[Read a counterargument here.]
Envy me. Last week I had the great fortune to give several lectures at the French Institute of International Relations (ifri) in Paris. The general topic was the interplay among Japanese, Chinese, and U.S. maritime strategy in the Asian seas. What Europe should do in Asia was an undercurrent flowing through our debates.
The overriding—and heartening—impression I took away from the week’s events was that our European friends are serious people grappling with serious diplomatic and strategic problems. One question came up repeatedly, suggesting it weighs on their minds. How can seafaring countries like France support the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, or the "rebalancing" between oceans, or whatever the term du jour for the realignment of U.S. naval forces happens to be?
One French representative put it baldly, declaring that Europe must bear a hand to remain relevant to U.S. strategy. The transatlantic alliance, it seems, is European strategy. Herewith, a few rambling ideas about how the allies can advance the American cause on the high seas—and ensure the alliance remains tight-knit in an increasingly Asia-centric age.
First of all, there’s routine peacetime diplomacy. European capitals can order ships to cruise through the China seas and other expanses where freedom of the seas is under duress, flying Western flags from as many mastheads as possible. That would let them reply to excessive maritime claims—particularly those lodged by China. Many countries assert such claims in the abstract. China increasingly has the muscle and the resolve to enforce them.
Indeed, Beijing lays claim to most of the South China Sea, insisting that it holds “indisputable sovereignty” over these waters. Sovereignty means controlling territory and making the law that governs there. Accordingly, China has taken to asserting the special prerogatives throughout its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that coastal states enjoy in their territorial seas—that is, within 12 nautical miles of their shores.
The power to proscribe military activities like naval flight operations, underwater surveys, and aerial surveillance near Chinese coastlines is a power Beijing clearly covets. Within the territorial sea, foreign vessels are entitled only to “innocent passage” under the law of the sea, meaning they must refrain from such activities. They are considered “prejudicial” to the coastal state’s interests when conducted so close along its shorelines. On the high seas—meaning outside the 12-nautical-mile limit—vessels may do as they wish, apart from exploiting natural resources in the waters or the seabed beneath.
Merging the EEZ into the territorial sea, then, would confer unprecedented authority over China’s “near seas.” Chinese officials wax indignant when challenged about such matters. They typically protest that their government has never restricted innocent passage through Chinese-claimed waterways. Implication: Chinese law prevails in these waters. Beijing could withhold free navigation should it see fit.
Excessive legal claims that go uncontested have a way of ossifying into international practice, and thence over time into international law. But there are time-honored ways to use ships to further diplomatic and legal discourse. Navies undertake “freedom-of-navigation operations” to deliberately snub such claims. They do precisely what the coastal state forbids—in this case, refusing to desist from activities Beijing wants to rule off-limits in its EEZ.
By matter-of-factly operating off Chinese shores, then, Europeans can reject Beijing’s insistence that freedom of the seas is something that it grants as a matter of grace, not something seafaring states exercise by right. Countering such overreach would impose few demands on finite or shrinking European naval resources. The occasional show-the-flag deployment should suffice.
Now let’s turn to operations. European fleets could aid the U.S. rebalance immensely by taking over chief responsibility for maritime security in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. That would relieve the U.S. Navy of a perennial burden while safeguarding the North American east coast.
Such realignment would let the navy reposition forces where successive administrations and the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy say it must—to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The U.S. Atlantic Fleet could morph into a modest, lightly equipped Atlantic Squadron configured for low-end missions in support of European fleets. Hazards in the Atlantic and Mediterranean are few and manageable. Why allocate heavy forces to meet virtually nonexistent demands?
Wholesale redeployment to the “Indo-Pacific”—the combined East and South Asian maritime theaters—would represent a throwback to how the United States managed dangers along its two coasts before World War II, when it in effect built a second full-blown navy. That’s a past worth rediscovering.
There’s precedent in European history for a geographic division of labor among allies. Indeed, France and Great Britain forged such an arrangement a century ago, when European capitals were choosing up sides for the Great War. Under the Franco-British entente cordiale, or informal alliance, the French Navy assumed chief responsibility for Mediterranean operations.
That let Britain’s Royal Navy withdraw from the middle sea, concentrating its resources and energies on the main threat—namely the fleet of hulking battleships and cruisers shipwrights were bolting together in German shipyards just across the North Sea. London meanwhile struck up understandings with Washington and Tokyo that allowed it to pull Royal Navy warships off the American Station and China Station for duty in the British Isles. Many were scrapped to free up resources and manpower to run the naval arms race with Imperial Germany.
A similar arrangement could work today, albeit on a grander scale. If they assume responsibility for noncombat missions in waters lapping against Atlantic and Mediterranean shores, Western allies can liberate high-end U.S. assets for more pressing theaters of action. That would allow Washington to apportion sea-service resources prudently, staging forces where guidance from on high says they’re needed.
And in wartime? European surface fleets are dwindling at an alarming rate. Nor is the picture for naval air power much brighter. The French Marine Nationale operates the continent’s only big-deck aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. That will remain true until Great Britain fields two Queen Elizabeth-class flattops, supposedly around the end of this decade.
European navies, however, possess world-class if modest-sized fleets of nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. Western submariners excel at offensive undersea warfare, whereas China’s People’s Liberation Army has neglected antisubmarine warfare (for reasons that remain puzzling). European fleets, accordingly, could forward-deploy SSN contingents to Asia when war looms, pitting strength against weakness.
A Western squadron on a multinational Indo-Pacific Station—preferably in Australia, at the juncture between the Pacific and Indian oceans—would send a powerful deterrent message to Beijing while furnishing serious combat power should things turn ugly.
Furthermore, Western allies can play an important part closer to home. Europe is a peninsula jutting out of Asia. It overshadows sea lines of communication connecting the U.S. east coast to the western Indian Ocean. As the U.S. Navy rebalances between the Atlantic and Pacific, commanders will rely increasingly on Pacific sea lanes to send reinforcements into the theater. Nevertheless, keeping U.S. logistical options open is critical.
Why? Because wise Chinese commanders would doubtless contest U.S. access to maritime Asia using the panoply of sea- and shore-based weaponry they have assembled over the past decade. (I would.) Getting into the Indian Ocean from Guam, Hawaii, or the west coast would prove especially trying. Geography would compel U.S. task forces to either run a gauntlet through the South China Sea or make a long detour around that embattled expanse.
Guaranteeing U.S. access to the Indo-Pacific from the west—via the Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal, Red Sea, and Bab el-Mandeb Strait—would therefore constitute a major European contribution to American success in Asia. Holding open the western approaches to the Indian Ocean is a must. The more sea routes available to U.S. mariners, the better.
Finally, and most straightforwardly, Western navies must keep doing what they have done for decades: honing their ability to fight shoulder-to-shoulder. Operating together as a matter of workaday routine lets transatlantic forces preserve common, hard-won tactics, techniques, and procedures. Combating lawlessness is crucial to safe passage through important sea lanes. It also reinforces interoperability. Counterpiracy, counterproliferation, disaster and humanitarian relief, and various kinds of anti-trafficking represent opportunity.
The capacity to operate smoothly together is the transatlantic alliance’s greatest virtue—but it does require care and feeding.
Happily, European militaries can probably discharge the functions sketched here with the forces already at sea or in the skies—today’s straitened circumstances notwithstanding. Navies can manage “permissive,” nonthreatening surroundings like the Atlantic and Mediterranean through smaller, lighter force commitments. European navies appear adequate to such challenges, and they excel at maritime security.
Speaking as an American who gazes out across the Atlantic Ocean every day, I would welcome Europeans’ return to nautical leadership there. A new American Station for European fleets? Bring it on.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific (Naval Institute Press, 2010). The views voiced here are his alone.