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Maritime realism and the geopolitics of the “Middle Sea”

August 16, 2011

Robert Kaplan has a new piece out in Foreign Policy today about the South China Sea, the West Pacific generally, and the return of naval power and realist thought to the center stage of international politics. It’s a worth a read if only because Kaplan is unfortunately one of the few public intellectual types who has attempted to engage the question of maritime power. The crux of the argument is that the 21st century’s geopolitical stage will be much more maritime than continental, as was the case in the past, and one in which the US must increasingly submit to the exigencies of a realist few of great power politics. I broadly agree with these two sentiments. The devil, and the critical takeaways, however, are in the details.

East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception. The Western Pacific will return military affairs to the narrow realm of defense experts. This is not merely because we are dealing with a naval realm, in which civilians are not present. It is also because of the nature of the states themselves in East Asia, which, like China, may be strongly authoritarian but in most cases are not tyrannical or deeply inhumane.

There is an important relationship here between geography, military technology and capability, and international morality, that I have attempted to address in previous posts. To summarize simply, the arbiter of the moral and normative activity within a state rests with its governing political power. The arbiter of power control is, in Wylie’s phrase, the “man on the scene with the gun.” The ability of an offshore state to put men on the scene with guns is power projection. The ability to project power is dependent on maritime-aerial superiority, which for an offshore power is fundamentally naval superiority.

However, Kaplan has perhaps an unduly sanitized and rationalized vision of naval warfare means for the broader political context. While the naval realm is more purely military, since humans are creature of the land, not the sea. Yet naval power has always been a combination of civilian – especially commercial – and military power. Mahan acknowledged as much in his triad of sea power as the combination of not just fleets, but friendly ports and maritime commerce.  This inter-linking is obvious today. The growth of the Chinese shipbuilding industry has played a vital role in advocating for the expansion of the PLAN, and Chinese attempts to extend influence beyond the South China Sea into the Indian are coming as civilian ports such as Gwadar and Hambantoa, whose militarization is a possibility but not an inevitability. I’ll speak more of this unheeded connection between the domestic and naval sphere later.

Kaplan, as Spykman did in his 1944 Geography of the Peace, identifies the South China Sea as part of an Asian Caribbean (or as Spykman put it, an Asian Mediterranean to complement the American and European ones). Kaplan argues:

Indeed, China’s position here is in many ways akin to America’s position vis-à-vis the similar-sized Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The United States recognized the presence and claims of European powers in the Caribbean, but sought to dominate the region nevertheless. It was the 1898 Spanish-American War and the digging of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914 that signified the United States’ arrival as a world power. Domination of the greater Caribbean Basin, moreover, gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. And today China finds itself in a similar situation in the South China Sea, an antechamber of the Indian Ocean, where China also desires a naval presence to protect its Middle Eastern energy supplies.

Spykman explained the importance of the Mediterraneans and other, lesser “marginal seas” in similar terms:

The girdle of marginal seas which surrounds the Eurasian Continent has contributed largely to the development of the states of the European and Asiatic coastal plains by providing an easily accessible and cheap route of communication between them.

But these marginal seas are as often barriers to imperial expansion as highways. Later in Geography of the Peace, Spykman explains that the marginal seas are vital because they are choke points where the sparks of land power butting against sea power fly:

There are certain important sections in which it is possible to give land-based air support to naval operations from both sides…. The North Sea, the European and Asiatic Mediterraneans, and the Sea of Japan can be considered in this classification, for the opposite coasts of these marginal seas can support air power which could be utilized against a continental air force. This would, however, only be possible if the power behind the air force on the continental side did not represent the unified strength of the European and Asiatic centers of power. It will, therefore, still be true that thsoe nations which control the opposite coasts of the marginal seas must prevent the domination of the rimland regions by a single state. They will also, as an added precaution, find it advisable to ally themselves with the heartland power of Russia in order to gain continental support against the threat of rimland power.

Spykman was writing about the “rimland powers” of Japan, with its massive continental holdings in Asia, and Germany, but his advice is still prophetic. Despite the advances in technology, air power, in high sortie generation, is still extremely dependent on land basing. US aircraft effectively operate within an average 500nm combat radius, which still gives China an enormous advantage in sortie generation compared to the United States, even with its bases in Japan, Guam, and its carriers included.

Missile power is another critical aspect of land-based power that can severely affect the strength of naval power in marginal seas. A large part of China’s strategy is not simply to contest foreign sea power with projected naval power. It is to leverage significant onshore capabilities, such as radar, surface to air missiles, and soon, anti-ship ballistic missiles, as well as a formidable arsenal of the 2nd Artillery’s conventional ballistic missiles for denying US access to shore-based facilities. So while the South China Sea is obviously a maritime theater, and East Asia a more maritime-dominated challenge than Central Europe. However, it is a bit more complicated than “Battleship.” It’s not just hyper-rational players dropping pegs on each other’s fleets in the vast undifferentiated expanse of the sea.

Yet Kaplan insists:

There is nothing romantic about this new front, void as it is of moral struggles. In naval conflicts, unless there is shelling onshore, there are no victims per se; nor is there a philosophical enemy to confront. Nothing on the scale of ethnic cleansing is likely to occur in this new central theater of conflict. China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury. The Chinese regime demonstrates only a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. Instead of fascism or militarism, China, along with other states in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, certainly, but not one that since the mid-19th century has been attractive to intellectuals. And even if China does become more democratic, its nationalism is likely only to increase, as even a casual survey of the views of its relatively freewheeling netizens makes clear.

It’s simply not true that there are no victims to naval warfare. Kaplan acknowledges that billions of people’s economic fortunes are affected by South China Sea trade. It’s not just trade, or natural gas, but massive amounts of fishing that rely on a relatively stable equilibrium in the Asian littoral. A major disruption of trade would absolutely have victims, and even maritime disputes easily gin up feelings of perceived victimization. To call a return to 19th century nationalism unromantic seems especially odd given that nationalism was, at its outset, a romantic movement. It’s a mistake to explain that “It is all about the cold logic of the balance of power. To the degree that unsentimental realism, which is allied with nationalism, has a geographical home, it is the South China Sea.” Nationalism and the balance of power logic are tensions that frequently work against each other.

The eruption of nationalistic continental challengers to the balance of power in Europe was a constant fear throughout the 19th century, which is why 19th century Europeans carefully cultivated and pruned such groups to prevent their very romantic schemes from becoming reality. The influence of pan-Slavists, Russian nationalists, and fantastical Orthodox-inspired geopolitics put significant pressure on St. Petersburg to fight for its co-ethnic or co-religionist brothers in the Balkans or even seek to reincarnate the “Tsargrad” of Constantinople. Germany, and especially the unsentimental realists such as Bismarck, had to manage nationalist pressures to pressure countries such as Britain and France for colonial territories in Africa which the German realists saw as essentially useless and provocative goals. German naval nationalism also played a significant role in unnecessarily heightening tensions with Britain, even if the British exaggerated German naval potential in turn. As for France, it’s own romantic nationalism certainly played a role in the “cult of the offensive” that played out so disastrously in the opening of World War I.

Whatever moral drama does occur in East Asia will thus take the form of austere power politics of the sort that leaves many intellectuals and journalists numb. As Thucydides put it so memorably in his telling of the ancient Athenians’ subjugation of the island of Melos, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Again, Thucydides, like most early realists, was not just writing about “austere power politics.” He does deal significantly with the impact of regime behavior and the dynamics of citizenship, hubris, bloodlust, and aggression. Furthermore the Peloponnesian war is hardly a reassuring case that the dispute will be bloodless because it is maritime. Kaplan assures us that we will “in the future we just might see a purer form of conflict, limited to the naval realm,” and that this will not result in the US being drawn into wars, certainly not major wars. But the account Peloponnesian war begins, after all, with the well-governed former colony Epidamnus requesting the presence of foreign naval forces breaking out into a dispute between mother metropoleis. It is Athens’s intervention which accelerates this “pure” naval conflict into a war where mass slaughter becomes a reality.

The United States, at least, should not be so confident that a more naval realm will reduce the likelihood of a conflict erupting which it becomes dragged into. If anything, the issues of freedom of navigation and the projection of US naval power have been a leading cause of US involvements in great power wars, either directly or peripherally, since independence. The Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812 all had primary, or in the latter case, significant, roots in naval trade and navigational disputes. In the Civil War, the naval aspect of the dispute, as epitomized in the Trent Affair and British construction of Confederate warships, both of which aroused significant enmity in among the US population.

The Spanish-American War found its trigger from ongoing tension and propaganda into outright war with the destruction of the USS Maine, which certainly led to feelings of victimhood, moral crusading, and outrage in the United States. The problems of unrestricted submarine warfare during World War I and American concern for freedom of navigation and the sinking of its warships were vital in building enough nationalist support and moral outrage for Wilson’s entry into the war.

The US also found itself increasingly drawn into the Atlantic theater of World War II, before war was even declared, by similar problems of submarine warfare. The sheer strength of the US fleet and the attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, resulting in thousands of deaths, demonstrated that a naval or offshore involvement, when coupled with policies such as strict sanctions and a paranoid foe, could trigger absolutely brutal amounts of slaughter.

Even after World War II the Gulf of Tonkin incident played an important role in escalating US security commitments to the South China Sea region – and that is without any American lives being lost in the process. One issue Kaplan fails to consider is just how devastating the loss of even a single warship would be to the country and to the national psyche – of any state. The sinking of the ARA Belgrano in the Falklands war resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and drew that war out further. On a much smaller scale, the missile attack on the USS Stark during the “Tanker War” killed 37, though the results of that were blunted by the eventual understanding that it was a potentially mistaken launch by an Iraqi aircraft. Still, the notion that the loss of dozens or hundreds of lives to naval warfare is insufficient to unleash the forces of passion less amenable to cold-blooded power politics is obvious. A sinking resulting in the loss of life on the scale of the Belgrano to the US would be an unprecedented single-day loss of combat personnel in modern American history, and deaths on a similar scale as a result of naval action could easily begin the disintegration of the fragile equilibrium into a major conflict.

Kaplan’s suggestions that abandoning some of the more ideologically charged elements of US policy will be a necessary element of US policy in East Asia. Providing a degree of stability in Eastern Eurasia is incompatible with the perceived US desire to indirectly affect the overthrow of the Chinese government, or America’s long record of interventionism. Even other democracies in Eastern Eurasia, such as India and the liberal ASEAN members, are staunchly committed to state sovereignty. As I have noted previously, doctrines such as R2P and military humanitarian intervention will not be welcome in an increasingly multipolar Eurasia, at least east of the Mediterranean. Yet it is a mistake to assume that a conflict with a major naval theater is somehow immune to the two irrational elements of the Thucydidean triad, or the contingency and passion that accompany rationality in the Clausewitzean one. There is a sort of element of technological surprise, by which countries can enter war with no enmity, as Kaplan assumes, or the relatively smaller enmity of a major naval loss, as I assume, and end up in a conflict of extreme bloodshed. As Aron explained, the human and material cost of naval warfare spurs greater nationalist mobilization, which in turn contributes to more grandiose ideological objectives and demonization of the foe.

There are some other aspects of this I’d like to address, namely the assumption that China’s territorial issues are settled (China has a significant continental threat which drains resources from the coffers of the navy, and that is the subjugation of China itself), or the real potential philosophical disputes surrounding freedom of navigation and sovereignty (which is absolutely a serious ideological concern), but expect more on that later.

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