For the past 65 years, the world has experienced massive economic growth, combined with massive growth in world trade. Most of that trade is in the form of ships crossing the ocean. Therefore, it seems like not too much of a stretch to hypothesize that one of the biggest factors encouraging global economic growth since WW2 has been freedom of the seas. And freedom of the seas has been assured in no small part thanks to the dominance of the United States Navy and its allied navies of Japan and Europe. Pax Americana, in other words, is an enormously important public good, and is primarily a naval phenomenon (though ICBMs also probably help).
Thus, the biggest geopolitical story of the new century may be the rise of the first naval power since WW2 that has both the ability and the will to challenge the U.S. and all of its allied navies at the same time for dominance of a critical sea trade region. Here's a few articles reporting on this story:
China’s decades-long military modernization effort is paying off. After assembling a revamped arsenal of new ships, subs, planes, and missiles, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is showing that they can use all those assets together, in an operation far from its shores. This display of improved military capabilities have occurred in conjunction with messages to the U.S. indicating a more aggressive approach from Beijing on China’s claims over disputed waters of the South China Seas...
[Recent Chinese naval] exercises were conducted a few weeks after Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeff Bader visited Beijing. As reported by the New York Times, they were told that the South China Sea is a “core interest” for the PRC. This is an important phrase for Beijing – it raises the South China Sea to the same level of significance as Taiwan and Tibet – and suggests a newly aggressive and provocative approach...
China has long claimed that the South China Sea is within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) forces foreign militaries to seek permission from Beijing before they can transit through...[But] the United States has long identified EEZs as international waters through which military vessels can freely pass...
By labeling the South China Sea as a “core interest” and conducting these exercises just days later, China has issued its reply: China will aggressively back its claims with a robust military capability.
The other, more implicit, message from Beijing could not be more stark: China’s military is growing more capable, and the PLA Navy is now at the vanguard of China’s military modernization effort. By acquiring advanced military technologies and developing the ability to conduct complex operations far from shore, China is changing military balances throughout the region with implications far beyond a Taiwan-related scenario...
The South China Sea and the adjacent littoral waters off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore will be the most strategically significant waterways of the 21st century. Already, 80 percent of China’s oil imports flow through the Strait of Malacca, and Japan and Korea are similarly dependent on access to those waters...
China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, if left unchallenged, would make Beijing the arbiter of all international maritime traffic that passes through, which the U.S. cannot allow.
US officials have warned that Chinese naval expansion is happening much more rapidly than had been expected, with plans for new nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers giving Beijing the power to extend its military might far from its shores...
A new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank warned yesterday that China's military expansion was designed to end the US Navy's domination in the region...
The Vancouver Sun:
Tokyo’s shock, horror and alarm at the sighting a few days ago of a flotilla of 10 Chinese warships off Japan’s southern Okinawa island is undoubtedly contrived.
It has been evident for the past two decades as it invested huge amounts of money, time and effort into military modernization that Beijing intends to be able to project military power that supports its growing economic and diplomatic supremacy.
Just a few days before the latest encounter, a helicopter from a Chinese warship “buzzed” a Japanese naval vessel that was keeping watch on the exercises.
And in the past few years there have been other incidents with an increasingly far-roaming and competent Chinese navy.
Last year a Chinese submarine collided with the sonar gear being trailed by the American ship USS John S. McCain near the Philippines.
In 2006 an undetected Chinese submarine surfaced within firing range of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
Indeed, the joint exercise 10 days ago off Japan involving two Chinese Kilo-class nuclear-powered submarines and eight surface warships, including two missile-armed destroyers and three frigates, is a harbinger of shocks yet to come...
Despite its efforts at obfuscation, Beijing’s evident determination to build and operate a navy capable of projecting power throughout Asia has worried China’s neighbours.
It has prompted an arms race in Asia, especially with the acquisition by China’s neighbours of submarines, which because of their stealth and multiple weapons systems offer great deterrent value.
India, which sees itself as Beijing’s main regional rival, is pursuing a massive naval expansion and modernization program designed to keep ahead of China.
Australia is doubling its submarine fleet to 12. Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea are all in the process of acquiring or expanding their submarine fleets.
Without any apparent appreciation of the irony, Chinese military officers and associated academics have been warning at regional defence conferences in recent weeks that this arms race, especially the widespread acquisition of submarines, is inherently destabilizing in Asia...Beijing’s claimed “maritime interests” include disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia over the ownership of islands and submarine resources in the South China Sea[.]
The Sri Lanka Guardian:
Since the beginning of last year, the Chinese Navy, which no longer makes a secret of its aspiration of becoming a Pacific naval power on par with the US, has been adopting a dual strategy...
Its assertiveness in the South and East China Seas is marked by repeated reiteration of its territorial claims in the area and its determination to protect its rights to fisheries, minerals, and oil and gas in the areas claimed by it. It is also marked by the expression of its readiness to use its Navy to protect its rights...
Simultaneously with its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, the Chinese have also stepped up their assertiveness in the East China Sea where their claims and interests clash with those of Japan...
Instead of being defensive and low-profile about the presence and assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in the South and East China Seas, the Government/Party controlled Chinese media have been openly asserting China’s readiness to protect its traditional rights and defend its territorial claims in the area through its modernized Navy. They project the increasing assertiveness as a message that a modern and powerful Chinese Navy has arrived on the Pacific scene as a force to be reckoned with...
The Chinese Navy is there to stay and grow and assert China’s claims and rights. That is the message loud and clear.
China’s Global Times, a state-run paper linked to the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, published an editorial Tuesday responding to the “fuss” in Japan and taking issue with those who see the PLAN as a threat.
“A stronger navy is a result of China's growing economic strength and ongoing modernization of its military power,” it said. “It is a strategic requirement of a big power, which must defend its interests to the best of its ability.”
The editorial conceded that the transformation of the Chinese navy would naturally bring changes to a regional “strategic pattern” that has lasted for five decades.
“But the transformation is positive. China does not hold an intention to challenge the U.S. in the central Pacific or engage in a military clash with Japan in close waters, though it is willing to protect its core interests at any cost.”
The editorial went on to declare that “the time when dominant powers enjoyed unshared ‘spheres of influence’ around the world is over.”
Call me a Mahanian, but it seems to me that when the naval balance of power changes, the geopolitical equilibrium undergoes a rapid breakdown. That balance of power has held at least since the Battle of Leyte Gulf, when the U.S. defeated the last major contender for naval supremacy. And it has been surprisingly robust; all the al Qaeda goons on the planet pose essentially no threat to Pax Americana and the explosion of globalization and wealth it has brought. But China's growing naval power, coupled with its desire to challenge the U.S.-led order, will make Pax Americana history in perhaps two decades.
That will be...an interesting day.