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Naval nationalism and East Eurasia

August 17, 2011

Continuing on my thoughts yesterday about Robert Kaplan’s latest piece on the South China Sea and the broad contours of future geopolitics, I’d like to address the particularly important issue of naval nationalism and its role in great power interactions. One of the more problematic assertions of Kaplan’s article is the assumption of a sort of hyper-rational treatment of naval affairs, one which leaves nationalism running relatively cold-blooded and renders great power politics “austere.”

When the Deutscher Flottenverein, or German Navy League, formed in 1898, it was hardly to become the symbol of austere nationalism or a stabilizing force in international relations. There was, to oversimplify, a significant division in German conceptions of geopolitics in the late 19th century. On the one hand, there were the Bismarckian realists who above all, sought to maintain the stability of Europe for German interests. They saw no need to risk Germany’s only recently-won unity by antagonizing the United Kingdom over frivolous colonies nor had they any interest in sacrificing stability with Russia to fight for Austrian interests in Bulgaria or some other obscure Balkan region.  On the other, there were more staunch German nationalists, Kaiser Wilhelm II foremost among them, who saw a fleet as a necessary element of German national pride and prestige, and the culmination of German sea power, in the essential combination of ports (in this case, colonies), fleets, and commerce as the key to fulfilling German national aims. So, even among the two camps of machtpolitik, there was a significant division between the advocates of local, status quo realpolitik, whose prime goals were French isolation and eastern stability, and the advocates of global, revisionist weltpolitik, who sought to match or supersede at sea a declining Britain, and preemptively undermine or subjugate a rising Russia on land.

The Navy League of course pushed for weltpolitik, and while it formed with the good graces of Tirpitz and Bülow, by the time of the latter’s reign as Chancellor it had acquired political clout beyond his power to control, pushing through more naval construction even against Bülow’s wishes. The result of these naval build ups was to push Britain into the arms of the Franco-Russian entente against Germany. Germany, having failed to maintain the diplomatic isolation of France and the “good treaty” with Russia, had violated Bismarck’s final rule of seeking to be among three great powers in a world of five. This significantly undermined Tirpitz’s fleet design. After all, his “Risk Theory” was predicated on deterring British intervention by making the German fleet strong enough to leave Britain’s vulnerable to the 3rd strongest naval power and thus implode the globe-spanning British naval system. Yet Germany’s allies’ navies were obviously not up to that task, and Britain had already wisely begun accommodations with the United States and Japan to reduce its commitments in the Americas and Far East. The result of this nationalism, and its symbiotic relationship with the naval lobby (who had not simply fear and honor, but also interest at stake), was to continue to push Germany down into a dangerous pursuit of weltpolitik against everything Bismarck had hoped for.

China today is significantly more secure at land than the German Empire was. Yet it is far more vulnerable at sea than Germany was. Unlike Britain, which sought merely to maintain a two-power standard at sea, the United States, at least a few years ago, maintained an  thirteen power standard by tonnage and a twenty power standard by firepower. Despite the reduction of US CVBGs to 9 and the erosion of US naval readiness, even in this sorry state the US will enjoy far more naval preeminence on the high seas than Britain could have hoped to before WWI. The result is that a Chinese “High Seas Fleet” or a modern Chinese “Risk Theory” is not very plausible. China’s only plausible naval ally with a blue water capability, Russia, is in a desperate state at the moment, and given the southward orientation of its security policy, it is not worth gambling on Russian support for China in the event of a war with the United States.

Yet the existence of Chinese naval lobbying, built on the confluence of shipbuilders, import and export dependent industrialists, nationalists seeking China’s rightful equality among the great powers, and PLAN officers seeking to consolidate and expand the Navy’s hard-won and long denied position at the budgetary table all have an interest in pursuing the accouterments of a great power’s blue water fleet. As Robert Ross points out in his assessment of Chinese naval nationalism, this is not necessarily the best use of China’s resources, or even its naval resources. As I pointed out in the previous post, the geography of China and it’s “Middle Sea” to the south militate towards taking advantage of access denial technologies (many of which are better oriented towards the littoral than the high seas) such as submarines, large numbers of missile-packed fast attack vessels, along with massive amounts of surface based aircraft, missiles, and sensors are all factors in the Eastern Eurasian naval geography.

China’s blue water fleet would not be much of a threat to the United States, but it would be a problem for China’s neighbors, with which it is more likely to initiate a violent dispute. Yet China must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Sea denial is the precursor to sea control, particularly if forcing a decisive battle is not possible. If China wants to try to defeat, deter, or dominate its smaller neighbors in detail, it must first be confident that it can keep the United States out. Focusing on building a carrier and other blue water vessels is not the way to accomplish this. Contrary, again, to Kaplan’s assertion of naval rationality, the prestige politics of navies and sea power can often have deep emotional impacts. As territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands and other disputed maritime features escalate, we can expect the two-level game to begin acting in a particularly nasty manner, whereby nationalists, and especially naval nationalists or nationalists with links to interest groups invested in sea power, push their governments to escalate tensions further.

There is very significant potential, therefore, for Chinese maritime machtpolitik to stray from austere realpolitik – and for any other country to stray similarly. The creation of Asian naval lobbies and the strengthening of interest groups and ideological agendas associated with them is unlikely to stabilize the South China Sea, as if the security dilemma was not enough. This is all ignoring, of course, the potential for a new regime in China which could empower nationalist elements even further – not a guaranteed outcome, but certainly a possible one. Averting such a new regime might even push the Chinese to adopt further nationalist stances.

There is the additional problem of the US response, which could easily enable “irrational” nationalism on the part of South East and East Asian states. The US could well read the tea leaves of the “Asiatic Mediterranean” and discern the potential for a new balancing coalition against China. If US involvement in Georgia and the Persian Gulf is any lesson, however, uncompromising US stands with friendly countries in the face of a nationalistic rising power tends to empower the worst tendencies of both the feared aggressor and embattled ally. There emerges a dangerous cycle by which nationalist parties can turn their ideological foreign policy preferences into potential security, political, and economic rentier bonuses by playing up their neighbor’s threat in order to spur more US support. This, on the other hand, antagonizes the neighbor and generally provokes their own nationalist backlash, which, as Kaplan does note, is potentially quite powerful. The result can be a US ally that feels emboldened to take risks it might not had it lacked confidence in US support, or worse, a US that actually follows up and plunges into the escalation of a conflict in order to preserve its broader credibility.

There is indeed serious potential not simply for a naval dispute originating in such a manner to shatter illusions of moral austerity, but to actually move onto land. Just as the US retaliated for the engagement of the USS Maddox in 1964 with Operation Pierce Arrow and its airstrikes on the North Vietnamese shore, the bombing or raiding of shore facilities could contribute significantly to military escalation. Such incidences may make all parties involved feel their credibility is at stake, and give nationalist or navalist groups increased power over decision-making. That such a dispute could now plausibly begin with the participation of a US partner or perceived friend and escalate due to a limited Chinese superiority over their capabilities increases both the number of potential flash points for the US and the risk of miscalculation by either power in their assessment of the other.

This is part of the reason why why optimists who see the potential for cooperation in Chinese carrier buildups are probably going to be proven wrong. The argument goes that:

Aircraft carriers are not new to Asia. India, Thailand, and other nations sail and maintain small carriers that operate fixed-wing aircraft in limited fashion. A large and ambitious platform represented by Chinese employment of the VARYAG, while a leap in potential capabilities, demands an expanded force structure and pricey investments. Beijing must weigh these factors as it develops any future roles and missions for its aircraft carrier. In the final analysis, they may decide that cooperation with other nations to complement existing naval forces, rather than competition in parallel, is an alternative for regional stability that enhances their bottom-line.

Here the attempt is to derive Beijing’s grand strategy from its naval capabilities, but it is obviously not so simple. China is not going to design its security posture and grand strategy around making a carrier affordable. A carrier may ultimately be part of the prestige strategy for China to justify further power in its own region and for the PLAN to secure more resources to put into the actual strategic thrust of its navy, the sea denial and anti access capabilities that can genuinely threaten the United States Navy, as well as the navies of China’s neighbors. While Chinese naval cooperation with other powers off the coast is Somalia or in humanitarian operations is likely to be a prominent factor, such situational cost-pooling not any more a predictor of a broader naval cooperation strategy than the combined quashing of the Boxer Rebellion was of enduring great power cooperation over 100 years ago.

Precisely because carriers are so expensive, China (and India!) are building more now. In a nationalistic strategy of prestige, image and appearance must sometimes precede reality, in order for the perceptions of reality to make its material realization politically possible. Acquiring aircraft carriers bolsters nationalist credibility, enhances jockeying positions for funding, and begins building a long-term foundation for blue water capability and “Deep Sea defense.” However most Asian states, judging by heavy investments in very non-cooperative tools such as submarines, are very concerned about ensuring that their most likely foe cannot dominate their immediate waters. The presence of carriers operated by rising powers is a signal of what they intend to do in the long-term.

In some ways, at least as far as stabilizing Sino-US relations goes, the carrier is a distraction from what is truly problematic about Beijing’s maritime strategy, firstly, the accumulation of robust anti-access and sea denial capability, and secondly, the revival of what might be called a “Continentalist” approach to maritime sovereignty. The revival of a notion of a zone to exclude the US navy, where China would enjoy a preponderance of power, is, as has been said many times before, similar to the Monroe Doctrine and especially Schmitt and the other revisionist powers’ appropriations of the concept after World War I. The most dangerous vector for Chinese nationalism to become aggressive may be the transformation, as America’s saw, of the Monroe Doctrine from a space of power political exclusion to hegemony, ideological dominance and ultimately an attempted fortress for expansion. As in the case of Japan, the US and associated powers should think very carefully about adopting economic measures to “counteract” perceived Chinese aggression, especially if they occur simultaneously with the maximalist US interpretation of freedom of navigation. It was this combination of political absence and economic presence that helped internationalize the ideological rupture between Anglo-American liberalism and the continental great powers, while simultaneously pushing them more towards desire of geopolitical autarky.

In fact, the notion of the purely mathematical, rootless, rational and economic ideal of sea power which Kaplan touts so frequently shows up just as frequently as an Occidentalist trope about the Anglo-American way of grand strategy and warfare. The idea of the humane industrial strangulation of economies through decisive sea warfare and the use of freedom of navigation and the geopolitical protection of it as a tool of expanding and enmeshing the world in a Western-dominated global system dates back at least to the initial German reception of Mahan; only the Germans learned the lesson that they should, in response, seek to build up a qualitatively European, organic, blood-and-soil political ideal of economic autarky. Rather than the rationalization of warfare everywhere through the humane and liberal influence of sea power, sea power was re-appropriated for grand strategies of untold, industrial-scale exploitation (arguably not just by the Germans, but by the Japanese and even the Soviets, too). When Kaplan confidently predicts that a naval-dominated theater could never produce anything like the horrors of World War II, he might recall that Hitler’s primary impetus in choosing to invade the Soviet Union when he did was the failure of his aims at sea against Great Britain. He might also recall the Western powers’ poorly considered sanctions regimes against Japan which did so much to aggravate Japan’s economy but so little to check its military strength. The constant doubling down on Japanese economic isolation only increased Japan’s hunger for an autarkic system free from the supposedly “rational” constraints of the austere, economic realm of Western-style naval warfare.

To put it simply, just because Western powers, in denial of their own histories, of course, like to perceive naval warfare as a bloodless, honorable affair of fighting men and women at sea, does not mean that their opponents will accept the West’s own assumptions and sanitized perceptions of naval conflict. While such a conflict might appear limited for an offshore power, presuming the action does not disrupt its own trade or result in a catastrophic loss of men and material in some naval engagement. Kaplan has done a decent enough job of identifying the place, the broad theoretical tradition necessary to navigate it (no pun intended), and for the most part, the players. Ultimately, however, the ideological assumptions about naval warfare and the nature of sea power and its relation to national vitality and nationalism generally belie a much more complex and potentially dangerous brew of factors than he lets on. The question for the United States will be, as other powers rise and it faces its own dilemmas, how to work with and through instability in Eastern Eurasia.

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