I attended a talk given today by Admiral Gary Roughead, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations. He sketched out some of the challenges the Navy faces, including a tough budget environment and an increased pace of operations in the western Pacific. In discussing joint operations with foreign navies, he acknowledged that budget cuts have forced some countries to downsize their naval forces considerably. But he mentioned in particular recent productive exchanges with counterparts in India, Brazil, and South Africa.
In discussing the bubbling tension in the South China Sea, Roughead had some interesting thoughts on the bilateral and multilateral dimensions of the issue:
I think that the competition will continue. China in particular will want to keep it bilateral and not crack it open into the multilateral. Our real presence is critical to how it will play out. A virtual presence won't get it. It has to be real and predictable. It doesn't mean we're going to go toe-to-toe with anybody but being able to be a stabilizing force is important. Working with the other countries [in the region] is important.
In that context, he made a plea that the United States join the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is still stuck in the U.S. Senate despite strong Pentagon support (and despite the fact that the Bush administration supported it). He pointed out that some of the thorniest issues in the region may arise in the context of the convention, and that allies in the region want the U.S. in the system. "We are on the outside. Many countries want our leadership in the room, and we're not there."
As if to bolster his point, the foreign minister of the Philippines today told an audience in Washington that "maritime security is our problem, but it is also your problem." The Philippines has supported resolving South China Sea issues multilaterally on the basis of the Law of the Sea convention.