Weekend Divertissement – Naval War College National Security Symposium

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Naval War College brief given in northern California. This symposium – originally intended for the Naval Reserve community in the San Francisco Bay area but now open to the public by advanced registration – has been going on for several years: four professors from NWC give a two-day overview of the geostrategic situation, and the U. S. Navy’s role in it. This year’s Symposium was entitled “US GRAND STRATEGY DOES A REGIONAL REFOCUS: WILL THE U.S. NAVY BE READY”.

What a lot there is for a non-policy wonk to learn! First: in January of this year, President Obama announced a new national defense guidance, entitled “Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense“. In this document – as the professors describe it – the President lays out a strategic “pivot toward Asia”. As we wind down our involvement in central Asia (Afghanistan) and the Middle East (Iraq), our national focus turns decisively toward the western Pacific, and in particular toward China. The professors described several and extensive interviews with Naval leadership at the highest levels and their message is “we are completely in agreement with this strategic pivot”.

In his sessions, Doctor Toshi Yoshihara from the NWC China Maritime Studies Institute discussed the newly aggressive Chinese policy regarding the economic zone encompassed by the South China Sea. Professor Yoshihara also pointed out an associated policy expressing military reach to – and beyond – the “First Island Chain” – the rim of (mostly island) nations (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore) and the islands (with under-water resources) lying within their territorial waters – just off the Chinese mainland. It’s interesting to observe these nations’ response: increasing their defense budgets and sidling up to the US. What’s especially remarkable in this context is recent gestures by nations like Vietnam and the Philippines to “tilt” toward the US.

Another observation from Professor Yoshihara regards the immense amount of intellectual horsepower the Chinese are bringing to bear to develop an understanding of U.S. policy and capabilities – and to prepare policy and military responses. What’s especially remarkable about this is just how open the discourse is: Professor Yoshihara displayed a recent screenshot of his database search – key word “first island chain” – of Chinese academic literature: 657 papers, articles and books showed up. He also observed that any OpEd-like article he, as a recognized international China policy expert, publishes will appear, “in excellent Chinese translation”, in a substantial Chinese publication, within two weeks. Major academic articles or chapters appear within 2 months. Clearly, the Chinese are very interested in us…

The Professors went on to provide snapshots of the rest of the world: the middle powers in the western Pacific (Doctor David Cooper, Chair of the National Security Affairs Department): nervous and “tilting toward the US”; Africa: “So Much Coast, So Little Navy” (Doctor Richard Norton, National Security Affairs Department): problems with piracy and a lot of resource extraction by China and – India!; a newly emerging Russian navy (Doctor Thomas Fedysyn, National Security Affairs Department): visits to 7 nations in 2002, 37 last year – showing the flag and promoting Russian commerce; South America (Dr Norton), with an interesting observation that the Brazilian government has announced the intent to build its own, domestic, nuclear-powered submarine. And more.

One thing sure: even if one’s focus is in the past, it behooves us all to inform ourselves about the future. Seminars like this one are invaluable, and the Naval War College Foundation, which sponsors these events, are to be encouraged and congratulated.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

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