Rising powers sometimes behave in mysterious ways toward established ones. Exhibit A: China’s fit of pique at the news that Washington has offered Taipei US$6.4 billion in weaponry. In past years, bigger, pricier US arms sales occasioned little more than a murmur. Why did Beijing react so vehemently this time? A likely answer: Because it can. China is announcing its arrival as Asia’s foremost power, shaping regional politics in its favor.
For many decades, China lacked the comprehensive national power to back up its grand political aspirations. As recently as 1996, it was clear that the US could take command of China’s offshore environs with ease. The administration of then-US president Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft-carrier battle groups to Taiwan’s vicinity to deter Chinese military action during the nation’s presidential election. The People’s Liberation Army found itself unable to detect the two US Navy groups, much less threaten them.
Such indignities are tough to bear for nations like China, which regards itself not as a backward state but as Asia’s premier power. Americans ought to sympathize. Think back to the 19th century. While US mariners distinguished themselves in the War of American Independence, the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, the fact remained that the US had no meaningful navy for many years. Indeed, British forces landed in Maryland in 1814 and burned the White House.
This British military action was seared into US national memory for the rest of the 19th century. A youthful US president-to-be Theodore Roosevelt wrote the standard history, The Naval War of 1812, in the 1880s. Roosevelt’s treatise used the burning of the White House to underscore the repercussions when a wealthy nation lacks a strong fleet to defend itself. It represented an opening salvo in the campaign for a fleet of steam-driven, thickly armored behemoths.
Nor did recent history provide much comfort for naval enthusiasts. The 600-ship navy of the Civil War years had dwindled to 50 or so rickety wooden vessels by the 1870s. On one occasion, the fleet conducted maneuvers in southern waters. No ship in the fleet could manage more than 4.5 knots — about 8kph. So pathetic was this showing that The Nation magazine described the US squadrons — pitilessly but accurately — as “almost useless for military purposes.”
Concluded the editors, US men-of-war belonged “to a class of ships which other governments have sold or are selling for firewood.”
Nor was US maritime weakness lost on foreign observers. Shortly after, Washington decided to mediate an end to the 1879 to 1883 Chilean War of the Pacific, in which Chile, Bolivia and Peru were fighting over a resource-rich bit of territory. Reports historian Walter McDougall, Chilean leaders “told the yanquis to mind their own business or watch their Pacific squadron descend to Davy Jones’ locker.”
And the Chilean Navy, which boasted two modern battleships, possessed the means to make good on this threat.
Indeed, Chilean battlewagons could have bombarded San Francisco had Santiago seen fit. For sea-power theorist Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, such snubs were a product of the “dead apathy” gripping the US Navy and the nation.
Congress set US Navy modernization in motion in 1883, authorizing warships that formed the nucleus of a capable battle fleet. The fleet grew quickly, and US confidence grew with it. In 1895, the administration of then-US president Grover Cleveland intervened in a dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain in which Washington had no interest. Then-secretary of state Richard Olney pointedly informed Britain’s Lord Salisbury that the US’ “fiat is law” throughout the hemisphere.
Like China today, the US was making a statement. Britain’s Royal Navy might still rule the high seas, but the US now controlled its own surroundings. Not so coincidentally, London began to draw down the Royal Navy’s American Station, acknowledging it could no longer compete with the US Navy near US shores. Nor did British statesmen see much reason to try, with a largely friendly power clamoring to take up the burden of maritime security — and ease the burden on the British fleet.
Frictions between rising and established powers, then, are nothing new. The main difference between Asia today and the US then: China appears as determined as Cleveland’s US to make itself No. 1 in its home region, but the US, unlike fin de siecle Britain, is set on clinging to its dominant position in the Western Pacific. What kind of working arrangement Washington and Beijing can fashion, if any, remains unclear.
Beware of shoal water.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
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