How’s this for stream-of-consciousness thinking? In a roundabout—very roundabout—way, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) electoral triumph last month offers a cautionary tale for China as it attempts to shape events in the China seas and the Indian Ocean.
Here’s how. SNP chief Alex Salmond campaigned on a pledge to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within five years. In effect, Salmond will put the question of whether to dissolve the United Kingdom to the Scottish electorate. If approved, independence would reverse a decision of similar consequence made by Scottish society at the close of the 17th century. The northern kingdom embarked on a quixotic imperial enterprise in Central America, launching itself into maritime competition with established English and Spanish empires. It bankrupted itself and lost its independence in the process. Union between England and a reluctant Scotland was the product of a disastrous gambit in a faraway theatre.
The Central American Isthmus was a transhipment point for goods centuries before the Panama Canal opened. In 1696, accordingly, the Scottish parliament approved a scheme aimed at establishing an outpost at Darien, in Panama. Darien looked like a natural candidate for a colony. Founder William Paterson called it ‘the door of the seas, and the key of the Universe.’ As with most imperial ventures of the day, a combination of piety, the thirst for renown, and the nation’s urgent need for commerce and natural resources impelled Scotsmen’s quest for overseas colonies. Successive crop failures threatened widespread starvation, while the English wanted to squelch competition from Scottish traders. It seemed logical for Scotland to develop trade outlets of its own. English pressure dissuaded banks in Amsterdam and Hamburg from lending the Scots capital for the venture, so individual Scots opened their pocketbooks. Landowners and aristocrats mortgaged their estates to supply funds. Reports historian Arthur Herman, the company raised 400,000 pounds—half of all the money in circulation in the country—in mere months.
The Darien enterprise made sense in the abstract, but it was a disaster in cold reality. Five ships set sail in 1698, dropping anchor off Panama that November. Upon arriving, however, the settlers found they had stocked only six months’ worth of supplies rather than the nine they had intended. English merchants in the Caribbean kept them from obtaining more. Mosquito-borne fever soon broke out. Discipline collapsed. The Spanish renewed their own claim to Scottish holdings. With little recourse, survivors of the expedition slunk home only a year after setting forth. Two subsequent expeditions fared no better. The venture cost some 200,000 pounds while driving the Bank of Scotland into insolvency. ‘With the kingdom’s finances in tatters, and its agriculture in the grip of famine and starvation,’ concludes Herman, ‘Scotland’s ruin was complete.’ Destitute Scots found themselves compelled to assent to union with England. While he hasn’t phrased it in these terms, Alex Salmond is offering their descendants the chance to overturn the result of Darien.
This is no mere historical curiosity. The Scottish catastrophe reveals some inescapable verities that ought to give Beijing—or any aspiring great power, for that matter—pause before it embarks on grand adventures. No nation can do everything. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz sketches a rational cost/benefit calculus to help leaders think through new endeavours. While Clausewitz is thinking about opening new lines of operation on the battlefield, his insights apply to undertakings of all kinds. He urges leaders to keep their eye on the ball. For him, the ‘centre of gravity,’ or ‘the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends,’ must remain the focus of effort. Diverting energy and resources is worthwhile only when the likely gains are ‘exceptionally rewarding,’ and when doing so doesn’t place the primary effort in jeopardy. Scots bet their future on a secondary endeavour—and lost their independence. The Darien debacle ranks alongside such historical catastrophes as classical Athens’ decision to invade remote Sicily—a fateful choice that cost the Athenians the navy on which their prosperity and their geopolitical supremacy in the Greek world depended.
Here’s the tie-in with contemporary China. By no means is Beijing exempt from the Clausewitzian logic on which Scotland foundered. It has taken on many commitments in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas, while its resources remain finite. For example, the South China Sea returned to the headlines this month after an interlude of relative quiet. Several run-ins between Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino maritime services disturbed the peace in contested waters. Last week, the Vietnamese and Chinese militaries held a virtual challenge and reply, conducting successive live-fire exercises. For its part, Manila bestirred itself to send destroyer escort Rajah Humabon to patrol disputed sea areas. All South China Sea claimants upped the ante.
Natural resources, economic development, and prosperity are the propellants for Chinese actions, as is the imperative to burnish China’s reputation as a seafaring nation. Is China running risks in the near seas comparable to those run by Scotland three centuries ago? Hardly. China is the biggest power in Asia, not a small nation desperately trying to escape subservience to a more populous, more prosperous, occasionally predatory neighbour. Nor is China gambling its national fortune on an imperial enterprise halfway around the globe. The near seas are nearby, after all, while to date China’s leadership has exhibited prudent restraint about expanding its presence in theatres like the Indian Ocean or the Persian Gulf. Nor will the Chinese state bankrupt itself trying to manage China’s nautical surroundings, even if its maritime project misfires. Setbacks are conceivable. A debacle of Darien proportions verges on unthinkable.
China confronts in miniature what the United States confronts on a global scale. With stagnant resources at best, the US military can’t afford to think of security as indivisible. That is, every contingency in every quarter of the globe can’t command the same policy attention and military resources as the rest. That’s why the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard agreed on a maritime strategy that fixes attention on the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean while implicitly relegating the rest of the world’s oceans to secondary status. Similarly, if Beijing is serious about managing multiple theatres, it can distribute assets evenly among them — attenuating the amount of usable power available for each. Or it can set priorities, concentrating assets on more urgent matters while accepting risk in secondary ones.
Astute Chinese commentators acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all strategy may not work across multiple theatres. To name one, Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics researcher Zhang Wenmu designates Japan as China’s chief rival. Zhang urges Beijing to abjure geopolitical competition with the United States beyond the ‘first island chain’ and to pursue quite different approaches vis-à-vis neighbours in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Because ‘China has completely different tasks to the north and south of Taiwan,’ Zhang prescribes ‘a diplomatic approach in the South China Sea along with a hard-line attitude in the East China Sea.’ Differentiating among theatres would ease the strain on scarce People’s Liberation Army assets needed to put substance into Chinese policy along the Asian periphery.
Beijing may be able to defend a ‘core interest’ in the South China, face down Japan, or accomplish any one of its goals along the periphery. That it can enforce its will everywhere is far from clear. China disregards Clausewitzian wisdom and the lessons of history at its peril.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.