The Debate

How Asians Came to See the Seas and Naval Strategy Like the West

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The Debate

How Asians Came to See the Seas and Naval Strategy Like the West

Asians’ perceptions of seapower have changed over time, but not as much as you’d think.

The 21st century is witnessing a relatively new development in history: the rise of Asian blue-water navies and naval strategy. While Japan and the Ottoman Empire did develop a strategic sense of oceanic power in the 19th century, the rest of Asia is now beginning to catch up, as countries without much of a naval tradition such as India, China, and Iran have begun to understand that sea power is key to national influence, as Alfred T. Mahan pointed out.

This is not an argument that Asian states have no historical connection to the sea. Quite to the contrary, states in China, India, and elsewhere have long histories of oceanic trade, shipbuilding, and naval battles. The 11th century conquest of the Chola Empire, 15th century voyages of the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He, or the 18th century exploits of the Maratha naval commander Kanhoji Angre are proof enough of a historical Asian involvement with the ocean. Asian powers also fought many naval battles in pre-modern times.

What really separates pre-modern from contemporary Asian views on the ocean is that prior to modern times, the sea itself was not viewed as a strategic space, to be controlled, like land. Instead, it was a conduit for ships that traded, ferried troops, or pirated. Blockades were few and far. As William J. Bernstein points out in his book A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean, “none of [the Asian] nations projected naval power over the high seas….as long as merchants paid customs, provided local sultans with gifts, and kept pirates at bay, the Indian Ocean was, more or less, a mare liberum. The idea that any nation might seek to control all maritime traffic would have struck merchants and rulers alike as ludicrous.” We know this idea today as freedom of navigation, which is in many ways, the default pattern across Asia.

Yet, this was not the pattern in Europe, which since the times of the Greeks and Romans in the Mediterranean, saw things differently. They believed that the sea could be divided up and patrolled, ideas which helped give European powers, including small countries like Portugal, quick mastery of the sea. Within twenty years of discovering a passage to India, Portugal had seized important ports throughout the Indian Ocean as far away as Malacca because it used the sea strategically and not merely as a conduit for trade. The sea was always important for Europeans in a unique way. Of all the major regions in the world, Europe has the longest coastline. Its coastline is punctuated with inlets and bays, and there are many options to develop new ways of projecting power over the seas. In The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, Lincoln Paine points out that:

Europeans introduced to the world a variety of cultural and legal novelties that we now take for granted…. [one was] the notion that political control could be exercised not only over lands across the ocean but over the oceans itself. While many had used their navies to extend their authority overseas-to seize islands,or to control strategic passages and choke points–no one had presumed to divide the sea preemptively and to treat it as a political space analogous to territory on land.

Early modern states in Asia during this time like the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Mughal Empire, and the Qing Empire barely developed navies and had to hire ships when they needed naval tasks accomplished, When navies were established, they were almost always brown-water forces. These land-oriented empires mostly saw their military threats coming from Central Asia, so their coastal territories were almost always acquired via land conquests and were passive recipients of trade rather than active zones of oceanic power projection. For example, this was the Persian attitude towards Hormozgan, the region on the Persian Gulf until the last century. Hormuz was frequently neglected and allowed a degree of autonomy that amounted to near-independence or foreign domination.

Of course, today, Asian states have adopted European notions of territory and naval power, with greater enthusiasm for sovereignty than Western nations themselves. This includes the notion of territorial waters and control over portions of the seas, a notion taken to an absurd extent through China’s claim of most of the South China Sea. It is entirely because of the traditional Asian way of looking at the sea that there is a lack of clarity on the historical claims various countries have over parts of the sea, since in the past, no country thought to claim and exercise control of uninhabited islands and the sea lanes around them.

It is ironic, though, that this way of conceiving of the ocean has little precedent in the strategic thought of Asian cultures, while on the other hand, the United States, the country defending freedom of navigation, a concept with historical precedent in Asia, is from the civilization that undermined this way of looking at the seas and naval power. The rise of the Chinese, Indian, and other Asian blue-water navies is an interesting and historically unprecedented development that will lead to important strategic implications.