From the Caribbean to South China: A Tale of Two Seas

Chinese vessels are moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea
In this March 31, 2021, file photo provided by the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, Chinese vessels are moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea. (National Task Force-West Philippine Sea via AP, File)

27 Jul 2021Military.com | By Joseph V. Micallef

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

At first glance, the South and East China Seas, or China Seas, and the Caribbean Sea seem to have little in common.Advertisement

Situated on opposite ends of the Earth, they are what geographers describe as enclosed seas. To a naval strategist, that’s shorthand for an environment replete with numerous choke points from which maritime traffic can be interdicted.

Beyond this geostrategic similarity, however, these seas have another common element: the parallels and contrasts with how each region has handled the emergence of new military powers.

China in East Asia

For much of its history, China has been the predominant military power in East Asia. Historically, it was the largest country, had the largest population and the largest economy. All those factors are typically prerequisites for national power — a fact as true today as it was a millennium ago. The exceptions were periods when China was internally divided, beset by weak governments unable to assert their authority, or dominated by foreign powers.Advertisement

These exceptions have been a recurring theme in Chinese history, most recently the period from the First Opium War (1839-42) to the communist revolution in 1949. Contemporary Chinese historians and government officials often refer to this period as “the century of humiliation.”

Beijing’s desire to exert greater control over the South and East China Seas, and to dominate the region economically, politically and militarily, is nothing new. It’s simply a return, more or less, to the historic status quo — or at least some version of it.

To that end, Beijing has asserted its sovereignty over the region, as outlined in the Nine-Dash Line map, based on what it contends are historical antecedents. Many modern historians consider these claims dubious, and the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague soundly rejected them in a landmark ruling.

China has constructed and fortified seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. It has often clashed with its neighbors over its sovereignty claims. Numerous confrontations, typically between fishing vessels of its maritime neighbors and units of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, have resulted.

While China is the predominant military power in East Asia, it lacks the means to project much of that power over the maritime environment, although that ability is growing rapidly. Moreover, the present maritime situation in the region is historically unprecedented in two respects.

First, China’s economic expansion and modernization have made it dependent on maritime trade, both to bring in the raw materials to fuel its industry and to export its manufactured goods.

Historically, China’s dominance of its adjacent seas occurred almost by default. It was a reflection of its cultural and diplomatic influence and, indirectly, its status as the major land power in the region. Access to maritime trade routes or control of the China Seas was not, however, a strategic issue. Traditionally, at least until the arrival of the Europeans, threats to Chinese sovereignty had come overland from the west, not across the maritime environment from the east.

However, Its control, even then, was far from absolute — Japan being an obvious and persistent example.

During periods of Chinese weakness, a power vacuum typically developed that was filled on a local basis by some of China’s maritime neighbors. Until the arrival of European naval fleets in the 19th century, however, there was no one who could challenge China’s historic dominance over that entire maritime region. European naval power quickly reversed that.

No European power ever completely dominated the China Seas, although Great Britain came close. Japan eventually emerged as the dominant naval power in the region, a position it relinquished to the United States following its defeat in World War II.

Second, for the first time in its history, China’s ambition to assert its authority in the China Seas is being challenged by another power: the United States. The U.S. maintains a string of military bases on the periphery of the South and East China Seas and has considerable military assets in the region. Those bases and forces are generally, though not always, well situated to interdict Chinese maritime activity.

The U.S. has organized a very loose coalition of neighboring states to oppose China’s assertion of sovereignty over the China Seas and accompanying islands and to ensure free passage of maritime traffic through the region.

Some participants in that coalition — Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, for example — are tied to the U.S. by mutual defense treaties. Others have informal understandings, like the vague or unstated security guarantees to the Republic of China (Taiwan), or simply by a pattern of policy alignment and coordination, like that which exists between the U.S. and Vietnam.

This informal alliance is underscored by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, Japan, India and the United States. The so-called “Quad Alliance” falls far short of a formal coalition. It has taken great pains to emphasize that it is not geared against China, but only concerned with maintaining the freedom of maritime transit across the Indo-Pacific region and, in particular, the China Seas.

To that end, the U.S., along with several of its allies, has repeatedly conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations in the region. Such operations are designed to demonstrate that, notwithstanding Chinese claims of sovereignty, the areas in question are international seas and free maritime transit cannot be restricted.

Naval Power in the Caribbean

Unlike East Asia, the Caribbean did not have a dominant naval power prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Initially, that dominant naval power was Spain, a position it maintained until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 formally opened up the Caribbean to other European countries. In reality, however, Spanish naval power in the region had been in decline since the early 17th century.

The role of dominant naval power in the Caribbean was subsequently contested by the Dutch, British and French. The Dutch initially had the upper hand, but gradually lost it as a result of defeats in the four Anglo Dutch wars (1652-1784). Likewise, French power in the region waned after its defeat in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

Despite French and Dutch attempts to use the American War of Independence as leverage to reassert their power in the Caribbean, Great Britain emerged as the dominant naval power in the region, a position it would maintain over the course of the 19th century.

The Caribbean was a significant prize, possibly as important then as the South and East China Seas are today. The 17th- and 18th-century sugar boom had transformed the sugar islands of the West Indies into the world’s most profitable real estate. Sugar estates routinely returned 100% yearly on their invested capital.

The British “sugar barons” were the largest bloc in Parliament. Their wealth exceeded that of the crown and was lavishly displayed. It was a practice that caused George III to limit such displays, lest their ostentatiousness embarrassed the crown’s more modest fortune.

The rise of American power in the Caribbean began with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and was cemented by the American completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. The transition from British dominance to American dominance of the Caribbean region offers an instructive contrast to the contemporary strategic situation in East Asia.

British foreign policy from the time of Louis XIV on was to prevent the rise of a dominant European continental power by organizing a coalition of weaker states to resist it, backed by British gold and the Royal Navy. That policy was succinctly summarized by British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston when he observed:

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.”

It was a view that he would express numerous times, in different forms, over the course of his long political career.

While that policy was geared primarily toward the balance of power in Europe, it was equally applicable to other parts of the world where the rise of a dominant power would affect British interests. That view was one of the dominant sub-themes in Anglo-American relations over the course of the 19th century.

Great Britain considered aligning itself with Mexico in the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848. An Anglo-Mexican alliance would have had far-reaching consequences in that conflict.

The traditional invasion route into Mexico was from the Gulf Coast in the south. That was the route followed by every invader from Cortez to the U.S. to France since rugged mountainous terrain and inhospitable deserts made invasion from the north extremely difficult.

In 1846, the dominant naval power in the Caribbean was the Royal Navy. An invasion of Mexico from the south would have been impossible had the American invasion fleet been resisted by Great Britain. In the end, however, London chose to remain neutral, opting to use the leverage gained from its potential involvement to negotiate more favorable terms over the division of the Oregon/Columbia Territory between itself and the U.S. (the Oregon Treaty of 1846).

That territory ran from the border with Mexican California, 42 degrees north, to the border with Russian Alaska at 54 degrees 40 minutes north. At the time, there was widespread support in the U.S., as epitomized in the slogan “54.40 or fight,” for the U.S. to take control of the entire region.

Likewise, Great Britain considered intervening on behalf of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Britain’s textile mills were dependent on Southern cotton. More importantly, a permanently divided United States would have crippled the rise of American power. The Confederate States of America would have been dependent on British capital and manufactured goods, as well as a diplomatic ally.

British public opinion was strongly opposed to slavery, however. The Royal Navy and British foreign policy had spent most of the first half of the 19th century trying to stamp out slavery and end the slave trade. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a politically dangerous move that might have spurred the slave states that remained in the Union to leave, was motivated in part by his desire to recast the Civil War as a repudiation of slavery and preclude British intervention on behalf of those states that would have continued it.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop private British interests, with the unofficial approval of the British government, from intervening on the Confederacy’s behalf. Many of the Confederate blockade runners were ships built in British shipyards and sailed by British crews and officers who had taken a leave of absence from the Royal Navy. Bermuda, a British colony and the major Royal Navy base in the Western Atlantic, was at the center of the British-supported blockade running.

Fast-forward to the end of the 19th century. The U.S. is preparing to go to war with Spain. An American victory is all but certain, as is the likely annexation of at least some of Spain’s colonial possessions in the Caribbean. The sugar boom has long since faded. Rather than possessing the world’s most expensive real estate, the region is now an economic backwater.

Nonetheless, if past policy is a guide, Great Britain should seek to organize a coalition of Caribbean nations, Mexico, Spain, maybe Colombia, to resist the American expansion into the region. At the very least, it would be expected to leverage the possibility of such a coalition to extract favorable concessions from the U.S. Instead, Great Britain acquiesces to the emergence of the U.S. as the principal naval power in the Caribbean and openly supports it.

By the end of the 19th century, Great Britain was experiencing an acute sense of imperial overreach. The British empire still spanned a quarter of the world’s surface, and Great Britain was still a formidable military power. It was certainly capable of dealing with any of its adversaries, but increasingly there was a sense that it would be hard-pressed to deal with multiple adversaries simultaneously.

U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, had surpassed that of Great Britain in 1870, and was on track to surpass that of the entire British Empire by 1916. Likewise, the German GDP had surpassed that of Great Britain during the 1890s.

As the century drew to a close, Great Britain found itself increasingly at odds with France in the scramble for African colonies and with Russia for influence in central Asia and to forestall Russian encroachment on the Ottoman Empire and eventually on British interests in the Mediterranean. On top of all that, a new war was brewing with the Boers in South Africa.

Faced with the rise of a potential European hegemony for the first time since the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Great Britain opted to reconcile itself with its principal adversaries — France, Russia and the United States — while seeking alliance with rising powers Italy and Japan in order to allow itself to concentrate on the strategic threat posed by the rise of Imperial Germany.

Ironically, Imperial Germany (Prussia) was the one country with whom Great Britain had never fought a major war, and with whom it had traditionally been aligned in opposing the rise of a European continental power.

Geostrategic Considerations: From the Caribbean to the China Seas

At the end of the 19th century, all of the world’s principal economies were on the gold standard. One of the factors limiting Great Britain’s strategic options was the realization that London could simply not afford the level of military spending required to retain the capability to deal with multiple adversaries simultaneously. Forced to choose between potential opponents, it opted to focus on the one it deemed the greatest threat, and reconciled itself to at least some of the aspirations of its previous adversaries.

Today, Washington feels free to monetize ever growing amounts of debt to finance its wants, from new aircraft carriers to expanded child care. In the process, it can at least defer the hard choices that Great Britain was forced to make more than a century ago. How might American foreign policy be different today if the U.S. was limited by the same budgetary constraints that Great Britain faced? At the very least, it probably would be more accommodative of the aspirations of rising powers such as China.

Successive American administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have emphasized that it is not their intent to resist the rise of China, but rather to ensure that China adheres to the rules-based system of the international order. In a recent statement, quoted in The New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed that it is not U.S. policy “to contain China” or “try to hold China back,” but that the U.S. “will stand up” to defend the existing international order.

That statement, however, misses the point. The rules-based system of the international order reflects the interest of the leading powers. Historically, no rising power has simply accepted those rules as given, but has sought to modify them to suit its own needs and aspirations. That was as true of a rising United States in the 19th century as it was of Imperial Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and China today.

The real question is, are the rules that China wishes to impose or modify ultimately reconcilable with the international order that the U.S. and its allies wish to maintain? As a corollary to that question, how far is Beijing willing to go to modify those rules and what risks will it take to accomplish those aims? Those questions are at the heart of Beijing’s aims in the China Seas. Would China risk a military confrontation with the United States, for example, or would it limit itself to a heated and intense, but otherwise peaceful, competition?

Going back to the parallels and contrasts between the China Seas and the Caribbean, there is one other potential link that could bind these regions together. The noted geopolitical strategist George Friedman has suggested that China might look for leverage in the Caribbean as a way of gaining strategic bargaining chips in the China Seas.

Unlike China, all of whose coastal ports front the China Seas, the main U.S. ports are well diversified between the East and West Coasts, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean region — although a disproportionate amount of America’s energy imports and exports flow through the Caribbean Sea into its Gulf of Mexico ports.

Friedman points out that any Chinese ambitions in the Caribbean ultimately would revolve around Cuba. This would not be the first time that an American adversary sought to use Cuba for leverage against the U.S. The Soviet Union did so, as well. Its attempt to stage nuclear armed missiles there precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

China is Cuba’s largest trading partner and has become the primary supplier of manufactured and infrastructure-related goods and technical assistance, although China’s ranking depends on the amount of oil Venezuela provides and how that oil is valued. China also operates at least one intelligence-gathering facility in Cuba.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy hospital ship visited Cuba in 2011. and three Chinese warships visited in 2015, ostensibly to commemorate the 55th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries and to participate in a joint naval exercise with the Cuban Navy. Otherwise, there has been little Chinese military activity in Cuba.

Chinese companies have, however, invested in Cuba, including a $120 million Chinese government loan to fund a major expansion and modernization of the port facilities in Santiago de Cuba.

There is no evidence, however, that Beijing is looking to leverage Cuba to play a role comparable to how the Soviet Union used Havana at the height of the Cold War. Nor is there any evidence that the Cuban government would be open to such an initiative.

Recent domestic unrest in Cuba could lead Havana to seek closer ties with Beijing, including stepped-up economic aid. On the other hand, for Cuba, a strategic military relationship with China means forgoing any hope of normalizing relations with the U.S. For now, it’s a theoretical question for analysts and strategists, but it is one more factor that could tie these two disparate seas together.

The record of great power rivalry in the Caribbean and China Seas offers an interesting historical comparison. It is further evidence that history’s plots tend to repeat themselves, albeit with a different cast and, sometimes, different outcomes.

— The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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