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.
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