How China and the US Are Spawning a New Great Power Naval Rivalry
The rise and fall of empires has long been a story at the heart of history. Since the Europeans first burst out of their then-marginal region on wooden sailing ships mounted with cannons in the fifteenth century, the planet seldom has had a moment in which several imperial powers weren’t competing for supremacy. In 1945, that number was reduced to two and then, for what the Washington elite briefly imagined would be forever, to one. Now, we seem to be returning to an updated imperial version of the naval contests that began modern history so many centuries ago. The Americans, the Chinese, and in a more modest way, the Russians are all bolstering their forces on the high seas in increasingly challenging ways.
Amid the intense coverage of Russian cyber-manoeuvring and North Korean missile threats, another kind of great-power rivalry has been playing out quietly in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The US and Chinese navies have been repositioning warships and establishing naval bases as if they were so many pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. To some, it might seem curious, even quaint, that gunboats and naval bastions, once emblematic of the Victorian age, remain even remotely relevant in our own era of cyber-threats and space warfare.
Yet if you examine, even briefly, the central role that naval power has played and still plays in the fate of empires, the deadly serious nature of this new naval competition makes more sense.
The Age of Empire
For the past 500 years, from the 50 fortified Portuguese ports that dotted the world in the sixteenth century to the 800 US military bases that dominate much of it today, empires have used such enclaves as Archimedean levers to move the globe. Throughout the twentieth century and the first years of this one, military bases in the South China Sea, in particular, have been flashpoints for geopolitical change. The US victory at Manila Bay in 1898, the fall of the British bastion of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, America’s withdrawal from Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, and China’s construction of airstrips and missile launchers in the Spratly Islands since 2014, all have been iconic markers for both geopolitical dominion and imperial transition.
Indeed, in his 1890 study of naval history, that famed advocate of seapower Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, arguably America’s only original strategic thinker, stated that “the maintenance of suitable naval stations…, when combined with decided preponderance at sea, makes a scattered and extensive empire, like that of England, secure.”
Although Mahan was read as gospel by everyone from American President Teddy Roosevelt to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, his observations do not explain the persistent geopolitical significance of such naval bases. Especially in periods between wars, these bastions seem to allow empires to project their power in crucial ways.
America as a Pacific Power
As the US began its ascent to global power by expanding its navy in the 1890s, Captain Mahan, then head of the Naval War College, argued that Washington had to build a battle fleet and capture island bastions, particularly in the Pacific, that could control the surrounding sea-lanes. Influenced in part by his doctrine, Admiral George Dewey’s squadron sank the Spanish fleet and seized the key harbour of Manila Bay in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
In 1905, however, Japan’s stunning victory over the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Tsushima Strait (between southern Japan and Korea) suddenly revealed the vulnerability of the slender string of bases the US then possessed, stretching from Panama to the Philippines. Under the pressure of the imperial Japanese navy, Washington soon abandoned its plans for a major naval presence in the Western Pacific. Within a year, President Theodore Roosevelt had removed the last Navy battleship from the region and later authorized the construction of a new Pacific bastion at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
In 1943, the War Department decided that the country’s postwar defence required retaining forward bases in the Philippines. These ambitions were fully realized in 1947 when the newly independent republic signed the Military Bases Agreement granting the US a 99-year lease on 23 military installations, including the Seventh Fleet’s future homeport at Subic Bay and the massive Clark Air Base near Manila.
Simultaneously, during its postwar occupation of Japan, the US acquired more than a hundred military facilities that stretched from Misawa Air Base in the north of that country to Sasebo Naval Base in the south. With its strategic location, the island of Okinawa had 32 active US installations covering about 20 percent of its entire area.
As the Cold War came to Asia in 1951, Washington concluded mutual defence pacts with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia that made the Pacific littoral the eastern anchor for its strategic dominion over Eurasia. By 1955, the early enclaves in Japan and the Philippines had been integrated into a global network of 450 overseas bases aimed largely at containing the Sino-Soviet bloc behind an Iron Curtain that bisected the vast Eurasian continent. Among these many bases ringing Eurasia, those along the Pacific littoral were of particular strategic import before, during and after the Cold War.
Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a master of Eurasia’s unforgiving geopolitics, warned that the US could preserve its global power only as long as the eastern end of that vast Eurasian landmass did not unify itself in a way that might lead to “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases.” Otherwise, he asserted with some prescience, “a potential rival to America might at some point arise.”
In fact, the weakening of those “offshore bases” had already begun in 1991, the very year the Soviet Union imploded, when the Philippines refused to extend the US lease on the Seventh Fleet’s bastion at Subic Bay. As Navy tugs towed Subic’s floating dry docks home to Pearl Harbor, the Philippines assumed full responsibility for its own defence without actually putting any more of its funds into air or naval power. Consequently, during a raging typhoon in 1994, China was able to suddenly occupy some shoals in the nearby Spratly Islands that went by the name of Mischief Reef.
In the meantime, the US Navy suffered its own decline with a 40 percent reduction in surface warships and attack submarines from 1990 to 1996. Over the next two decades, the Navy’s Pacific posture weakened further as the focus of naval deployments shifted to wars in the Middle East, the service’s overall size shrank by an additional 20 percent (to just 271 ships).
China’s Naval Gambit
After years of seeming compliance with Washington’s rules for good global citizenship, China’s recent actions in Central Asia and the continent’s surrounding seas have revealed a two-phase strategy that would, if successful, undercut the perpetuation of American global power. First, China is spending a trillion dollars to fund a vast transcontinental grid of new railroads, highways and oil and natural gas pipelines that could harness Eurasia’s vast resources as an economic engine to drive its ascent to world power.
In a parallel move, China is building a blue-water navy and creating its first overseas bases in the Arabian and South China seas. China seems determined to dominate a significant arc of waters around Asia, from the horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, all the way to Korea.
Beijing’s bid for overseas bases began quietly in 2011 when it started investing almost $250 million in the transformation of a sleepy fishing village at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, into a modern commercial port only 370 miles from the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Four years later, President Xi Jinping committed another $46 billion to the building of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a network of roads, railways and pipelines stretching for 2,000 miles from western China to the now-modernized port at Gwadar.
That same year, China began building a major military facility at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and, in August 2017, opened its first official overseas base there, giving its navy access to the oil-rich Arabian Sea. Simultaneously, Sri Lanka, located at a midpoint in the Indian Ocean, settled a billion-dollar debt to China by ceding it a strategic port at Hambantota, creating a future potential for dual military use there.
As controversial as these enclaves might be (at least from an American point of view), they paled before China’s attempts to claim an entire ocean. Starting in April 2014, Beijing escalated its bid for exclusive territorial control over the South China Sea by expanding Longpo Naval Base on its own Hainan Island into a homeport for its four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Without any announcement, the Chinese also began dredging seven artificial atolls in the disputed Spratly Islands to create military airfields and future anchorages. In just four years, Beijing’s armada of dredges had sucked up countless tonnes of sand from the ocean floor, slowly transforming those minimalist reefs and atolls into active military bases. Today, China’s army operates a jet runway protected by HQ-9 anti-aircraft missile batteries on Woody Island, a radar base on Cuareton Reef, and has mobile missile launchers near runways ready for jet fighters at three more of these “islands.”
While fighter planes and submarines are pawns in China’s opening gambit in the contest for the South China Sea, Beijing hopes one day to at least check (if not checkmate) Washington with a growing armada of aircraft carriers, the modern dreadnoughts in this latter-day game of empires. After acquiring an unfinished Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier from Ukraine in 1998, the naval dockyard at Dalian retrofitted the rusting hulk and launched it in 2012 as the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. Though not combat-capable, it was a platform for training China’s first generation of naval aviators in landing speeding jets on heaving decks in high seas.
China’s third carrier is now being built from indigenous designs in Shanghai. When launched next year, it will be able to carry on-board fuel reserves that will give it a longer cruising range and a complement of 40 aircraft, as well as electromagnetic systems for faster launches. Thanks to an accelerating tempo of training, technology, and construction, by 2030 China should have enough aircraft carriers to ensure that the South China Sea will become what the Pentagon has termed a “Chinese lake.”
Such carriers are the vanguard of a sustained naval expansion that, by 2017, had already given China a modern navy of 320 ships, backed by land-based missiles, jet fighters, and a global system of surveillance satellites. Its current anti-ship ballistic missiles have a range of 2,500 miles and so could strike US Navy vessels anywhere in the Western Pacific. Beijing has also made strides in mastering the volatile technology for hypersonic missiles with speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour, making them impossible to stop. By building two new submarines every year, China has already assembled a fleet of 57, both diesel- and nuclear-powered, and is projected to reach 80 soon. Each of its four nuclear submarines carries 12 ballistic missiles that could reach anywhere in the western United States. In addition, Beijing has launched dozens of amphibious ships and coastal corvettes, giving it naval dominance in its own waters.
The American Response
After taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama developed a geopolitical strategy to counter China. First, he promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation commercial pact that would direct 40 percent of world trade toward the United States. Then, in March 2014, after announcing a military “pivot to Asia” in an address to the Australian parliament, he deployed a full battalion of Marines to a base at the city of Darwin on the Timor Sea. A month later, the US ambassador to the Philippines signed an enhanced defence cooperation agreement with that country allowing US forces to be stationed at five of its bases.
Combining existing installations in Japan with access to naval bases in Subic Bay, Darwin and Singapore, Obama rebuilt America’s chain of military enclaves along the Asian littoral. The Pentagon launched its first regular “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea as a challenge to the Chinese navy, even sending in full carrier strike groups.
President Trump, however, cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership right after his inauguration and, with the endless war on terror in the Greater Middle East grinding on, the shift of naval forces to the Pacific slowed. More broadly, Trump’s unilateral, America-first foreign policy has damaged relations with the four allies that underpin its line of defence in the Pacific: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia.
The administration’s new $700 billion defence budget will fund 46 new ships for the Navy by 2023 (for a total of 326), but the White House seems incapable, as reflected in its recent National Security Strategy, of grasping the geo-strategic importance of Eurasia or devising an effective scheme for the deployment of its expanding military to check China’s rise. After declaring Obama’s “pivot to Asia” officially dead, the Trump administration has instead offered its own “free and open Indo-Pacific” founded on an unworkable alliance of four supposedly kindred democracies — Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
While Trump stumbles from one foreign policy crisis to the next, his admirals, mindful of Mahan’s strategic dictums, are acutely aware of the geopolitical requisites of American imperial power and have been vocal about their determination to preserve it.
Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century
As such rhetoric indicates, there is already a rising tempo of naval competition in the South China Sea. Just recently, after a protracted hiatus in freedom-of-navigation patrols, the Trump administration sent the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, with its full complement of 5,000 sailors and 90 aircraft, steaming across the South China Sea for a symbolic visit to Vietnam, which has its own long-running dispute with China over oil rights in those waters.
Naysayers who dismiss China’s challenge might remind us that its navy only operates in two of the metaphoric “seven seas,” a pale imitation of the US Navy’s robust global posture. Yet China’s rising presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans has far-reaching geo-strategic implications for our world order. In a cascading series of consequences, China’s future dominance over significant parts of those oceans will compromise the US position on the Pacific littoral, shatter its control over that axial end of Eurasia, and open that vast continental expanse, home to 70 percent of the world’s population and resources, to China’s dominion. Just as Brzezinski once warned, Washington’s failure to control Eurasia could well mean the end of its global hegemony and the rise of a new world empire based in Beijing.