Alfred Thayer Mahan was an evangelist of sea power in the study of geopolitics. The essence of his vision was that sea power serves as the crux for the United States (U.S.) to control and influence world affairs. Today, three factors challenge his assertion: the rise of China, Trump’s unstable and unsustainable alliance system, and the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Applying Mahan's vision to present day would imply that in order establish supremacy over the seas and achieve a favorable world order, the U.S. must forge a robust and functional alliance and partnership with like-minded states that share the same strategic interest.
The following sections seek to substantiate this claim by providing a background on Mahan’s geopolitical vision and its relevance today, identifying the three major challenges to achieving U.S. supremacy, and suggesting a way forward for the U.S.
The Mahanian Vision
In his pioneering work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, Mahan drew from the lessons of the war between Britain and France which demonstrated the former’s unmatched naval superiority. He proposed that naval supremacy in the future would have to be in the form of cooperation between two or more powers considering that it would be extremely arduous for a single power to effectively project influence over the seas. In an article he wrote in 1900, Mahan stated that if a power has reached its limits, it must be open for cooperation. Moreover, common ideologies and interests are key factors that may spearhead an effective coalition or concert. He envisioned a transoceanic cooperative arrangement between Britain and the U.S. to deter the aggression of states such as Russia, Germany and Japan and to maintain the balance of power in their favor.
After the Second World War, the U.S. established itself as the global leader with an unmatched economic and military capacity; however, since the 1970s, it has entered a period of decline. Currently, it has become too expensive and arduous to commit to its global ambitions and interests. As a result, it has reached the stage of imperial overstretch. In accordance with the Mahanian vision, it must forge a robust coalition of states to strategically maneuver the seas. However, three challenges stand out that may hinder the formation of an effective US-led coalition.
The Rise of China
China has been showing its rise through its assertive actions in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. These actions can be translated as China’s ambition to revise the existing status-quo order of world affairs. In the South China Sea (SCS) particularly, China has bolstered its maritime presence significantly as the whole world remains distracted by the effects of COVID-19. China has steadily been taking paramilitary and paralegal actions in the disputed sea to enhance its control and influence over the geographic space. In fact, China has been making absolute gains in terms of overall naval capabilities. This may seriously alter the security architecture of the region. Additionally, there have been several reports regarding the Chinese navy’s strategic maneuvers in the SCS.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese research ship, conducted a survey near Malaysia's Petronas-operated West Capella. This caused problems with the Malaysian government. In another incident, a Vietnamese fishing vessel was rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel near islands of the disputed waters. Other assertive activities of China include the dangerous tailing of foreign warships and attempts to stop exploration activities in the exclusive economic zones of other Asian states. This trend is expected to continue as China increases its relative power which would complement its assertive rise.
In a similar vein, China has also increased its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The area consists of crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that are valuable to China’s strategic and economic interest. As a result, it has increased its influence in the area by cooperating with the smaller states of the region. In the Indian Ocean, China has developed a string of naval bases that spreads across Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka
In sum, China’s growing maritime influence is a direct challenge to U.S. supremacy and must be carefully studied to understand its long-term strategic implications for international affairs. If left unchecked, it is not impossible to have a powerful China command the seas which serves as a prerequisite for commanding the global order.
Unsustainability of Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
Despite the enthusiasm behind the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, much analysis still needs to be placed to ascertain its value in international politics. What can be perceived, however, is that the strategy has been mostly used rhetorically rather than practically. As a result, the very foundation of the FOIP remains ambiguous.
Assuming office in January 2017, U.S President Donald Trump committed to an America First Policy. This served as a countermeasure to revert the unfair burden on the American political, economic, and military commitments abroad, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. On January 24, 2017, Trump issued an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP was a stringent measure that aimed to counter China’s use of force and coercion in the Western Pacific Ocean, particularly the South China Sea. The TPP was also designed to deter China from achieving the status of regional hegemony. With the withdrawal from the TPP, U.S. allies and partners will become vulnerable to the growing influence of China. States of East Asia and the greater Pacific Ocean viewed the TPP as a symbol of U.S. commitment; however since the withdrawal, the vision of Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy remains uncertain.
He also questioned the burden on the U.S. with its commitments with key allies such as Japan and South Korea. Analysts believe that these actions may put to the long-cherished alliance system of the U.S in the region in peril. By alienating two of its key treaty allies in Northeast Asia, the U.S. may provoke the balance of power and tilt away from its favor in the long term. China may use this as an opportunity to build closer relations with South Korea and Japan at the expense of the U.S. The U.S. also needs to play a bigger and more constructive role in enhancing the maritime dimension of the Quad - an informal strategic dialogue between the U.S., Australia, Japan and India. The effectiveness of the Quad relies on its member’s individual and collective capacity. As a result, military and economic adjustments need to be made in addition to membership expansion.
The president’s viewpoint on the alliance system may hamper his efforts to push for a FOIP. According to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, advancing a FOIP vision is a shared responsibility to help combat elements of coercion from revisionist states like China. However, the current approach of the U.S. seems far from what is expected given its coercive rhetoric to compel its allies and partners to bear a fair share of burden. Integral to the U.S FOIP vision is the promotion of freedom of navigation and overflight. In the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) 2019 Outlook, the U.S stated that it seeks a “results-oriented” relationship with China on any common issues that aligns with its interest; however, it is also ready to compete if China obstructs its national interests that include the freedom of navigation and overflight. To achieve this, the U.S chose to commit its Navy to work with regional allies and partners to build a credible maritime capacity via interoperability, regular exercises, and domain awareness.
China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea continue to cause tension among the littoral states like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Unfortunately, the promises made by the U.S. in helping its allies and partners deter China through cooperation for a credible maritime capacity is seen to be more rhetorical than practical. The U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) would likely continue; however, its allies and partners want commitment beyond FONOPS. If this inadequacy in the U.S. foreign policy will persist, time may not be on its side in its meaningful quest to achieve the Mahanian vision of sea power.
Shocks from the COVID-19 Pandemic
The world continues to be stunned with the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as it has claimed countless lives, disrupted societies, and destroyed national economies. As of May 19, 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the U.S has 1,504,830 total number of cases and 90,340 total number of deaths. Aside from civilian population, the U.S military also struggles against the spread of COVID-19. As of April 2020, a total of 26 out of 297 naval vessels were reported to have COVID-19 cases. This also includes the 780 sailors of the USS Theodore Roosevelt stationed in Guam.
Because of the devastating effects of the pandemic, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that both American and Chinese power will be significantly diminished. This trend is not exclusive to both the U.S. and China. In fact, other states are on the brink of cutting their defense spending to a significant degree due to the negative economic impact of the pandemic. Moreover, Rudd said that the COVID-19 pandemic made the America First Policy a symbol of the incapability of the U.S to handle its own crisis. How would anyone expect the U.S. to mitigate the crisis beyond its borders? Unfortunately, he foresees that U.S-China relations will remain confrontational as China is continues to restructure its strategies.
Some say that the COVID-19 could serve as a golden opportunity for the U.S to re-engage the Indo-Pacific because of its relatively greater capacity compared to other states. The question, however, lies on whether the U.S. has the resolve and not merely the capacity to act in this direction. The U.S Army War College experts commented that while the U.S is currently down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can rise from the depths and create opportunities even with the absence of the TPP as a symbol of American resolve. The U.S. must extend its hands and listen to its allies and partners. The question now lies whether the U.S still has arms to reach and ears to listen to its allies and partners.
A Way Forward
If the U.S. seeks to prevent the balance of power from tilting in China’s favor, it will have to restructure its priorities regarding the engagements with its allies and partners. Based on the Mahanian vision, it is necessary for a declining U.S. to cooperate effectively with states that share similar ideologies or interests. At a time when China has been making its presence felt in the strategic waters of the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. must forge and pull together a formidable coalition that would deter the rise and assertion of China. By enhancing the Quad to a functional level, the U.S. may effectively increase its maritime influence in both arenas, namely, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. So much so, extending the Quad Plus partnership to encompass South Korea, and ASEAN members would effectively boost the overall strategic dynamics of the cooperative arrangement. However, before getting willing and like-minded ASEAN members on board, the U.S must fulfil its promise in helping them build a credible maritime capacity. Furthermore, with or without a President Trump, a totally free and open region requires a willing de facto leader to safeguard common interests and to preserve the balance of power. The very first step is to consider realigning and substantiating the FOIP strategy with the assumption that the allies and partners of the U.S. cannot stand on their own, for now.
Joshua Espeña is a defense analyst in the Office for Strategic Studies and Strategy Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Don McLain Gill is pursuing his master’s degree in International Studies in the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written on issues of regional geopolitics and India-Southeast Asia relations.