New great white fleet

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 October, 2008, 12:00am

A recent posting on a blog I read made a sage suggestion: what the world needs is not a bigger US military, but for the country to have a smaller foreign policy. I doubt the next administration in Washington is going to pay such sentiments any heed; a country with 1.4 million servicemen and women on its full-time payrolls is going to want them active, regardless of how internationally intrusive its policies are. That means posting them to its overseas bases and war zones, and making their presence felt through foreign visits, exercises with allies and, from time to time, humanitarian work.

Contrary to what the US government proclaims, such a force does not engender global peace. Rather, it increases the military spending of rivals and creates instability in swathes of the world. Ideally, the US' national defence force would be just that - a military that safeguards American boundaries unless pressing circumstances warrant otherwise.

But changing ways is not easy - particularly when they are, as in this case, a century old. This month, in 1908, the approach was being put forcefully into practice in Asia as the greatest naval force ever assembled in one place and time was making its way through the region. Then US president Theodore Roosevelt, determined that his country was to be a Pacific and international force, sent 14,000 sailors on 16 battleships and accompanying support craft on a world tour.

Never has there been a more virulent symbol of American supremacy. Named the Great White Fleet - ostensibly because the hulls of the vessels were painted white, but the connotation was that it also represented an Anglo-Saxon shield against alien foes - it left a lifelong impression of mightiness on those who saw it.

The ships of the Atlantic Fleet began leaving their home port in Virginia in December 1907 and began assembling in San Francisco Bay between May and July the following year. On July 7, they set sail for Hawaii and then went to New Zealand and Australia before steaming into the then American colony of the Philippines on October 2. At this time, a century ago, they were a day out of Manila heading for Yokohama; a squadron made a foray to the Chinese port of Xiamen and stayed there from October 29 to November 5 before regrouping in Manila. The fleet then sailed for Sri Lanka, Egypt and Gibraltar before arriving back in Virginia on February 22, 1909.

For a then-rising Japan, the message was plain: don't mess with us. Chinese also heard it loud and clear. Filipinos, who had initially hailed the US for ousting their Spanish overlords in 1898, soon found the real intention had been territorial expansion and the display of military might was meant to dampen their struggle for independence. The US military has not since left the region, at any one time having 100,000 personnel in Asia and the Pacific.

China may not be as transparent about its military as we would like, but it certainly acts on the whole more responsibly. As a Hong Kong-based expert on China's military observed, the nation's interests most likely lie in aerospace ventures; where the navy is concerned, attention will be on submarines and logistics vessels like the People's Liberation Army's first purpose-built hospital ship, launched in Guangzhou on August 29.

US overtures to China to join in military exercises have not been as warmly taken up as could be hoped. Beijing's cancelling of a US navy visit to Hong Kong last year over Tibet, and the current row over US arms sales to Taiwan, show how tenuous relations can be. But with the US entrenched in Asia, tensions and suspicions will only be allayed by the sides working together.

The US has had a positive military presence in the region through regular visits for disaster relief of its giant hospital ship, USNS Mercy. It is painted white and is clearly marked with red crosses, as is its new, but considerably smaller, Chinese counterpart. If there is to ever be another Great White Fleet, the eternal optimist in me suggests that it should comprise the two sides' hospital ships, sailing around the region in the name of Asia's humanitarian needs.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor