Southeast Asia is a long way from northern Michigan, but I have just relocated from there to here. Despite the distance, Michiganders and all Americans are closely connected to Asia through investment and trade, tourism, education, diplomacy and security. Since the Vietnam War, the United States has remained quietly but deeply involved. By the end of the Obama administration, America’s position in the region was judged to have never been better.
But the balance of power is shifting — and quickly — with the U.S. now widely seen to be in decline and retreat, while China is expanding its position and influence. [This is the subject of my Wednesday evening International Affairs Forum public talk at the Hagerty Center at NMC]. While neither America’s decline nor China’s ascent should be overstated, there is truth to this pervasive perception.
Two personal vignettes capture these shifting sands. In May I had the honor to be invited on board the USS Carl Vinson as it docked in Singapore following combat exercises near North Korea and in the South China Sea. For those who haven’t been on an aircraft carrier, it’s an awe- inspiring experience. The Carl Vinson was commissioned in 1980 and is a massive 101,300 ton Nimitz-class supercarrier that heads Carrier Strike Group 1— comprised of 7,500 sailors, pilots and marines as well as accompanying guided missile destroyers, cruisers and attack submarines (the strike group just returned to its home port in San Diego last Friday after a six-month deployment in the Pacific). I could not have been more impressed by the F-18 pilots, sailors and officers with whom I interacted.
The Carl Vinson is one of six carriers and 100,000 personnel under the Navy’s Pacific Command (PACOM) now deployed in the Pacific theater. They do much to maintain stability and deter aggression in a volatile region. These fine military personnel are backstopped by equally dedicated Foreign Service officers deployed throughout the region (and around the world).
Yet, America is increasingly seen in Southeast Asia as a single-dimensional power: military. U.S. diplomacy in the region is episodic, while our “soft power” is under severe threat by the Trump administration. Proposed new budget cuts would slash 28 percent of the State Department’s budget, directly impacting key American development assistance and public diplomacy programs in Asia. This includes the threatened elimination of the Asia Foundation, the East-West Center, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the venerable Fulbright Program. These institutions have contributed enormously over the decades by training and tying Asian leaders and citizens to the United States and building goodwill between Asians and Americans. Now, if the Trump budget follows through on these ill-considered ideological cuts, in the words of a seasoned Southeast Asian expert, “…all you Americans will have left are your aircraft carriers.”
My second personal vignette came a week later when I visited the ancient port city of Malacca in southern Malaysia.
There is no more strategic choke point in the world; every year thousands of vessels traverse the 550-mile strait ferrying half the world’s merchandise and 60 percent of East Asia’s energy supplies.
My principal reason for visiting Malacca was to get a look at a massive new complex being built by China. While not (yet) a naval base for China, the Malacca Gateway project involves a deep water port that will handle more than twice the amount of container traffic than Singapore, a modern financial center, a new residential city and industrial parks.
Malacca Gateway is just one of dozens of new Chinese projects now crisscrossing Asia as part of Beijing’s vaunted “Belt and Road Initiative”— massive infrastructure projects throughout Asia linking up in Europe. China has already pledged an estimated $1.4 trillion to the project. As one distinguished Singaporean former diplomat explained to me, “This is soft power.”
The Chinese navy may still be far from rivaling the American fleet (although closing the gap), but the nature of strategic competition in 21st century Asia is now being waged as much with soft power as hard power.
The United States needs to add — not subtract— from the State Department’s budget for development assistance, public diplomacy and education programs.
American companies need to get back in the infrastructure building business, at home and abroad.
And American citizens need to understand— and support —these important elements of American foreign policy. If the U.S. does not get in the soft power game in Asia (and elsewhere), we will soon only be left with our hard power and aircraft carriers— a condition like all other declining powers in modern history.
About the author: David Shambaugh, a summer resident of Old Mission, is Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian studies, political science and international affairs, and director of the China policy program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

Shambaugh speaks to the International Affairs Forum at 6 p.m. June 28 at NMC’s Hagerty Conference Center. Tickets are available online or at the door ($15 for IAF members; $20 for non-IAF members). Call 231-995-1706 for more information.