Geographically, both China and the United States have been blessed with large and populous nations. This has meant that, typically, both countries have looked inward, not having any need to seek markets and resources elsewhere, unlike, say, England or Japan.

(Despite revisionist history to the contrary, the Chinese, as several less sympathetic commentators have pointed out, were actually “latecomers to navigation beyond coastal waters.”)

Yet, both nations are now wrangling for position on the oceans, and driving their strategy is the work of a forgotten statesman, Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Mahan’s 1890 book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1738, was a significant influence on Theodore Roosevelt, the first American president to conceive of the United States as a Pacific power as much as an Atlantic one.

 

And now, hundred years later, Mahan’s argument that sea power is the key to great power status seems to have made a mark on Chinese decision makers, too.

 

In a nutshell, Mahan’s argument is that projecting naval power during peacetime (as we are in now) is more effective in securing a nation’s economic and military interests than using ground forces. For obvious reasons, amassing ground troops on contested territory is more likely to be taken as an invitation to war.

The key objective is to prevent one’s competitors from building up their own naval competencies. This is even more important in the case of a commercial fleet. A thriving commercial fleet is the foundation for a strong navy—if one thwarts the former, one can head off the latter. A particularly Machiavellian strategist might even encourage competitors to waste billions on building a blue- water fleet without a commercial fleet, since it’s unlikely to be long-lived.

And finally, stealth is key. If a nation can fortify its naval positions by quietly developing naval bases, whether for commercial or military purposes, without anyone noticing, it will be well placed in the event of confrontation. Mahan would definitely approve of China’s “string of pearls,” i.e. the naval bases it has slowly been amassing in the Indo-Pacific region.1

In the American case, Mahan’s influence came into play as early as 1907, when Theodore Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet,” literally painted gold and white, around the globe to put Japan on notice for its intransigence in acceding to the US-negotiated peace agreement with Russia, among other things. That fleet was predecessor to today’s U.S. Pacific Fleet (USPACFLT), which patrols the waters of the Pacific Ocean maintaining a precarious American-negotiated international order.2

At the time, American trade interests in Asia were relatively negligible. Nor was the American public, primarily of European ancestry, interested in getting mixed up in Pacific affairs. In fact, the Great White Fleet was never debated in Congress but was executed by presidential fiat.

Still, American missionaries were active in China, and a few years earlier, American Secretary of State John Hay had proclaimed that it would be to everyone’s benefit (but particularly America’s) if the Anglo-European powers would stop carving up China amongst themselves and maintain an open door policy towards each other (and the Americans) in their respective trade concessions.

In fact, with this theatrical gesture Roosevelt was not so much signaling ground realities as future intent. America was announcing that its economic interests were about to become much more tied up with those of its Pacific neighbors and Roosevelt wanted to make sure that they understood who was going to be running the show.3

Something very similar is happening in China. From digging up increasing archeological “evidence” of Ming era maritime supremacy to announcing plans earlier this year for an aircraft carrier to protect waterways along the twenty-first century maritime silk road, China is also announcing its great power ambitions.