What is a “lake” in maritime strategy? Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe published an op-ed in Project Syndicate last week maintaining that Chinese power is increasingly transfiguring the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing.” That sounds ominous. To counteract China’s primacy in southern waters, argues Abe, Japan must augment its combat and police capabilities while forging a “diamond” with the United States, Australia, and India to defend the commons in East and South Asia. That sounds like a multinational lake presided over by the region’s leading liberal republics. Presumably the European equivalent would be NATO trusteeship over the Mediterranean Sea.
The idea of a lake has a long provenance. Many moons ago, while researching Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influence in Imperial Germany, I stumbled across a 1907 issue of National Geographic that exuded triumphalism. The normally staid magazine ran a map showing American flags scattered all across the Pacific basin, from Hawaii to the Philippine Islands. The flags depicted the islands wrested from Spain in 1898. The caption proudly proclaimed that the Pacific Ocean was—and would remain—“an American Ocean.” And so it was. Writing a century later, pundit Robert Kaplan maintained that the Pacific has been “a veritable American naval lake” since World War II.
By no means is the United States the first seagoing state to declare this or that body of water its own. In the 1950s Indian sea-power proponent K. B. Vaidya declared that the “Indian Ocean must become an Indian Lake” guarded by forward-deployed eastern, southern, and western fleets. A vibrant oceangoing navy would work some alchemy, transforming inward-looking India into the “supreme and undisputed” master of regional waters.
But again, what precisely do sea-power enthusiasts mean when they deem some expanse a lake belonging to some seafaring nation? A lake must have geographic, military, and political components. Geography provides the arena within which nations play out their destinies. Strength, as Clausewitz defines it, is a product of force and resolve.
Let’s break the concept down. First, designating a compact or enclosed sea a national lake is one thing. Declaring de facto supremacy over the world’s largest ocean, as National Geographic did on America’s behalf, borders on hubris. Boundless ambition begets strategic overextension and all of the maladies it entails. That’s what Walter Lippmann meant when he accused interwar American administrations of “monstrous imprudence” for letting Asia-Pacific commitments outstrip naval means.
Second, claiming a lake means commanding the waters within in the Mahanian sense. Mahan famously portrayed maritime command as amassing “overbearing power” to drive enemy fleets from vital waters in wartime. Peacetime command means fielding a force able to overawe and overshadow rival fleets—opening up vistas for deterrence, coercion, and confident naval diplomacy of all varieties. That’s a high standard to meet. And the bigger the lake, the higher the standard.
And third, there’s the question of political resolve or, more accurately, political intentions. For what purpose does a seafaring nation claim a lake for itself? There’s no obvious general rule implicit within the concept. Power is a neutral thing. A nautical suzerain can be benign and self-denying, as I believe the United States has been since 1945 and India will be once it consummates its naval project. Few stay up nights worrying about the U.S. or Indian naval juggernauts’ trampling their interests.
But power can be abused. That seems to be Prime Minister Abe’s message vis-à-vis China. Abe frets that Beijing will misuse its naval might within Lake Beijing, to the detriment of Japan and other seagoing nations. It cannot be trusted to use its power responsibly. Chinese leaders have done little to allay such concerns. Just the opposite.
The concept of a lake isn’t a bad yardstick for measuring Chinese sea power. Is Beijing indeed intent on primacy in the South China Sea and other expanses, to the extent of seeing them as Chinese lakes? Does it possess sufficient naval and military power to make itself the master of the waters within? How large a margin of superiority can the PLA amass in the face of regional competitors? And to what uses would Beijing put its marine primacy once achieved?
Food for thought.