From Nehru to Kennedy – The Transformation of President Obama

Think back to the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis. The Soviet Union had embarked on an ambitious drive to become involved in South America. The initial responses of President Kennedy’s were indecisive and unsuccessful. These mistakes emboldened the Soviet Union to act more aggressively. Finally, in 1962, President Kennedy had to respond.

Faced with many risky options, President Kennedy chose the smartest and most effective option. His decision was to match America’s greatest strength against the biggest weakness of the Soviet Union. He took a resolute stand and put America’s dominant Navy directly in front of Soviet naval ambitions in Cuba. The Soviets were stunned. They never expected this determination and this brilliant move. The Soviet chess masters realized they had been checkmated and they withdrew from Cuba,

We thought of this when we read the Washington Post article titled Navy’s next stop in Asia will set China on edge. This article reports that “The United States and Singapore are in the final negotiating stages of
an agreement to base some of the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships
at the Changi Naval Base”
. This follows the decision to base 2,500 marines in Darwin, a military base in Northern Australia. That decision will prove to be the most significant initiative of the Obama Administration , as we wrote last week.

                  ( The USS Independence – a littoral combat ship – src Washington Post)

Singapore* is widely known as a business center and as a peaceful city state that symbolizes world trade. Frankly, that pales when compared to its geo-strategic location. Singapore sits at the opening of the Strait of Malacca into South China Sea. Over 25% of the world’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca. And the Strait of Malacca narrows to 2.8 km (1.5 nautical miles) near Singapore. according to Wikipedia. This makes Singapore one of the world’s most important choke points for naval traffic.


          (Location of Singapore – src Wikipedia)        (aerial view of the Strait of Malacca – src Wikipedia)

Virtually all of China’s oil imports flow through the Strait of Malacca. China’s naval access to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa runs through the Strait of Malacca. Singapore, as the Washington Post article points out, “is also on the southern edge of the South China Sea, the subject of
increasingly nasty territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines
and other countries.”

Now President Obama has decided to base US Naval Combat Ships at this choke point of extraordinary importance. This is why the Washington Post article writes:

  • If China is unhappy with the Obama administration’s decision to send a handful of Marines to northern Australia, wait until the U.S. Navy starts basing warships in Singapore, on the edge of the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

China’s increasingly belligerent behavior has posed a major challenge to the United States. China has declared the South China Sea as its own sphere of influence and essentially warned the US to stay out. China has put substantial economic and military pressure on smaller South East Asian countries to fall in line.

President Obama has made a smart, effective and contained response to the Chinese hegemony drive. He has rejuvenated a military alliance with Australia. Now he has established a new naval presence in Singapore. 

Like President Kennedy in 1962, President Obama has matched America’s greatest strengths against China’s greatest weaknesses.  China’s greatest military weakness is the exposure of China’s southern coast to a naval attack. This southern coast is the heart of Han China and it sits virtually naked in front of a wall of potentially anti-Chinese countries from Vietnam , Philippines and Indonesia. These countries are no threat to China by themselves but backed by US Naval power, they can create a naval Wall against China.

China’s biggest economic weakness is what President Hu Jin Tao termed its Malacca problem. A blockade of Malacca Strait can cut off all of China’s oil imports and its exports to Europe & Middle East. The US Navy plans to base its combat chips in Singapore, right at the entrance of the Malacca Strait. At the other end of the Malacca Strait, sit India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands where India is building a massive naval base.

China has been very active in courting Myanmar as an ally. China is building a large oil pipeline through Myanmar’s port of Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal to bypass the Strait of Malacca. Secretary Hillary Clinton is scheduled to make a historic visit to Myanmar to improve relations and to loosen China’s grip over Myanmar. This potentially cuts off China’s efforts to bypass the Strait of Malacca.
None of these are offensive moves by America. This is simply putting chess pieces in proper positions. It allows America to potentially check mate Chinese ambitions if necessary. And America is not alone, the way China is. Every South East Asian country welcomes American presence in the South China Sea.

So President Obama has simply arrayed America’s greatest strengths, its Navy, its free trade policies and access to America’s economy, in South China Sea and in Australia. Now it is up to China to respond either as an economic ally that desires to succeed in harmony with its neighbors or to respond with a suicidal battle to establish its hegemony.

Frankly, this is not just being Kennedyesque. It is raising Kennedy smarts by several notches. The Soviet Union underestimated President Kennedy and paid a very heavy price. Chinese leadership should learn from Khrushchev’s mistakes. They should not underestimate President Obama.

Back in July 2009, we wondered Is Barack Obama America’s Jawaharlal Nehru? We concluded that article with:

  • Nehru never understood the
    challenge posed by China. He paid a heavy personal price for this
    mistake but his country, India, has paid a far greater price and is
    still paying an enormous price for that mistake. Obama’s great
    fortune is that today’s America is not as complacent or weak as India
    was in 1947. Obama merely has to listen to America’s experts and change
    his agenda. The trillion dollar question is Will He?

Yes, He Has. 

* Singapore has been a naval center for at least 2,000 years. It was established as Sinha-Pur, a Sanskrut name that means the City of Lions. Its modern name and current prominence dates to the British trading post established there in 1819.

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