How China, US are spawning a new great-power naval rivalry

Amid the intense coverage of Russian cyber-maneuvering 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.
Indeed, if war were to break out among the major powers today, don’t discount the possibility that it might come from a naval clash over Chinese bases in the South China Sea rather than a missile strike against North Korea or a Russian cyberattack.
For the past 500 years, from the 50 fortified Portuguese ports that dotted the world in the 16th 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. Viewed historically, naval bastions were invaluable when it came to the aspirations of any would-be hegemonic power, yet also surprisingly vulnerable to capture in times of conflict.
Throughout the 20th century and the first years of this one, military bases in the South China Sea in particular have been flash points 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.” In marked contrast to the British Navy’s 300 ships and 30 bases circling the globe, he worried that US warships with “no foreign establishments, either colonial or military … will be like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores. To provide resting-places for them … would be one of the first duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the power of the nation at sea.”
So important did Captain Mahan consider naval bases for America’s defense that he argued “it should be an inviolable resolution of our national policy that no European state should henceforth acquire a coaling position within three thousand miles of San Francisco” – a span that reached the Hawaiian Islands, which Washington would soon seize. In a series of influential dictums, he also argued that a large fleet and overseas bases were essential to both the exercise of global power and national defense.
Although Mahan was read as gospel by everyone from US 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.
Historian Paul Kennedy has suggested that Britain’s “naval mastery” in the 19th century made it “extremely difficult for other lesser states to undertake maritime operations or trade without at least its tacit consent.” But modern bases do even more. Naval bastions and the warships they serve can weave a web of dominion across an open sea, transforming an unbounded ocean into de facto territorial waters. Even in an age of cyber-warfare, they remain essential to geopolitical gambits of almost any sort, as the United States has shown repeatedly during its tumultuous century 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 harbor of Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands 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 US Navy battleship from the region and later authorized the construction of a new Pacific bastion, not in distant Manila Bay but at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, insisting that “the Philippines form our heel of Achilles.” When the Versailles settlement at the end of World War I awarded Micronesia in the Western Pacific to Japan, the dispatch of any fleet from Pearl Harbor to Manila Bay became problematic in time of war and rendered the Philippines in essence indefensible.
It was partly for this reason, in mid-1941, that US war secretary Henry Stimson decided that the B-17 bomber, aptly named the “Flying Fortress,” would be the wonder weapon capable of countering the Japanese navy’s control of the Western Pacific, and he sent 35 of these new aircraft to Manila.
Stimson’s strategy was, however, a flight of imperial fantasy that condemned most of those planes to destruction by Japanese fighters in the first days of World War II in the Pacific and doomed General Douglas MacArthur’s army in the Philippines to a humiliating defeat at Bataan.
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% of its entire area As bomber ranges tripled during that global conflict, however, the US War Department decided in 1943 that the country’s postwar defense 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.
Source: Asia times


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