On January 19, 2013, the USS Guardian slammed into a coral reef. The accident probably did not garner too much attention here in the United States, but the incident caused an uproar in The Philippines and made front page news for at least a week. As Filipino news outlets reported the story, the warship ignored repeated warnings from FIlipino authorities that the warship was far too close to the Tubbataha Reef. The warship destroyed about 1,000 square meters of the reef, which incidentally is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its rich biodiversity.
Filipinos are rightly outraged, and the incident highlights the sensitivities and sensibilities of the “pivot” East. As the Obama Administration moves defense resources East, the Pentagon is betting that military hardware will 1) build an ever-stronger presence in the region and 2) back allies in the region. What the USS Guardian incident serves to highlight is that the United States needs to bolster its soft power in the region as well. Again, Filipinos are outraged, not only that a naval destroyer repeatedly ignored warnings from the Filipino Navy that the warship strayed too close to a UNESCO world heritage site, but from the resulting damage as well: the warship nearly spilled 15,000 gallons of fuel, and it will take months to remove the ship.
Further, some OP-EDs in national Filipino newspapers called on politicians to rethink their relationship with the United States, and others participated in a rally demanding that the US military permanently leave the country. In a battle to win the hearts and minds of a crucial ally in the region, the incident serves to remind Americans that the pivot requires a careful exercise of both hard and soft power. The United States needs to formally apologize, pay damages in full accordance with the law (300 USD per square meter of reef damaged by the ship), and promise to avoid such gaffes in the future. Hopefully it will be smooth sailing from there.