Mahan and the Problem of China

Chinese President Xi Jinping has publicly called for the annexation of Taiwan. Chinese warplanes have entered Taiwan’s air defense space with increasing frequency. Reuters reported on October 11, 2021, that China carried out beach-landing military exercises in a province opposite Taiwan. We may be drifting toward war in the South China Sea.

The German political geographer Friedrich Ratzel once wrote that ”great statesmen have never lacked a feeling for geography... When one speaks of a healthy political instinct, one usually means a correct evaluation of the geographic bases of political power.” One hundred twenty years ago, the American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote an article for the North American Review which was later included in a book called The Problem of Asia in which he identified the geographical middle-belt of Asia as the “debatable and debated ground,” ranging from Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in the west to Korea and Japan in the east.

Mahan at the time was one of our nation’s most respected and influential public intellectuals. He had served in the Union Navy during the Civil War and later taught history and strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island (eventually becoming president of the college). His second book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (which was based in part on his lectures at the war college) made him world-famous. In all, he wrote 20 books and hundreds of articles on history, sea power, strategy, and international relations. He was also a friend of, and informal adviser to, President Theodore Roosevelt. 

In The Problem of Asia, Mahan wrote that the struggle for power in Asia -- the world’s greatest landmass -- would center in and around the “debatable and debated ground.” In his time, “the vast, uninterrupted mass of the Russian Empire” to the north of this region posed the greatest danger of Asian dominance, but he also noted some of Russia’s technological and logistic difficulties that manifested themselves a few years later in Russia’s war with Japan. In our time, however, China is Asia’s predominant power, is strategically allied with Russia, and is situated to economically and politically dominate “the debatable and debated ground.”

Within Mahan’s Asian middle-belt is Iran, Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, much of India, most of Myanmar (Burma), Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. In some respects, Mahan’s “debatable and debated ground” roughly corresponds to the land portion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Mahan noted the importance of India to Great Britain -- then the world’s preeminent sea power -- in Britain’s 19th-century effort to contain Russia known as the “Great Game.” Today, India has that same importance to the United States if we are to successfully contain China. The Indian Ocean, as Robert Kaplan has pointed out, is the 21st century’s pivot region of global politics. Geographically, the Indian Ocean connects the Indo-Pacific to Africa and the Middle East. It is part of the world’s most important maritime highway that includes the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.

Mahan was confident that the sea powers of his time (Great Britain and the United States) could effectively oppose Russian land power principally because Russia lacked effective access to the sea. China today -- with a lengthy seacoast -- suffers from no such geopolitical handicap. It was Britain’s great geopolitical thinker Sir Halford Mackinder who pointed out three years after Mahan that should China become Asia’s dominant land power she would add “oceanic frontage” to the resources of the Asian landmass and thereby threaten to become “the empire of the world.”  

The struggle for Asia, Mahan wrote, will be fundamentally between land power and sea power, but he was quick to note that “neither is a pure factor.” “[E]ach side,” he explained, “will need and will avail itself... of the services of the other element; that is, the land power will try to reach the sea and to utilize it for its own ends, while the sea power must obtain support on land.” Mahan suggested in 1901 an alliance between the United States, Great Britain (including India and Australia), Germany, and Japan based on a “solidarity of interest” in containing the Asian land power. Today, a “solidarity of interest” should result in effective strategic cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia, India, and England.

At the other end of the Asian middle-belt, Mahan noted the importance of maintaining access to the Persian Gulf (which is even more important today) and the Red Sea, and preserving a balance of power in the Middle East (it was Mahan who coined that term “Middle East”).

And although primarily focused on Russia as a threat, Mahan also presciently wrote that “it is difficult to contemplate with equanimity such a vast mass as... China concentrated into one effective political organization [and] equipped with modern [military] appliances.” We face such a China today, which is establishing strategic ports on and near the Indian Ocean (the so-called “String of Pearls”) and is rattling her sabers about Taiwan, a key geographical position in the new Great Game of the 21st Century.

The United States needs to form today what Mahan recommended 120 years ago -- an alliance of sea powers that will confront China with counterforce at key geographical positions in the Indo-Pacific region. The 21st century’s struggle for the “debatable and debated ground” has begun.

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