vs US 'Sea-to-shining-sea'
By Pepe Escobar
December 18, 2013 "Information
Clearing House -
It happened now and it
will happen again: a near-collision between an American and a
Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea.
The USS Cowpens, a 10,000-ton guided-missile cruiser, got
"too close" to a drill involving the Liaoning, China's
first aircraft carrier, and its carrier task force, according to
the Global Times.
The US Pacific Fleet stressed that the cruiser had to take
emergency measures to avoid a collision. Yet the Global Times
accused the cruiser of "harassing" the Liaoning formation
The paper spelt it loudly; "If the American navy and air force
always encroach near China's doorstep, confrontation is bound to
Finally, China's Defense Ministry intervened to clarify that the
vessels had "met" each other in the South China Sea but the
worst was avoided via "effective and normal communication".
Communication had better be damned "effective" from now on as
China asserts itself as a rising sea power and it's obviously
unclear who can really do what in the South as well as the East
China Sea, not to mention the oceans beyond.
It's a fact that China's still booming economy is directly
dependent on its complex maritime lines of supply (and demand) -
mostly over the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. But that
does not mean that China is trying to control its surrounding
seas by imposing a sino-version of the 19th century Monroe
Doctrine, which was essentially a continental strategy of
hemispheric domination (ask any informed Latin American about
Beijing is indeed increasing maritime patrols in the South and
East China Sea. There have been some scuffles, mostly
rhetorical, with, for instance, the Philippines. And as Beijing
decided to create its new air defense identification zone (ADIZ),
commercial airlines - not inclined to jeopardize their insurance
arrangements - are all filing their flight plans with Beijing,
which means they acknowledge China's right and authority.
Let's say China is now in the stage of creating facts on the
sea. For the moment, a kind of uneasy accommodation seems to
prevail involving the Americans and also the Japanese. Beijing
knows that the US Navy and the Japanese navy have better
training - and more experience - than the Chinese navy. Once
again, for now.
Slouching across the Rimland
a pretty decent summary in the South China Morning Post of
the recent growth of China's naval power in the context of a
speech given by then president Hu Jintao last November "against
the backdrop of US President Barack Obama's 'pivot to Asia'."
It does connect a few dots between the new mantra coined by
President Xi Jinping - the "Chinese dream" - and the rise of
China as a maritime power.
But there's way much more to it. There's no question Chinese
strategists have stripped Obama's "pivot" upside down, and that
means furiously brushing up on their Mahan, as in US Navy
captain Alfred Mahan, and specifically
The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783,
published in 1890.
Yes, it's always about a "pivot". Mahan believed that the
geographical pivot of empires was not the Heartland of Eurasia -
as with Mackinder - but the Indian and Pacific oceans. For
Mahan, whoever controlled these oceans would be able to project
power all around the Eurasian Rimland, and also affect the
"Heartland", deep in Central Asia. The Chinese know how this has
translated into the US Navy being able to become a factor in
Eurasia - part of that "sea-to-shining-sea" domination enshrined
in Manifest Destiny.
Our strategists in Beijing are very much aware of how China - as
a state and even more as a civilization - extends from the
Heartland to the warm waters of the Pacific Rim. They are also
aware of an absolutely crucial text,
Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power,
published by the US Navy in 2007. This is essentially the
blueprint for Obama's pivot, based - in theory - on cooperation
with local navies (Australia, Singapore, Philippines) rather
than dominance. (Incidentally, the navy advertises to whomever
is concerned that "sea power protects the American way of
Inevitably, our Chinese strategists also brushed up on their
Spykman, as in Dutchman Nicholas Spykman, who founded the
Institute of International Studies at Yale in 1935. It was
Spykman who conceptualized South Asia, Southeast Asia, China and
Japan, as well as the Middle East, as part of the Rimland, which
for him was the key to world power (not the Heartland).
And it's also here that we see how what a sea power like the US
calls "containment" is interpreted by a Heartland power like
China (not to mention Russia) as "encirclement".
It's also easy for Westerners to forget how China was once a
formidable sea power, at the apex in the 15th century, via the
exceptionally gifted Admiral Zheng He, commanding an extensive
fleet of often remarkably large ships under the Ming emperors.
Now the sea power has re-awakened. No more taoguang yanghui
- as in "keeping a low profile", the notorious Deng Xiaoping
And it's as if Spykman had also somewhat seen the future. Just
check this passage of
America's Strategy in World Politics: the United States and the
Balance of Power, published in 1942:
modern, vitalized, and militarized China ... is going to be
a threat not only to Japan, but also to the position of the
Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean. China will be a
continental power of huge dimensions in control of a large
section of the littoral of that middle sea. Her geographic
position will be similar to that of the United States in
regard to the American Mediterranean. When China becomes
strong, her present economic penetration in that region will
undoubtedly take on political overtones. It is quite
possible to envisage the day when this body of water will be
controlled not by British, American, or Japanese sea power
but by Chinese air power.
happening now, only seven decades later, as Obama's Mahanian
"pivot" slouches towards ever more containment of rising China.
May we live in "effective and normal communication" times.
Pepe Escobar is the author of
Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid
War (Nimble Books, 2007),
Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge
(Nimble Books, 2007), and
Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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