US strategists on the benefits and limits of sea power – The Diplomat


As the specter of war hangs over the South China Sea, two American strategists have written articles in respected military journals examining the strengths and limitations of maritime strategy vis-a-vis China. The Biden administration would be wise to consider both elements as it grapples with heightened tensions over the status of Taiwan and the longer-term Cold War with China.

In the February 2022 issue of Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute, Thomas Mahnken, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former deputy deputy secretary of defense (including a stint at the Network Assessment Office of the department), offers a maritime strategy to deter and, if necessary, defeat China in a war in the South China Sea. His article is titled “A Maritime Strategy to Deal with China”. In the Fall 2021 issue of the Naval War College Review, Professor Jakub Grygiel, former senior adviser to the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and co-author of “The Unquiet Frontier” (which I reviewed in the Asian Review of Books) wrote an essay called “The Limits of Sea Power”.

Mahnken bases his proposed maritime strategy on the geographic barrier known as the “first island chain”, which includes Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and peninsular Southeast Asia. The United States, he writes, should treat the first island chain as the Fulda Gap of the Asia-Pacific region (referring to the intra-German border between NATO and the Warsaw Pact). The United States and its regional allies must defend this maritime terrain with “land, expeditionary, naval and air forces” supported by cyber and space assets, Mahnken asserts.

He urges U.S. policymakers to deploy “internal forces” on the first island chain and sea-based “external forces” to both support internal forces and “threaten China from multiple axes.” He believes that a sufficiently armed and geographically localized maritime strategy will cause China to rethink its strategy of political or military annexation of Taiwan, and failing that, allow the United States and its allies to achieve victory in the event of war.

Grygiel’s article on “The Limits of Sea Power” includes historical examples of both the strategic advantages and the limits of sea power in wars and international relations, from ancient Athens to Venice to the crusades, and more recently to the rise of Britain, the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War. Grygiel cites Themistocles, Pericles, John Adams, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman, and other strategic thinkers to support his claims. Grygiel argues that China’s challenge to the US-led world order is both maritime and continental, exposing some of the limits of sea power that the US must consider in crafting of strategies to win what some have called this second cold war.

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Grygiel notes that “the strategic advantage of the seas comes and goes in history. Land communications are not eternally inferior and sea lanes are not inexorably ascending in strategic value. And, as he notes, it is not easy for a sea power to translate its supremacy at sea into “political influence on land”. This is why great power struggles throughout history were rarely direct conflicts between land power and sea power. Instead, land powers and sea powers sought allies who could enable them to wage war effectively between the two elements of power. Britain, for example, for centuries supported continental coalitions to compensate for the larger continental land powers. Similarly, since 1945, the United States has formed alliances with continental powers on the Eurasian landmass to maintain Eurasia’s geopolitical pluralism.

The great continental land powers, such as Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, in their attempts at world empire, sought allies of sea power and control of coastal regions. Grygiel notes Napoleon’s statement that he would “conquer the sea by the power of the land.” As the Emperor of the French would have said: “Make us masters of the [English] Channel and we will be masters of the world” – thus, its alliance with Spain and its erection of the continental system. Hitler, meanwhile, conquered coastal France and allied with Italy to wage a maritime war in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Both great powers faltered when they failed to consolidate effective political control of Eurasia through Russian land power backed by the sea powers of Britain and the United States.

This geopolitical reality is why Mackinder’s concept of the world island in “Democratic Ideals and Reality” was and is so important. Mackinder’s World Island combines effective political control of the Eurasian-African landmass with geopolitical insularity, allowing a power or alliances of powers based in Eurasia to be supreme both on land and at sea.

Mackinder has often been misinterpreted as a proponent of land power, when in fact he recognized that great sea powers needed sufficient land bases, while great land powers could use their resources to outflank sea powers. This was the meaning of his famous question: “What if the Great Continent, the whole of the Ile-Monde or a large part of it, should at some future time become a single and united base of maritime power?” Wouldn’t the other island bases be overwhelmed in ships and sailors? Their fleets would undoubtedly fight with all the heroism their stories engendered, but the end would be fatal.

Grygiel argues that sea powers have three options for influencing continental geopolitics to avoid succumbing to Mackinder’s nightmare: first, establish a presence in the land powers’ coastal regions (usually in coordination with allies); second, to impose pressure (economic, military and political) on the enemy’s land borders; and third, to exercise control over the inland seas. During most of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the United States used the first option by forming alliances with continental powers which allowed the stationing of large numbers of American forces in the coastal regions of the ‘Eurasia. It can be said that in the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, Washington combined the first and second options by adding economic, political and military pressure on the border areas of the Soviet empire.

“The grip of maritime powers on the continents is precarious, even when they dominate the oceans,” warns Grygiel. Their continental alliances may weaken or decline, reducing the continental presence of sea power. And continental powers can become less vulnerable to disruption at sea. Both of these variables, he argues, are crucial in the current conflict with China.

The United States has a relatively small mainland presence in East Asia on the Korean Peninsula, but it also has a significant offshore presence in Japan and a smaller presence in Guam, the Philippines, and Australia. It maintains close security ties with Singapore and seeks additional military bases on the Indian Ocean islands as India-US cooperation grows in the face of China’s rise. And the United States is improving its relations with its old enemy, Vietnam, whose leaders also fear China’s ambitions. But it’s mostly sea power or sea assets.

China is now vulnerable to maritime energy disruptions along the maritime highway that stretches from the East and South China Seas to East Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, by which its economy is supplied. and fed. But Grygiel notes that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is mainland-based and seeks to open or improve land routes across the Eurasian landmass. He writes, “[I]If Beijing tightens its control over the land routes linking China to the rest of Eurasia, creating a continental core, US naval forces floating in the Pacific Ocean will have considerably less effect on its decisions and behavior.

To overcome challenges from Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, the maritime powers of Britain and the United States needed Russia as an ally and co-belligerent. Today, the “big geopolitical question for the United States,” Grygiel writes, “is whether Russia will be more aligned with China—establishing a continental accord—rather than maintaining a long, frictionless land border.” Unfortunately, and in large part because of the policies of the Biden administration, Grygiel’s question has been answered at least for now: China and Russia have formed a strategic partnership that threatens to upend the world order ruled by United States. This development exposes “the limits of sea power”.

Grygiel would presumably add a land power component to Mahnken’s maritime strategy to effectively contain or defeat China. Such a strategy would include a stronger alliance with India and efforts to drive a wedge between China and Russia, as President Richard Nixon did in the early 1970s. is that US strategy towards China, especially in the immediate future, will rely heavily on sea power, but in the long run, Washington is neglecting the land power component at its peril.


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