A welcome screen depicting an imposing warship, the US Navy Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer, with Mount Fuji in the background, set the eerie and precarious tone of the panel topic for the attendees, who were filing into the Konover Auditorium at the Dodd Center on a gloomy Thursday afternoon.
The Asia Maritime Panel, hosted by the UConn department of history and sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, focused on the strategic maritime competition between the U.S. and China, which was named as one of the top potential adversarial threats for the U.S. in the 2018 National Defense Strategy outlined by the Department of Defense.
This panel hosted distinguished figures and leading experts in the field such as Kathleen Stephens, the former US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Dr. James Kraska from the US Naval War College, Professor Lee Sung-Yoon from Tufts University, Professor Geoffrey Gresh from the National Defense University and Dr. Kevin Devringham from the US Department of Defense. Attendance in the crowd included not just UConn students and faculty, but also US Coast Guard Academy midshipmen, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force officers, visiting academics and foreign diplomats such as the Consul-General of Japan Rokuichiro Michii.
Stephens, the panel moderator, started off the discussion with the question of why this topic is so pivotal in the 21st century. She explained that maritime affairs in the Pacific Ocean greatly shape the United States’ diplomatic relations and standing in the modern world stage.
“As an American diplomat who served in Asia, I was constantly made aware of the intertwined nature of our maritime relations and our foreign policy approach in order to tackle our shared global challenges looking forward into the near future - the 21st century will be known as the ‘Pacific Century,’” Stephens remarked.
Kraska outlined the strategic role of American naval supremacy as a peacekeeping force to ensure freedom and economic prosperity in the region.
“For the past half century, a dominant and unchallenged U.S. in Asian waters was a stabilizing presence in the region and created an environment that transformed the region economically through security and open markets,” Kraska said.
While the US remained virtually unchallenged in the open seas in the recent past, a new maritime power is arising from the ocean depths: China. Gresh points to China as the main reason why the American defense strategy is changing from a prior focus on wars in the Middle East to now shifting its sights onto power projection in Asia.
“The American grand strategy is to project our forces away from the homeland to prevent the rival nations from dominating the globe, which explains why we fought the wars we fought in the past 130 years. The Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ is a new shift in national defense strategy to counterbalance the rise of China in the Pacific region,” Gresh said.
However, the Trump administration has been drawing back American influence in Asia according to its isolationist doctrine, which created a power vacuum that China would potentially exploit. Ambassador Stephens criticizes the current administration for withdrawing from the largest economic pact in the Pacific.
“The Trump administration walked away from the Trans-Pacific partnership, which was negotiated and constructed through years of diplomatic partnership, coalition-building and statecraft,” Stephens said.
Kraska answered the final question of the panel with a statement of what America should do if China continues to assert its authority to become the dominant naval power in Asia.
“We need to rely on deterrence, containment, and coalition building of multilateral alliances like the ‘Quad’ – the U.S., Japan, India and Australia - to tackle the instability in the region,” Kraska said.
For many in the crowd, this discussion served as a solemn warning that the future may bring turbulent waters in the Pacific Ocean. When asked how these why this urgent issue is important to the average college student, Nandan Tumu, a sixth semester computer science major and student trustee, said.
“Asian maritime issues will play a dominant role in shaping our nation’s foreign policy and the way we look at the world in the next few decades,” Tumu said. “Our generation will be at the helm of the problems that our nation face and we need to make sure that we have these discussions to approach these vital issues from a common place of understanding.”
The panel concluded with a grim statement from former Ambassador Stephens.
“We have returned to an era of great power competition.”
Derek Pan is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.