Foreign Policy

The South China Sea and America’s role in global stability

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As the world’s major economies gather in China for the G20 summit, the Chinese have sought to set the formal agenda – and exclude any discussion of a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Being much more well-versed in the details of disputed Middle Eastern territories on the other side of the continent, it wasn’t until I returned from a trip to Tokyo this week that I gained a new appreciation for America’s role in the region’s seas.

{mosads}Along with a bipartisan group of former government officials, foreign policy experts and journalists, we heard from top Japanese military, government and policy leaders. Between discussions of intricacies of maritime law and local geography, one point was echoed throughout – the United States must not pull back. 

From Tokyo to Jerusalem to Brussels, the fear that America may wall itself off from the world is understandable. After all, a dangerous vision of a less-engaged United States is heard not only in the stump speeches of one of the two candidates for the White House, but also is shared by nearly 60 percent of Americans who say the nation should “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their problems the best they can.”

This issue is greater than any one election. With a delicate and complex structure of international alliances and interests, it is essential that when U.S. diplomats and leaders deliver messages to our allies and non-allies alike throughout the world, those messages are strengthened by the strategic impact of our military assets throughout the world.

We must not step back.

An isolationist America would not only have a disastrous impact here at home, but it would also be devastating to many of our most important allies throughout the world – from our more than two dozen allies in NATO to those in the Middle East and Asia.

The U.S. is the backbone of NATO. To retreat from our treaty obligations and undo the most successful military alliance in history would destabilize Europe. NATO was created to combat the aggression of the Soviet Union, and the lack of stability created by the fall of the alliance would be exploited by non-state actors to spread terrorism. A NATO without U.S. support would lead to a world far less welcoming to liberal democracies and our shared values.

And in the Middle East, one of the most volatile regions in the world, abandoning our alliances and force deployment in the region would leave Israel, one of our most important allies, seriously compromised. From creating the anti-missile defense umbrella – Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow III – and the powerful X-band radar to joint military exercises such as Juniper Cobra and Reliant Mermaid to, of course, the billions of dollars in military assistance, the U.S. works with Israel to advance our shared interest in the Middle East and to counter terrorism. As a former boss of mine who served on the appropriations committee was known for saying, “Israel is like an aircraft carrier of democracy, freedom and strength in a sea of autocracy, theocracy, and terrorist-challenged monarchies” and that our aid to Israel is, in reality, a strategic bargain.

Like NATO and U.S.-Israel relationship, our alliance with Japan is a pillar of protecting American interests. 

Disengaging from the U.S.-Japan alliance would embolden China and like-minded undemocratic countries. In the dispute over the South and East China seas, China has literally created artificial islands and repeatedly swarmed disputed seaways with supposedly civilian fishing boats. While small incursions or construction projects may seem minor, the control of these seas hangs in the balance. But the U.S.-Japan partnership has ensured that China hasn’t succeeded. Retreating and conceding complete control of the South and East China seas to China would give the Chinese an even greater role in the economy and would greatly expand its strategic military reach.

Were we to pull back from Asia, our current allies, like Japan and South Korea, would have nowhere else to go. China would dominate.

America’s international power – from our diplomats and our war fighters to foreign aid and joint cooperation with our allies – acts as a stabilizing force and serves as a strong deterrent to keep our enemies from going to war. We are most successful when we win the battle before it even begins.

As Secretary Hillary Clinton said earlier this week, speaking before a group of thousands of veterans, “We stand with our allies because generations of American troops fought and died to secure those bonds, and because they deliver for us every day. Our allies share intelligence on terrorists. They provide staging areas for our military so we can respond quickly to events on the other side of the world.” The U.S. “is the global force for freedom, justice and human dignity,” also rightly noting that “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void.”

We must continue to engage in the world, not just to stand by our alliances and values abroad, but to make America even stronger here at home. 

Aaron Keyak most recently served on the senior staff of Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and currently runs Bluelight Strategies, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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