The rise and fall of empires has long been a story at the heart of history. Since the Europeans first burst out of their then-marginal region on wooden sailing ships mounted with cannons in the fifteenth century, the planet seldom has had a moment in which several imperial powers weren't competing for supremacy. In 1945, that number was reduced to two and then, for what the Washington elite briefly imagined would be forever, to one. Now, as historian Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, describes in his vivid way today, we seem to be returning to an updated imperial version of the naval contests that began modern history so many centuries ago. The Americans, the Chinese, and in a more modest way the Russians are all bolstering their forces on the high seas in increasingly challenging ways.
But there is a catch. Two actually. It's not the fifteenth century anymore. It's not even an early-twentieth-century moment of dreadnoughts and battleships. The tale of imperial rise and fall is now taking place in a different context: the potential fall of planet Earth itself (at least as a reasonable human habitat). As a start, since the middle of the last century, all imperial confrontations, naval or otherwise, have taken place on a globe where any confrontation between major powers has had an apocalyptically loaded and cocked gun behind it. If you wonder what I mean, just think about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which a naval face-off between the Soviet Union and the United States threatened to end life as we know it on this planet. Don't for a second think that it couldn't happen again.
But there's a second cocked gun on Planet Earth these days and it goes by the name of climate change. In a sense, it's the very opposite of the nuclear one in that the potential Armageddon would arrive not with the speed of the Roman god Mercury but in dreadful slow motion as the planet slowly heats; the melting of Antarctica and Greenland causes sea levels to slowly rise, imperiling coastal cities; fire seasons lengthen; droughts and extreme weather of every sort become the norm; water becomes ever scarcer; vast human populations are set in motion; and... well, you get the idea. The question is: on a planet already beginning to degrade, what exactly does it mean for a new power like China to "rise" or an old one to "decline"? Tom
Gunboat Diplomacy and the Ghost of Captain Mahan
Or How China and the U.S. Are Spawning a New Great Power Naval Rivalry
By Alfred W. McCoy
Amid the intense coverage of Russian cyber-maneuvering and North Korean missile threats, another kind of great-power rivalry has been playing out quietly in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The U.S. and Chinese navies have been repositioning warships and establishing naval bases as if they were so many pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. To some it might seem curious, even quaint, that gunboats and naval bastions, once emblematic of the Victorian age, remain even remotely relevant in our own era of cyber-threats and space warfare.
Yet if you examine, even briefly, the central role that naval power has played and still plays in the fate of empires, the deadly serious nature of this new naval competition makes more sense. Indeed, if war were to break out among the major powers today, don't discount the possibility that it might come from a naval clash over Chinese bases in the South China Sea rather than a missile strike against North Korea or a Russian cyber attack.
The Age of Empire
For the past 500 years, from the 50 fortified Portuguese ports that dotted the world in the sixteenth century to the 800 U.S. military bases that dominate much of it today, empires have used such enclaves as Archimedean levers to move the globe. Viewed historically, naval bastions were invaluable when it came to the aspirations of any would-be hegemonic power, yet also surprisingly vulnerable to capture in times of conflict.
Throughout the twentieth century and the first years of this one, military bases in the South China Sea in particular have been flashpoints for geopolitical change. The U.S. victory at Manila Bay in 1898, the fall of the British bastion of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, America's withdrawal from Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, and China's construction of airstrips and missile launchers in the Spratly Islands since 2014 -- all have been iconic markers for both geopolitical dominion and imperial transition.
Indeed, in his 1890 study of naval history, that famed advocate of seapower Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, arguably America's only original strategic thinker, stated that "the maintenance of suitable naval stations", when combined with decided preponderance at sea, makes a scattered and extensive empire, like that of England, secure." In marked contrast to the British Navy's 300 ships and 30 bases circling the globe, he worried that U.S. warships with "no foreign establishments, either colonial or military... will be like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores. To provide resting-places for them... would be one of the first duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the power of the nation at sea."
So important did Captain Mahan consider naval bases for America's defense that he argued "it should be an inviolable resolution of our national policy that no European state should henceforth acquire a coaling position within three thousand miles of San Francisco" -- a span that reached the Hawaiian Islands, which Washington would soon seize. In a series of influential dictums, he also argued that a large fleet and overseas bases were essential to both the exercise of global power and national defense.
Although Mahan was read as gospel by everyone from American President Teddy Roosevelt to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, his observations do not explain the persistent geopolitical significance of such naval bases. Especially in periods between wars, these bastions seem to allow empires to project their power in crucial ways.
Historian Paul Kennedy has suggested that Britain's "naval mastery" in the nineteenth century made it "extremely difficult for other lesser states to undertake maritime operations or trade without at least its tacit consent." But modern bases do even more. Naval bastions and the warships they serve can weave a web of dominion across an open sea, transforming an unbounded ocean into de facto territorial waters. Even in an age of cyberwarfare, they remain essential to geopolitical gambits of almost any sort, as the United States has shown repeatedly during its tumultuous century as a Pacific power.
America as a Pacific Power
As the U.S. began its ascent to global power by expanding its navy in the 1890s, Captain Mahan, then head of the Naval War College, argued that Washington had to build a battle fleet and capture island bastions, particularly in the Pacific, that could control the surrounding sea-lanes. Influenced in part by his doctrine, Admiral George Dewey's squadron sank the Spanish fleet and seized the key harbor of Manila Bay in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898.