As China looks overseas for energy supplies to sustain its "peaceful rise" to regional eminence, its leadership has increasingly looked seaward. The deal Beijing inked with the Saudi government last week, guaranteeing Beijing a steady flow of Saudi oil in exchange for certain concessions, was the latest testament to China's concern with secure energy supplies.
Shipments of oil, gas and other commodities make their way to Chinese users primarily by sea. Secure passage through the sea lanes connecting Chinese seaports with foreign suppliers -- primarily in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa -- is now a matter of vital importance to Beijing.
Chinese leaders have begun looking at the seas much as the US looked at the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico during its own rise to regional preeminence. Indeed, Chinese strategists routinely cite the works of an US naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, to justify a buildup of "sea power," made up of overseas commerce, naval and commercial fleets, and refueling bases situated along the sea lanes.
Writing at the turn of the 19th century, Mahan deemed it an iron law of history that nations found their "surest prosperity" through sea power. Specifically, the US Navy needed to assert "command of the sea" in waters where US merchant vessels hauled vital goods. He called command of the seas "that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy's flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive."
Only a fleet capable of defeating the strongest force likely to be brought against it in vital waters could impose such dominance.
Which waters? Like today's China, the US of Mahan's day had come to view maritime commerce as the key to domestic prosperity. Imperial competition endangered this commerce. After all, the European powers had partitioned much of the non-European world, threatening to deny the US its rightful share of international trade. Mahan exhorted his country to build a navy capable of assuring US access to foreign markets, especially in East Asia.
Digging a canal across Central America would spare merchant vessels sailing from Atlantic coast seaports the arduous voyage around Cape Horn to Asian ports. Mahan and other like-minded navalists such as Theodore Roosevelt lobbied tirelessly for such a canal, which would also allow the US Navy to concentrate its battle fleet -- then as now dispersed between the nation's Atlantic and Pacific coasts -- more readily in wartime.
It was the Panama isthmus -- the "gateway to the Pacific for the United States," Mahan called it -- that gave the forceful maritime strategy he proposed its overarching purpose.
European navies, Mahan believed, coveted Caribbean island bases from which to control shipping bound for the Panama Canal. Cuba offered the best site for such a base, boasting multiple harbors, a generous endowment of natural resources, and imposing natural defenses. Jamaica, positioned astride all major sea lanes in the region, likewise held great promise. He implored the US to obtain strategic outposts in the Caribbean and deny them to the other imperial powers.
Chinese thinkers of a Mahanian bent will apply this logic to the South China Sea, China's gateway to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Like the waterways that obsessed Mahan, this expanse contains waterways of critical importance to national prosperity, most prominently the Strait of Malacca, the world's busiest sea passage. Geography has concentrated minds in Beijing.