A Clash of Civilizations on the High Seas
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

A Clash of Civilizations on the High Seas


(Editor's Note: Our Naval Diplomat, James Holmes, continues to share his experiences at Duke University. The following is a question he was asked as part of a panel discussion.)

Q: According to various predictions, the Chinese economy will surpass the U.S. economy someday. How should the U.S. maintain and conduct its relations with China, a country that has different value systems, worldviews, and political institutions and that represents quite a different civilization?

A: A preliminary comment: we have to be careful about reducing “the Chinese” to a single worldview or body of thought. It drives me slightly nuts when I hear people say “the Chinese” think this or that. The strategic community in China is home to lively debates. Many voices clamor for policy attention on just about any topic under the sun. I am continually impressed by the quality of strategic discourses in that country.

Now, I think the question posed here is how the U.S. should deal with a great power from another civilization on terms of parity. From a maritime perspective, the historical guidance is mixed. We often look back a century, to the age when the U.S., Imperial Germany, and Japan rose to great sea power within a globalized system overseen by Great Britain, the world-straddling sea power of the day.

My advice to our leadership would be not to make too much of cultural differences. One of my professors, Michael Handel, came to doubt there exists an “Eastern” or “Western” way of international competition, embodied in the writings of Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. I have come to agree with Michael that a universal logic of strategy prevails. Cultural differences matter, but mostly around the margins. Different societies emphasize different things, but their ways of politics and strategy are not radically different.

So much for the philosophizing. If we do look back a century, we find that interests and geographic distance matter as much as culture, if not more so. A common civilization is no guarantee of harmony; a different civilization is no guarantee of conflict or war. Imperial Germany and Great Britain, two great Western naval powers situated near each other, fought. So, eventually, did Britain and Japan, two great naval powers situated far from each other and from very different civilizations. Only the U.S. and Britain managed not to fight during that time of upheaval at sea.

And yet … we might ask ourselves whether the U.S. and Britain would have managed the power transition amicably had there existed no German High Seas Fleet to threaten the British Isles, and beckon British attention—and the ships on the American Station—homeward. It is far from clear to me that Britain would have entrusted its interests in the New World to the U.S., let alone accepted the Monroe Doctrine, if not forced to do so by mortal danger close to home. It may have stayed in the Western Hemisphere if power permitted.Discord with a rising United States could well have resulted.

Unless my knowledge of North American politics is seriously out of date, there’s no counterpart to Germany demanding that U.S. leaders bring the fleet home. Canada and Mexico still look rather friendly to me. In a sense, then, the U.S. is playing the part of Britain a century ago and China is playing the American part—except that the U.S. today can afford to concentrate its attention and resource in faraway regions like East Asia. How this will all play out remains to be seen.

So my best counsel to Washington is, don’t surrender to cultural determinism. Culture is only one factor in the policy/strategy mix, and seldom the decisive one.

November 22, 2012 at 04:27

Just so. As Michael Auslin noted in his article Planning for China's Fall: five trends to look for :
"…the specter of defiance by smaller nations has brought out an ugly assertiveness that may indicate deeper unwillingness to abide by international norms that do not comport with its aims"
. In this, Auslin speaks the truth; all of the PRC's goals are, after all, aimed at a single final objective; the total re-writing of international laws and norms to the point where its continued territorial sezuries (or attempts at them) will have been justified; a set of international norms which, rather than espousing economic and diplomatic cooperation, mandates zones of influence and exclusivity a la Treaty of Tordesillas, which would legalize the PRC's goal of ressurecting the Chinese Empire with added territorial interest for the 300-odd years in which the lesser barbarians which surrounded it dared to have their own way in the world.

November 21, 2012 at 14:45

Sadly, I agree with this. Just as China accuses the US of ignoring international norms, China actually strives to emulate what the US can do. Quite ironic actually.

Leonard R.
November 21, 2012 at 10:56

Of course, if Manila does not want US military assistance, it should tell the US Navy to leave. 
And it will leave. That is the difference between the US and China. Filipinos are smart people. 
They already know that. 

John Chan
November 21, 2012 at 09:59

@Chuck Hill,
As the West like to claim they are civilized, they should set the example for the rest of the world to follow to resolve territory disputes via International Court. They can submit the following disputes to the International Court to kick start the process.
1. The ownership dispute of the USA, Canada, Australia, and Hawaii between the aliens and the natives.
2. The ownership dispute of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales between the English and the natives.
3. The ownership dispute of Ryukyu Islands between the Japanese and the natives.

November 21, 2012 at 02:21

That is because the Philippines is an American Ally, ergo, the line needs to be drawn there.

November 20, 2012 at 23:26

I'd rather be a colony of Imperialism of the US than the Colony of China with the CCP at helm you should know. I'd bet we would have better lives than to serve the CCP haha…I hate to be unable to blog like this anyway who do you think are the bloggers who always raise the flag for China their part of the CCP, their just a fraction of the Chinese people you think regular Chinese citizens can blog this way…..

November 20, 2012 at 21:55

While I agree with the sentiment that South China Sea issue should be settled by the International Tribunal, recent history has shown that once a nation crosses a certain threshold of military power, its ability to enforce its own ruling regardless of the views, opinions or actions of its opponents increases as well.
What I am trying to say is that in the near future China's military strength will reach a point where it can simply choose to ignore the opinion of its neighbors and do its own thing, i.e. every move will be motivated by their self interest. Much like the actions of all great powers before them.

November 20, 2012 at 21:15

Agree,  since most agreed on ITLOS, I mean the concerned parties agreed to it. 

Leonard R.
November 20, 2012 at 09:17

@Chuck Hill: That's reasonable. But the PRC refuses to take its case to UNCLOS, where it will most certainly lose on the Scarborough Shoal. But it probably has arguable cases or other islands elsewhere. It's the loser by refusing to bring its claims to UNCLOS. 

Chuck Hill
November 20, 2012 at 05:12

The bright line needs to be that the South China Sea disputes should be settled by the International tribunal on the Law of the Sea, not by force.

November 20, 2012 at 04:33

Appreciate the strength of mind of  James R. Holmes in acknowledging the reality unarmed. Historically all cultures  evolve with gradual exchanges, cultural-interactions….. only,  cannibals destroy all that is dissimilar to them.. ..
When we attempt to force something  on someone than  the result is counterproductive.. we cannot  carry CHINA or anyone without demonstrating reasonable benefits, else it will  just  be a myth.. At the same time we have to remember that China has a solid background like India of thousands of historical years, they have very powerful  native – sense and  their history. If they find that they are vulnerable; they do not involve in altercations but I give below a story  of their typical responsiveness:
A Chinese Monk ( who lived in India for ages)  joined  an organization where a regulation required to speak minimum words even in the most trying circumstances;  which all others did not obey, so he became a black Sheep and all eyes  on him.
One day while attending a conference, he found a  small mouse in his mug of  cold coffee.  He loved cold coffee and was at his wits' end finding a way  letting his predicament be known. He called the superior Monk and  pointing to his neighbor said, " Sir, there is no Mouse in my  Brother's mug of coffee"!  This is the spirit in which the Chinese live even at the U.N.

Oro Invictus
November 20, 2012 at 04:14

As long as the US maintains a sizeable military advantage in both technology and diplomatic relations while retaining the ability to focus a significant portion of its forces in any one region alongside a commensurate logistical capacity to support them their strategy need not change overmuch (at least, in my opinion that is). The US is not going to lose its technological advantage to the PRC anytime in the foreseeable future (based off of current trends of rates of innovation which, for the PRC, fall in line with what is expected for an overpopulated and authoritarian society [http://www.isc.hbs.edu/Innov_9211.pdf]) and its diplomatic relations are doing quite well, such that these two factors will remain in the US' favour. 
Similarly, unless (as Dr. Holmes notes) there is a diplomatic crisis near home, the US will be able to deploy its fleet so as to maintain effective superiority against the PRC in the region (albeit, this dynamic may shift more in favour of the PRC once area-denial mechanisms on their part become applicable). The difficulty for the PRC in this context is compounded by their lack of allies to support them in a conflict (be they in peace-time or otherwise). The big issue for the US, then, is logistical support; the US must be economically able to field a sufficient quantity of force such that, in tandem with superior quality of force, they are able to retain an advantage over the PRC (who will, of course, rely heavily upon trying to establish a quantity of force in specific regions so great that it overwhelms the US). Once again, this dynamic is in the US' favour as, unless the PRC achieves a level of economic might on an order greater than the US (which, according to even the most wildly optimistic projections by the OECD [who seem to utterly fail to understand concepts like "carrying capacity"], will not happen, with the PRC reaching only a maximum of no more than 60% of a per capita GDP compared to the US), the PRC will be unable to field said quantity of force necessary to overcome the US.
As the overall balance of power will remain in the US' favour, this should, hopefully, help ensure the status quo remains just that and conflict does not erupt. While it's true the US may have to be more cautious in its footing in the region, that it will still command the decisive advantage should hopefully curtail the more vocal elements in the US who might call for martial action in an attempt to assert dominance while also ensuring the PRC forces do not become overly belligerent. Essentially, what will keep the peace is the fact that the US will remain more militarily capable than the PRC, as there is few things which spark conflict like two opponents in close quarters with at least one believing it has achieved military parity with the other. 

November 20, 2012 at 04:10

What is American culture?
American culture is rather pawning their grandparents' underwears, snatching their children's foods & education, and reducing citizens' health care, instead of pouring unaffordable money into defense budget and building the war machines to fight the hell out of day & night. 

November 20, 2012 at 03:49

If the US is Britain and China is the US, then my guess is that India is Germany, but is China’s neighbor rather than the US’s.

Different situation.

November 20, 2012 at 03:31

China won’t dare touch US, stop that much fearing, when you’re atomic capable, no one can look down you!

November 20, 2012 at 03:06

I suggest that line should be drawn along the western coastline of the Philippine archipelago – including the Scarborough Shoal. The US has to protect its own territories & citizens in the Western & Central Pacific.

Hear ye, hear ye!! When does Philippine becomes again a colony of American Imperialism?? Or does it only show your White man superiority complex?

Leonard R.
November 19, 2012 at 10:05

Strong fences make good neighbors, regardless of 'culture', whatever that word means.
A bright red line needs to be drawn by Washington of where its core interests lie. I suggest that line should be drawn along the western coastline of the Philippine archipelago – including the Scarborough Shoal. The US has to protect its own territories & citizens in the Western & Central Pacific. That becomes much much more difficult if Chinese warships are cruising up and down the Philippine islands. 

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