Mr Obama might not have been able to attend some recent high-profile international meetings in South Asia, choosing instead to remain in his office to deal with the fiscal partisan belligerency conducted by his political rivals. Acting as the US President, Mr Obama’s first responsibility is to the American people, and of course fighting political fires at home is always going to be more important than any chin-wagging in Bali.
But his absence left a nasty taste in the mouths of long-time allies in the Asia Pacific, especially the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.
Symbolism is very important in Asia, so when an American head of state declines to meet with other leaders in the region, many consider it an insult first and a cultural difference second. US plans for the region appeared to be unable get off the ground.
Then Typhoon Haiyan tumbled over the southern Philippine islands on November 8.
Thousands of locals were killed by the storm as Manilla seemed powerless to help its citizens and the serious limits of governmental control over the country were exposed. Food and water for the survivors were suddenly not available and disease became a real threat.
America responded to the disaster in a truly American fashion: by sending in its military.
The US aircraft carrier group CVN 73 George Washington is underway near the Philippine region of Leyte where US General Douglas MacArthur’s force landed on October 20, 1944. US military forces are currently ferrying supplies to the stricken country and will continue until the job is complete, according to a Department of Defense spokesperson.
Washington has also pledged more than US$37 million in humanitarian aid, which is expected to rise as the extent of the damage is assessed. China, which is locked in a bitter dispute with the Philippines over desolate islands in the South China Sea, has to date raised US$1.64 million in aid.
So if symbolism truly is important in Asia, then the US effort in the Philippines has to be speaking thousands of unsaid words. The Philippines was already one of the tightest US allies in the region before the typhoon, but almost any country facing similar humanitarian tribulations would probably receive the same response from Washington. That’s just the way the US Navy works.
That’s because every day of every year hundreds of US ships steams across the world’s oceans, patrolling hotspots, exercising with allies, and protecting international trade routes. Billions of US treasury dollars are spent annually on safeguarding the world’s market system and logistics.
|US aircraft carrier group CVN 73 George Washington|
In times of struggle, the quiet power and effectively unlimited reach of the enormous American naval forces moves temporarily into the spotlight. There is effectively no competition to the US Navy and it will always be a maritime merchant power.
And for all the frets about a rapidly growing Chinese naval capability, Beijing cannot yet field anything like the US carrier group for humanitarian relief – even if they wanted to.
Yet the US Navy not only has supremacy over the world’s oceans, allowing nations without robust navies to rely on the US Navy for protection - thereby limiting the chances of more wars - it can bring huge amounts of relief to countries facing horrific natural disasters with simply breathtaking speed.
As the US troops fly helicopters with tarpaulins and meals to the Philippines, Mr Obama’s slowly unfolding strategy for the Pacific could be getting new life. This impressive display of American hard power should translate very clearly into an important step for its other soft power strategy in Asia.