By Lakna Paranamanna
Last week India, Maldives and Sri Lanka revived trilateral maritime talks after six years. It was soon after the Quad nations staged the two phased Malabar 2020 exercise in the Bay of Bengal. The U.S. led alliance has upped its game against Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific waters, but the question remains if these measures will suffice to withstand rising Chinese power that is already consolidated in the region.
The answer to these queries, can be explored in the theory of sea power argued by Alfred Thayar Mahan – the renowned American Naval officer and strategist, whose 1890 book ‘Influence of Sea Power upon History’ extensively wrote on the use of enhancing maritime prowess to elevate America as the next hegemon to replace the waning power of Great Britain at the time.
Mahan and sea power
Mahan wrote during an era of vast changes in technology, yet, he stressed on the logic of a bluewater strategy above and beyond every other factor to achieve national greatness. At the time, sea power also played a key role in increasing wealth, but his strategy proposed merely tapping into foreign resources and using the maritime power to enter overseas markets to match the increasing American production and to pave the way to create political allies throughout the world who will join the alliance of the liberal trade order.
His recipe for geopolitical success was the trifecta of extensive production, growth in shipping through the development of a merchant fleet and colonies – presently meaning military bases that ships can use to replenish fuel and supplies. They were to be backed with the country’s geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, number of the population and the charter of the people and the government to achieve sea power dominance.
Although Mahan is criticised for overt focus on sea power, his arguments are not without merit. Living in an era where around 80 per cent of global trade by volume and over 70 per cent of global trade by value are carried via sea, Mahan’s arguments are not only valid but are essential. After all, his vision did carry America to greatness post-WW2, owing to leaders including former American President Roosevelt finding validity in his claims.
Did America abandon the winning strategy influenced by Mahan’s thinking or is China simply better at adhering to Mahanian principles than America was?
In their rhetoric against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, a key word that American diplomats recurrently emphasise on is ‘free and open seas’. Freedom of navigation is a vital factor in today’s economy and it is indeed the duty of a Naval power in a democratic society to ensure the vital sea lanes of communication remain unhindered to facilitate liberal trade and thereby promote domestic wellbeing. America has some 490 Naval assets including 20 aircraft carriers at its disposal, but it is increasingly becoming clear that maintaining a military maritime presence alone is not enough to outdo rising Chinese influence.
U.S. vs China
The U.S. concentrated on the capacity build up of its militaries, particularly the Navy during the cold war arms race, but the momentum was not sustained. In fact, since the collapse of the USSR, the American fleet has reduced by about 137 ships. In the absence of competition for a power race – until the rise of China – America fell into complacency. America’s doom also came in the form of distractions, both at home via domestic financial and social pressures as well as fighting wars abroad.
But Mahan urged against complacency – he instead argued that a country in fact, makes its most significant gains during times of peace, which can be achieved by using Naval capacities as means of soft power pushes.
Mahan argued for the preemption of sea power as opposed to the promotion of rival power to develop their own merchant shipping fleet to assist in their trade, noting a capable Navy is the product of a thriving commercial shipping industry. But it appears that the U.S. has done its exact opposite; while China has acquired several large shipping companies and ranks ninth in the merchant Navy capacity, the U.S. ranks at 22. Former US The Secretary of Defence Mark Esper rightly identified the need for urgent reforms within the Naval fleet – he called for a 355-ship fleet by 2030, but it was not backed up by actions. The US Navy requested 19.9 billion USD through the budget for 2021 fiscal year for shipbuilding, a $4.1 billion drop from 2020.
Meanwhile, China surpassed the U.S. this year in terms of the sizes of the navies; according to the U.S. Department of Defence report, the PRC now has the largest Navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants, as opposed to the 293 ships of the U.S. Navy as of this year.
Mahan advocated encouraging the rival to build its Naval forces, as it would financially drain the rival, particularly if their quest for dominance is pushed out via both land and the sea. But this point however has not proven to bring the exact opposite outcomes in the context of China. It was only logical and predictable for China to venture via sea routes to consolidate power considering its geographical deadlock with India and Russia.
Following on this, the Chinese then went to systematically influence and maintain a steady presence in territories identified as having a strategic value for them, which we now know as the ‘string of pearls’ in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR), that not only focus on sea but also on assets on land surpassing Mahan’s vision.
The U.S. was far too focused on the war on terror and attempting to bring countries that fall under their strategic interest span under the American sphere of influence in the Middle East and South America, that the growing threat in Asia went almost unnoticed. That was until China launched the OBOR initiative and the challenge became real, for, imposing a threat on rivals’ access to global waters is to indirectly also restrain the rival’s military development.
This was the same strategy the Americans deployed with Russia during the Cold war using U.S. military presence and Naval prowess to constrain Russian maritime capacities. As a result, despite their wealth it took a significant amount of time for Russia to build their Naval fleet. But the U.S.’ lax attitude and tendency to intervene in wars that are not their battles to fight, have cost them dearly – both Russia and China have climbed up the ladder surpassing the U.S. in terms of Naval power ranking 3rd and 2nd respectively while the U.S. has landed fourth on Global Fire Power index.
Today, the sea routes are at risk of being influenced by new forms of rules based on different interests than of the U.S. and the West-led international order. America has finally woken up to the challenge but the damage done by the illusion of perpetual permanence of American dominance will not be reversible unless meaningful measures that go beyond staging military presence and exercises are implemented.
If not, the repercussions to the American economy – despite America’s rallying of the West and their allies against impending Chinese dominance – will be no different to the fate that befell the British or the Dutch when they lost status as the dominant sea powers in their times.