“You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is to never get involved in a land war in Asia.” This humorous quote from the film The Princess Bride has become received wisdom, echoed by no less than my former boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011. Channeling a phrase once attributed to General Douglas MacArthur during an address at West Point—the preeminent training ground for future U.S. Army officers—Gates quipped: “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia… should ‘have his head examined’…”
There are many valid reasons why the United States considers Asia a maritime theater, in the present even more so than in the past. But however justified a maritime bias in U.S. strategic thinking may be (a bias I share), militaries rarely get to choose the type of conflict they fight. Land wars in Asia have been more prominent than our collective memories seem to allow, and the prospect of future conflicts on land are just as likely as conflicts at sea. A failure to acknowledge this risks investing in a military force structure optimized for the wrong fight.
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For the United States, Asia is, and has almost always been, a maritime theater. World War II is remembered in the United States as the “Pacific War.” Rightly so from the U.S. perspective; most of the fighting by American troops in that war took place at sea or via opposed amphibious landings throughout the Pacific. The United States has, moreover, historically emphasized the sea due to a confluence of circumstances. It was a large maritime trading power before it was a military power. Naval forces have always been central to U.S. power projection into Asia because of America’s geographic position. And the Pacific expanse separating the United States from Asia insulates the U.S. homeland from the would-be threat of Asian ground forces, no matter how large they became.
America’s maritime tendency was further reinforced by disastrous land war experiences in the 20th and 21st centuries. The high costs and dubious benefits of America’s strategic quagmires in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq give a land war aversion resonance even in U.S. popular culture—including the priceless “wisdom” of The Princess Bride.
But the narrative of Asia as a maritime theater is an incomplete one. The “quagmire wars” were on land, despite MacArthur’s supposed lesson from the Korean War. America’s original strategic interests in Asia had as much to do with securing and occupying its far-flung territorial possessions in Hawai’i, Guam, and the Philippines as it did with securing maritime passage for trade; indeed, those two motivations were inextricably linked. Most intra-Asian wars have historically been fought over control of—and on—land. Plus, as much as we remember a “Pacific War,” recent archival evidence reveals that the strategic thinkers of Imperial Japan were oriented overwhelmingly toward the Asian mainland—the Korean Peninsula, China, the Soviet Union, and Central Asia. The United States and the Pacific Islands were secondary concerns for Japan until the U.S. “island-hopping strategy” threatened the empire’s survival.
Conflicts in the Strategic Blind Spot
Today, virtually every conception of potential future wars in Asia involves imagining maritime conflict. The battle between Chinese anti-access forces and the counter-concept formerly known as Air-Sea Battle are fundamentally maritime clashes, for operational control of maritime spaces. Even the land-oriented concept of “archipelagic defense,” which carves out a role for the U.S. Army in an anti-access environment, relegates the Army to a mostly coastal defense role.
To be sure, strategic competition in Asia is, to a great extent, playing out in maritime spaces. There’s no place as hotly contested by as many stakeholders as the South China Sea, and China and India have begun a competition for access and influence in the Indian Ocean. From the U.S. perspective, it is the Indian and Pacific Oceans that are crucial for not just global trade and energy flows, but also U.S. power projection and credible alliance commitments.
But any conflict on the Korean Peninsula will be primarily fought on and over Korean soil. The site of the most likely Sino-Indian conflict is not necessarily in their overlapping spheres of influence but in their overlapping border claims—the same one that sparked a fight in 1962. China’s concept of a new Silk Road means pushing energy pipelines and transportation infrastructure westward into Central Asia, which could bring unforeseen clashes between China and ethnic populations unfamiliar with and resentful of Chinese intrusions. And territorial disputes among Southeast Asian states involve land borders as much as maritime ones; the latter just get more attention because they overlap with China and threaten valuable sea lines of communication.
Maritime Asia is important to many players for many reasons. For the United States, access to and command of the seas is minimally necessary to ensure its military can meaningfully function in Asia. Sustained power projection simply isn’t possible without a sustained presence in maritime Asia. But maritime necessities shouldn’t distract from a history that tells us land is just as important, and just as likely to erupt into conflict.