Speak Softly and Carry a Big Ship

Why Teddy Roosevelt would have sent a carrier strike group to China.

Sailors work on the flight deck of the US navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on August 15, 2014 in the Gulf. The US aircraft carrier is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of responsibility. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)

Would Theodore Roosevelt have dispatched a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to China for a port call? It’s not quite sailing softly, but it is a big stick. And the exercise of diplomacy — including the naval variety — isn’t just about maintaining cordial relations with friends. Roosevelt reached out to neutrals and prospective foes, as well as partners. Mounting a discreet display of force without getting another country’s dander up — which he did to great success with the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902 — was a hallmark of Roosevelt’s diplomacy.

And yet Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who calls America’s cowboy president his hero — recently urged the Pentagon to cancel just such a visit. In early February, McCain, the newly installed Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, sent outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work a letter imploring them not to send an aircraft carrier strike group to China for a port call. (A carrier strike group is a carrier and its air wing, along with their entourage of destroyers and cruisers for defense and logistics ships for support.)

Navy task forces commonly pay visits to foreign ports — and occasionally to Chinese and Russian ones. In July, the chief of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Adm. Wu Shengli, reportedly requested a visit while meeting with U.S. Navy chief Adm. Jonathan Greenert. A few days after McCain’s letter, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren announced that “we have no plans for a carrier visit to mainland China this year.”

So McCain got his way. But the question lingers: Why not make such a gesture? U.S. Navy ships call at foreign ports all the time — and not just those in cuddly, pro-American countries: Warships have recently docked in Da Nang, Vietnam, and Jakarta, Indonesia. Why should this time be any different?

The senator makes several points to justify naval non-diplomacy toward Beijing. McCain insists that dispatching a U.S. Navy carrier — “one of the most sophisticated and lethal military tools in world history” — would constitute “an international display of respect to China and its Navy” at a time when Beijing has turned bellicose in offshore waters. China has sought to enforce its territorial claim to most of the South China Sea, including by “reclaiming” islets and reefs — in effect manufacturing new outposts for aircraft and other military forces. And in the East China Sea, its coast guard has tussled with Japan’s navy over tiny islands claimed by both nations, raising the prospect of a Sino-Japanese war. For McCain, dispatching a prestige platform like a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier now would appear to reward surly — and predatory — behavior.

McCain does concede that the U.S. military needs to keep up “sustained and substantive” ties with the China’s military. That’s why defense officials swiftly reinstated military-to-military contacts in January after apparently curtailing them to protest harassment of U.S. ships and aircraft transiting international waters and skies. The Pentagon views military-to-military ties as a way to reduce misunderstandings and manage frictions between leading Asian maritime powers. But a port call, contends McCain, would “send the wrong signal” to Asian allies and partners that look to Washington for “leadership in the face of China’s continued use of coercion to pursue its territorial claims.” In other words, an overly friendly posture toward China telegraphs a lack of resolve.

Judging from his handling of maritime affairs, Roosevelt would likely disagree. Teddy wasn’t just the quintessential badass American president, ranching in the Dakota Badlands, raising a volunteer regiment to fight Spain, and leading troops in the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba; he was also a consummate naval diplomat. He sent the U.S. Navy battleship fleet — the ancestor to today’s carrier-centric Navy — around the world in 1907 to 1909. Roosevelt knew something about a show of force: Naval diplomacy consolidates relationships with seagoing allies and partners, wins friends among neutrals, and faces down prospective antagonists. Skillfully executed, furthermore, it could even give rise to cooperation. If, that is, the nation on the receiving end of U.S. deterrence comes to believe it gains nothing from adventurism. Strength underlies seaborne cooperation.

Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” called at friendly harbors throughout the Atlantic and Pacific. But it also visited Imperial Japan — and not just as a token of goodwill. The American visit came shortly after the imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had sunk two Russian fleets, at the Battle of the Yellow Sea (1904) and the Battle of Tsushima Strait (1905). These triumphs established Japan as Asia’s seafaring hegemon, not to mention a threat to America’s strategic position in the region. Britain’s Royal Navy had more or less evacuated the Far East in order to wage a naval arms race against imperial Germany.

That left only the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, an assortment of castoff warships with little combat punch, to supply a counterweight to Japanese ambitions. And a feeble counterweight it was. Unlike today’s Japan-based 7th Fleet — “with 60-70 ships, 200-300 aircraft and approximately 40,000 Sailors and Marines operating in the region on a typical day,” according to its website — the Asiatic Fleet was not a serious battle force. Nor was it meant to be: It existed mainly to show the Stars and Stripes in Asian ports. Only after reinforcements steamed to the fleet’s aid from Hawaii or West Coast bases could the U.S. Navy fight and win against the Japanese. (And indeed, the IJN made short work of the fleet in 1941 to 1942, after incapacitating the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.)

Hence Roosevelt’s decision to order the Great White Fleet to Japan. In the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Baltic Fleet was forced to journey some 20,000 miles to do battle against the IJN. The debilitated fleet made easy pickings for a freshly refitted Japanese force. Roosevelt wanted to prove to Tokyo that the U.S. Navy could do what the Russian Navy had not: steam thousands of miles and arrive in Far Eastern waters in fighting trim.

In short, the president hoped to deter Japanese aggression — in particular against the Philippines, annexed by the United States in 1899 after the Spanish-American War. No chest-thumping accompanied Roosevelt’s naval diplomacy. He meant only to reassure Tokyo of Washington’s friendly intentions while demonstrating that the U.S. Navy could hold its own in East Asia.

If the U.S. Navy’s striking power resides in carriers — as it resided in battleships during the age of Roosevelt — then why not send one to China, showing that the U.S. Navy can still hold its own in East Asia? Why not flourish the big stick of U.S. naval power? Watching a floating fortress steam past in a U.S. Navy promotional video is one thing. That’s an abstraction, unimpressive for younger generations marinated in videogames, and in movies loaded with computer-generated graphics. Having a carrier dock in Hong Kong or Shanghai is another. It’s the difference between watching Battleship and stepping aboard the real battleship USS Missouri. One is imaginary — the other a spectacle no filmmaker can match.

As long as administration officials, diplomats, and naval officers and diplomats brand a port call as a show of strength, and as long as they speak frankly and confidently about their purposes, Beijing will find it hard to depict the United States as either weak or overbearing to domestic and Asian audiences. Properly packaged, in short, a visit would meet McCain’s tests for naval diplomacy vis-à-vis China: Washington will have maintained ties with the PLA, conveyed resolve to Beijing, and heartened allies and partners in the region. And the ghost of Roosevelt would no doubt approve.

To be sure, routine port calls today differ starkly from the Great White Fleet’s epic cruise. The Great White Fleet constituted the entire U.S. Navy battle force, and its two-year expedition was a national undertaking. By contrast, one carrier strike group represents only a small fraction of U.S. naval strength today, embarking on an everyday port visit. It won’t have the same drama — or political impact.

But at the same time, the 7th Fleet — including a carrier strike group — resides in Asia. It is a robust combat force, far less dependent than yesteryear’s Asiatic Fleet on reinforcements coming from afar. The American Navy, in short, needs not prove anew that it can venture across the Pacific Ocean and arrive ready for action. The Navy only needs to remind Beijing it can still do what it’s been doing for 70 years.

Send the fleet.


James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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