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 US 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 16th century to the 800 US 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 20h century and the first years of this one, military bases in the South China Sea in particular have been flashpoints for geopolitical change. The US 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 US 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.