by Robert Beckhusen, freelance writer
It’s one of the perennial stories of world politics. China is rapidly building up its naval forces, and one of the directions those warships are heading is into the disputed zones of the South China Sea. But controlling sea routes — like controlling land territory — is dependent on a complex series of factors that limit where naval forces can go, where they can call home, and which naval powers have implicit advantages due to their location. Being the dominant power in the South China Sea is a huge task for any navy, including even the biggest ones in the region.
That’s the subject of a recent essay by James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College for the quarterly Naval War College Review. Holmes, a naval warfare expert, drew on the work of influential American seapower strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan to question how effectively China will be able to exert itself over the region — compared to when the U.S. effectively seized the Caribbean more than a century ago.
Mahan lived at a time when the United States was an emerging power and the Caribbean was still contested waters between the major world navies. At the same time, the Caribbean was emerging as a major hub for trade with beginning of the Panama Canal project — eventually completed in 1914. That makes it useful for a comparison with the South China Sea, which has become increasingly important to global trade and Chinese naval ambitions. Mahan’s studies of the Caribbean focused on the intersection of chokepoints transited by naval ships, the best locations for sea bases and the strategic uses of islands. For one, the Caribbean — prior to the Panama Canal — has three main transit corridors in and out. There’s the corridor between Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and Cuba, the corridor between Cuba and Hispanola, and the Antilles island chain to the east. But the eastern islands are small, relatively dispersed and difficult to police effectively. Cuba, in this estimate, is the strategic center for control of shipping routes through the Caribbean.
It’s not just the location, either. Cuba is a large, heavily-populated island with abundant natural resources. Naval bases in Cuba do not need to be resupplied as do bases on small islands — or if they do, comparatively much less. Due to these reasons, holding Cuba allows a comparatively smaller naval power, like the United States in 1898, to wield outsize influenced. The only island sufficient to support sizeable British naval bases was Jamaica, which is resource poor and not decisive to controlling shipping routes. “Only a fleet stronger than any hostile fleet based in Cuba could prevent a distant blockade from isolating and slowly starving out Jamaica,” Holmes writes. “Only a dominant navy could imbue Jamaica with the full value it commanded in abstract calculations, wheras Cuba was virtually self-sufficient.”
On the surface, the South China Sea is similar to the Caribbean. But it’s also wider and easier for naval groups to navigate — there’s no Cuba-sized island sitting in the middle— and contains only minuscule patches of land in the Spratly Islands, with only a few of those possessing even fresh water. “At most these small, resource-impoverished, hard-to-defend islets could play host to small units armed with antiship cruise missiles, providing the force that occupies them a sea-denial option vis-à-vis passing merchant or naval traffic,” Holmes writes. “These are tenuous positions for military forces in search of forward bases.” There is no central location for a dominant power to squat — except with an aircraft carrier — lest they risk their forward-deployed forces being isolated and trapped. One partial exception is the Taiwanese-controlled island of Taiping, the chain’s largest island and which also contains fresh water and an airfield.
But the real source of power is on the coastlines. And here, China is at a disadvantage compared to when the U.S. sailed into the Caribbean. The U.S. had no regional competitors to the Caribbean in 1898, as only European powers were able to mount a challenge. Mexico was far too weak and uninterested to pose a threat. By contrast, most of the states bordering the South China Sea have embarked on naval modernization plans to varying degrees. These states are not only hard limits where naval forces can go, but they are difficult to blockade. And Taiwan — possibly the Cuba in this scenario — comprises an unsinkable aircraft carrier for contesting and hoovering up intelligence on Chinese naval maneuvers. Without Taiwan under Beijing’s control, its northern flank is effectively checked.
But this is also true for any state. “Because of its dearth of island outposts, it will prove difficult for any would-be hegemon to command — even a coastal state like China that is replete with maritime potential,” Holmes notes. Vessels also have other options if the South China Sea becomes too dangerous to navigate. It would still be costly for shipping to avoid it, but significantly less so than bypassing the Suez or Panama canals by navigating around Africa or South America.