Shipping forecast

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 May, 2010, 12:00am

One thing the Obama administration has in common with the previous administration seems to be an extraordinary paranoia about the alleged threat posed by Chinese naval expansion. Talk of China ending six decades of American naval pre-eminence in the western Pacific is heard everywhere in Washington, and the 19th-century strategist admiral Alfred Mahan - the father of the American 'navalist school' - is back in fashion in grand style.

Obama's campaign slogan in 2008 was 'Change we can believe in'. It excited a lot of people inside the United States and abroad who were frustrated by George W. Bush's squandering of a huge reservoir of international goodwill towards the US, which generations of Americans had accumulated since the second world war. The blame was mainly put on a distinctive, unilateralist foreign policy conducted by a small elite group known as the neoconservatives, the architects of the infamous 'war on terror'.

Since the Iraq invasion, the neocons have been down but not out. In fact, the logic of the containment policy against China, a neocon favourite, is back in fashion. Robert Kaplan, a leading neocon commentator, in a sensational essay published in Foreign Affairs, has expressed nothing but praise for the Obama policy of getting tough with Beijing. This is rather unusual for a neocon intellectual. The neocon logic is simple and straightforward: China is a leading authoritarian regime on the rise, economically, hence it seems likely to challenge the pre-eminence of democratic America at the global level. There is no stage better than the ocean for China to showcase its military might.

The neocons' favourite analogy for China is the position and behaviour of imperial Germany in the late 19th century. Ironically, while most alarmists in the US are borrowing Mahan's language, they have overlooked admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the rival naval strategist in the kaiser's Germany. The differences in their thinking are clear. Mahan's advocacy of naval supremacy was based on the British experience, and the US was a leading maritime power. Tirpitz, however, represented a country that did not have extensive coastlines; hence his justification for a strong, blue-water navy rested on the security of its commercial fleets. China's geography is somewhere in between. Kaplan's thesis about Chinese naval expansion is based on Mahan's ideas about seeking global naval hegemony.

While China's position is often likened to that of imperial Germany, a Chinese strategic thinker along the lines of Tirpitz has yet to emerge. In fact, Chinese 'navalists' often offer confused arguments about the need for a blue-water navy.

Some leading military commentators go back to nationalism and the so-called '600 years' of naval history starting with admiral Zheng He's famous expedition, arguing for reviving its traditional glory. But China does not really have a serious naval history to speak of. They seem to have confused navigation history with naval history, since a navy, by definition, refers to a nation's entire military organisation for sea warfare and defence, including vessels, personnel and shore establishments. The so-called Ming navy of Zheng's day was hardly a navy at all.

Other Chinese commentators simply resort to modern realpolitik. The main thrust of their argument is the need to challenge any other power's supremacy at sea. What has been missing so far is a reasoned and convincing argument for Chinese national security, which should include traditional coastal defence and nontraditional security of its main commercial sea lanes.

For example, the development of aircraft carriers in China is often depicted as a question of national prestige, but the strategic purpose of the rapid development of submarine and anti-ship technology has never been explained clearly.

Thus, it is not surprising that China's naval build-up, however legitimate it may be, could be seen as combining the perspectives of both Mahan and Tirpitz. Naturally, it will be considered a more dangerous naval power in the future.

Yet China conceives of its own future as that of one power among an increasing number of others in a multipolar context. China pursues neither ideological crusades nor imperial expansion. But it hasn't clarified its naval development, and since most speculation in the West on this subject cannot fill a knowledge vacuum, the neocons' 'China threat' thesis may easily take hold. Chinese military thinkers must admit that a blue-water navy is a new subject they are not familiar with and that more serious research and analysis are urgently needed.

Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva