On a gorgeous morning this autumn, at Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, I was expecting a huge popular demonstration, maybe even a riot. The U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington was about to enter Yokosuka’s harbor, the base of the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific. Never before had a nuclear-powered vessel been based in Japan. It was a clear demonstration of how the U.S. was reinforcing its presence in this part of the world—a danger zone, with China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan itself, all historical rivals, ranged around it. Japan has a long tradition of pacifist, antinuclear, and anti-American protests, and until now, the only country to have been bombed with nuclear weapons had always opposed hosting nuclear ships.
Yet no riot erupted; in fact, there was no trace of protest. Yokosuka was quiet. The only crowd on hand was on the base: 1,000 Japanese—mostly local dignitaries, politicians, and representatives of the Japanese Navy—joined a group of American officials to attend the majestic and complex maneuver of the George Washington from the high seas to the pier.
Speeches were numerous. The American speakers—ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer, Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter, and a number of admirals—predictably lavished praise on U.S.-Japanese friendship and expressed their commitment to peace in the Pacific. The surprise came from the Japanese side. Yokosuka’s mayor, Ryoichi Kabaya, said that while the Japanese had felt some initial reluctance about hosting a nuclear-powered ship in the port city, they had eventually concluded that the George Washington posed no safety threat. Japan’s newly appointed foreign affairs minister, Hirofumi Nakasone, was even more enthusiastic. He declared that no better friends existed on earth than Japan and America and that their alliance was the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in Asia. I wondered if the good feelings hadn’t received a boost from the recent rekindling of the North Korean nuclear program.
The George Washington eventually reached the pier. Following a Navy tradition, the first men to come ashore were fathers whose children were born in Japan while they were away at sea. Several family reunions ensued, demonstrative enough to embarrass the reserved Japanese.
“The purpose of the Navy,” Vice Admiral John Bird, commander of the Seventh Fleet, tells me, “is not to fight.” The mere presence of the Navy should suffice, he argues, to dissuade any attack or attempt to destabilize the region. From Yokosuka, Guam, and Honolulu, the Navy is sending its ships on missions to locales as far away as Madagascar. On board the Blue Ridge, the vice admiral’s command ship anchored at Yokosuka, huge display screens allow officers to track the movements of any country’s military vessels cruising from the international date line in the east to the African coast in the west—the range of the Seventh Fleet’s zone of influence.
How dangerous and unstable would Asia become without the Seventh Fleet? The Navy points to two different threats. The first is China, which has territorial claims against most of its neighbors. Taiwan comes immediately to mind, of course, but the Chinese government is also disputing ownership of the oil-rich Spratly Islands with Vietnam and the Philippines. If North Korea were to collapse, moreover, the Chinese Army could take over its territory before South Korea or the U.S. had time to intervene. China is building a very large deepwater fleet—the first in its history. (South Korea and Japan are similarly increasing their naval power.) Thus far, this Chinese fleet seldom moves far from China’s territorial waters, something that surprises the Seventh Fleet leadership. The lack of a high-seas tradition, perhaps?
The other peril comes from Islamic terrorism: a loose network of al-Qaida affiliates operating in East Java, northern Sumatra, the southern Philippines, and southern Thailand. The dream of an Islamic caliphate based in northern Sumatra, a revival of a former Arab kingdom, foments instability in Indonesia and the Philippines, both already shaky. U.S. Special Forces are active in the region, especially in Mindanao.
We have to project simultaneously our hard power and our soft power,” Bird says. The Seventh Fleet’s missions are often humanitarian, taking care of local medical or infrastructure problems. The largest recent effort of this kind took place in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami that devastated Indonesian and Thai coastal areas. “The image of the U.S. in Indonesia has been transformed by our intervention there,” Bird observes. “Suddenly, Indonesians, who had never met real Americans before, saw the U.S. as a compassionate and helpful nation.”
Friendship is also growing with India. After some 50 years of “neutrality,” including a long pro-Soviet period, India has become a strong American ally, thanks to the active diplomacy of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “We were surprised to discover our common background,” notes Bird. The American and Indian navies share a British maritime culture, which made joint operations smooth. India now seems as committed as Japan to an alliance with the U.S.—and as uneasy about China; India also finds itself more destabilized daily by domestic Islamic radicals.
For a stark example of what the region would be like without the American presence, look at the piracy occurring these days along the Somali coast, an area that America does not patrol. Pirates hijack and ransom tankers, interrupting the flow of oil, increasing insurance premiums, and ultimately raising the price of gas. In the Pacific, however, pirates act cautiously or not at all because they know that the Seventh Fleet is never far off.
In the long run, says Bird, regional conflict in the Pacific could even disappear, thanks to expanded global trade. But the presence of the Seventh Fleet is exactly what makes global trade possible here—and no other country has the power and the inclination to do it. The ultimate role of the U.S. Navy, the vice admiral concludes, is to keep the channels of commerce and communication open and safe, just as the British Navy did in the nineteenth century. “I am a disciple of Adam Smith,” he says wryly. “Peace can be reached by free trade, but free trade requires that the sea be policed by a strong navy.”