President Obama’s recent announcement that the United States Marines would begin a regular training program in Australia is a helpful symbolic step, but is not a replacement for a substantive response to the rise of China.
An occasional training visit by 2,500 marines signals a U.S. commitment to project power into the southern China region. In that sense this is a good sign for the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand, all of whom worry about growing Chinese power and assertiveness in the South China Sea.
For Australians this is an extension of the 70-year-old alliance dating back to World War II. That was the moment when Australians realized Great Britain did not have the power to contain Japan, and that Australia had to look to the U.S. for its very survival.
Sending these marines to Australia is a symbolic step which I approve of and support.
Yet symbolic steps without substance behind them can be invitations to defeat and even disaster.
The British learned this lesson of substance over symbolism the hard way in 1941-42.
For 20 years the British government had kidded itself about the rise of Japan. British planning arrogantly assumed that Japan would be weak and timid. They did not plan realistically for the rapid improvement in Japanese naval capacity. In particular, the British dramatically underestimated the quickly developing Japanese capabilities in both carrier and land-based aviation.
Finally, the British planners showed a complete lack of imagination. They built an enormous fortress in Singapore designed to stop any seaward threat. It seemed never to have occurred to them, however, that the threat might come from the land and attack Singapore from the rear.
This failure of British realism and imagination led to catastrophe. They symbolically sent their newest battleship, the Prince of Wales, and a modern battlecruiser, the Repulse, to “impress” the Japanese. The Japanese sank them from the air with enormous loss of life. They poured extra troops into Singapore after its fate was sealed and led to the largest surrender in British history.
Symbolism without substance is a very dangerous business.
Substance in dealing with China would involve very bold changes.
It would involve fixing our education system so our graduates can match Chinese graduates in math, science, technology and engineering.
It would mean rebuilding our industrial capacity so America is once again “the arsenal of democracy,” and recapitalizing our military so our air force and navy are decisively superior to China’s for the next generation.
It would require revitalizing our program in space so we can dominate this emerging area of competition.
We would need to rethink and reinvest in a massive offensive and defensive cyber capacity, and develop a strategic investment in defense against electromagnetic pulse attacks.
These are the kind of substance strategies which have to be undertaken to make our symbolic efforts real.
That is a long way from a presidential announcement about 2,500 marines.