pier have helped to entrench and extend America’s presence. “Places, not bases” in a way ensures a credible American presence in the region without the expenses incurred in maintaining permanent bases. Savings are ploughed back into the economy at home. Also, the forward presence does not merely protect American investment in Southeast Asia but also plays a significant role in America’s global security. This is because, as has been noted, the geography of Southeast Asian sea lanes makes them both regional and global Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) in economic and security terms. Terrorism and piracy in Southeast Asia would hurt American interests directly.
With Vietnam, US security ties are growing in tandem with economic links. Although the Vietnamese economy has been buoyed by its trade surplus with the US, a bilateral trade agreement laid the basis of reforms that will ultimately benefit American companies. Indeed, acccording to a study, Vietnam is the most attractive location for business expansion by American firms in Southeast Asia. Burgeoning economic ties were reflected dramatically in the security field when the Military Sealift Command dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd visited Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam in August 2011, marking the first visit by an American Navy ship to the port in more than three decades. Clearly, geopolitical developments in the region are helping to bring Hanoi and Washington closer.