U.S. Maritime Dominance in Danger

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U.S. Maritime Dominance in Danger

The idea that the U.S. can be an aloof offshore balancer in Asia is looking increasingly dated. China will no longer sit idly by and watch its nautical dominance.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to former President Jimmy Carter, has written another important book that devotes considerable attention to U.S. policy in Asia. In Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, he proposes a new American strategy that would see Washington maneuver deftly between the local powers in the region while eschewing “military engagement in mainland Asia.” His bottom line is a familiar one: never fight a land war in Asia. But while few would find such advice objectionable, it’s also increasingly out of touch with new geostrategic realities. Military power on Eurasian landmass is increasingly oriented seaward. As a result, the United States may find itself engaged, however reluctantly, with land powers at sea.

In Brzezinski’s view, the geopolitical dynamics between China, a continental power, and the United States, a seafaring nation, are analogous to those between an elephant and a whale. The comparative military advantages that both sides enjoy on land and at sea respectively are so entrenched and so overwhelming that neither possesses the physical wherewithal or the political will to dictate events in the other’s geographic domain. Thus, a natural and stable balance between the Chinese elephant and the American whale prevails. The implication is that Washington should accept China’s preeminence on the Asian mainland while staying focused on its dominant role in maritime Asia.

Adding a twist to this equation, Brzezinski contends that the real competition for primacy in Asia will likely take place between two Asian elephants, namely China and India. Indeed, he foresees an intense and potentially violent Sino-Indian rivalry that will be fueled by such “subjective feelings” as contempt, envy, and fear. Given the limits of seapower in such a continental contest, Brzezinski counsels the United States to stay “detached” and refuse formal strategic ties with India that could entangle Washington in a major landward commitment. An aloof approach would see the United States emerge as a classic offshore balancer, leaving it free to play one land power against the other or to watch China and India exhaust themselves as Washington husbands its strength on the sidelines.

Such a nimble strategy is highly appealing in a cost-conscious era and is certainly worth pursuing. Yet, the geopolitical trends in the past decades suggest that a noncommittal U.S. posture will be difficult to sustain. Intense globalization and related technological trends, including the widespread proliferation and availability of long-range precision strike weapons, have increasingly blurred the continental and maritime domains. The geographical barrier that previously separated land and sea powers is now largely an artifice of a bygone era. Not surprisingly, China increasingly exhibits the conviction that an ascent to Asian primacy requires mastery of maritime affairs.

Traditionally, China’s military strategy was oriented toward the continental side of its territory. Except for a few occasions during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Chinese empire largely tolerated other powers’ naval supremacy in the seas off its coasts. This coexistence of Chinese hegemony on the mainland and foreign dominance in the maritime domain was the result of three major factors, none of which exists in the present day.

In the pre-industrial era, China was most vulnerable militarily to its north and west, where it faced the time’s most agile and penetrating forces from Inner Asian nomads. Their mounted archers would dash in, break through, and conquer the entire Chinese heartland. The threat they posed dwarfed that of the seafarers coming from the east and the south, who could at most raid the cities and villages along the Chinese coast. But since the 19th century, the military Achilles’ heel of China has shifted to its seaside. The mounted archers of today are aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines armed with supersonic and stealth aircrafts, drones, and cruise missiles. Mindful of the modern conditions, Chinese analysts have characterized their country as a “composite land-sea power” or a “sea-land amphibious power.” In the view of China’s strategic planners, control of the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea has become critical to China’s defense and security.

These seas have also acquired vital importance for China on the economic front. Pre-industrial China was virtually a self-sustained world and didn’t depend on foreign trade to flourish. Not so today. The rise of China in recent decades is owed much to the country’s economic integration with the world. Since the launch of “reform and opening” in 1979, China’s foreign trade dependency, expressed by the foreign trade share of gross domestic product, has surged from around 10 percent to around 70 percent. Adding to this general reliance, since 1998, China has been a net importer of energy. The World Bank reported that China’s net energy imports reached 7.6 percent of its total energy use in 2009. These statistics indicate that China’s economy would practically collapse if trade with the outside world were cut off. What makes the maritime domain even more vital to China is the fact that most of its foreign trade and energy imports are shipped through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait.

Not only China is dependent on the sea lanes of communication that run through these waters. In fact, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait are the lifeline of Asia. Every year, more than half of the region’s commodity trade and roughly 80 percent of the oil and gas imports of China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – the largest economies in the region – pass through these waters. The economic and military magnitude of these seas guarantees that no country in modern Asia can assume regional primacy without first gaining naval supremacy in the West Pacific.

In the past, China generally let others dominate the maritime zones off its coasts either because it was too weak to challenge the sea powers or because these areas were not vital to China militarily and economically and the powers that ruled them actively sought the status of tributaries and vassals to the Middle Kingdom. None of these conditions would be the reality of today and tomorrow. China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in less than two decades. Its military expenditures are growing even faster than its economy. The seas surrounding China’s coasts have become critical to the country’s growth and defense. And the dominant power in maritime Asia, the United States, is unlikely to accept a subordinate status in a Chinese-led regional order.

Thanks to globalization and new weapons technologies, sea and land are now part of a single strategic terrain in Asia. Naval supremacy has become the sine qua non of regional preeminence. The maritime domain, including large swathes of the Indo-Pacific oceanic theater, might well be the center stage of the geopolitical competition between China and India. The United States can no longer assume that its nautical dominance will remain undisturbed indefinitely.

Alexander L. Vuving is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia-Pacific Center, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.