Monday, November 25, 2013

The Heir to the Empire


South China Sea Petroleum Trade Route
      No, not another prospective title for a Star Wars sequel, but rather a desperate plea for a U.S. strategy focused on the most vital aspect of U.S. national power; free access to the global maritime commons. China’s recent announcement of an indefinite air defense zone in the middle of international waters represents a challenge to that free and unfettered access. The Chinese declared zone sits directly astride Japan’s trading links with Europe and the Middle East and is a source of destabilizing conduct in an otherwise peaceful area of the globe. While the U.S. has talked of a “pivot to the Pacific” in which the Indo-Pacific basin now figures more importantly in overall U.S. interests, it has not reinforced this claim with a significant movement of forces or diplomatic action. It is not easy being a great democratic, oceanic power, but it’s also not rocket science. The last nation to hold this position did it artfully well for over nearly 150 years. The United States ought to adopt the strategy of the British Empire for policing the world’s oceanic trade routes as that state did in the late 19th and early 20th century. The British example demonstrates such a policy can be executed at a reasonable cost and be of great benefit to all those who use the seas as a highway of commerce. As the “heir to Empire”, the U.S. must also secure global free trade or risk the irrelevancy and failure of the Pacific pivot.
The British Royal Navy White Ensign
     The British Empire faced many challenges to its maritime supremacy in the late 19th century. France recovered from multiple Napoleonic disasters and built a rival colonial empire, Japan emerged from centuries of isolation to compete for dominance of the Western Pacific, Germany and Russia tried to develop “webbed feet” and maritime ambitions, and the United States turned its energies from “winning the west” to winning the game of global economic competition. Despite these multiple challenges, the British were able to successfully rebalance their own fleet in a “pivot to the homeland” that concentrated their fleet in the British isles in order to meet European naval challenges. The British also cut deals with rising states like the U.S. and Japan to ensure their Pacific trade routes remained open. British First Lords of the Admiralty like Lord Selborne, Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill, as well as radical First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher made sweeping changes to the Royal Navy (RN) in order to do much more with much less funding. Over 150 older ships with less speed and endurance were removed from the fleet. New ships were constructed with more efficient steam turbines that enabled higher operational and tactical speeds. Combined with a switch to oil fuel, the new Royal Navy was able to globally deploy its reduced strength much more rapidly than in its previous slower, coal-fired incarnation. Innovative personnel strategies such as nucleus crews and the combination of the engineering and command officer corps into one body ensured that well-trained and educated officers and crews were available to man the RN’s newest ships. Experimentation with new technologies such as torpedoes, submarines, and aircraft was encouraged. Collectively, these changes allowed the British to modernize and prepare the fleet for a World War while effectively freezing the RN’s budgets for nearly 6 years (1905-1911).
Admiral Sir John Fisher and Winston Churchill
     Historians may dispute which nation was the primary target of this fleet rebalancing, but the first British goal was the protection of the vast ocean “Anglosphere” of trade and communication that they laboriously constructed over a period of 200 years. From the first voyages of Captain Cook in the late 18th century to the Antarctic expeditions of Captain Scott in the early 20th century, British explorers charted, traded, and connected the world together into arguably the first globalization effort since antiquity. This system where British law was legal tender, Admiralty charts showed the way, and English was the “lingua franca” was the principle underpinning of British global economic prosperity. When the United States began assuming the responsibility for the protection and expansion of this system following the Second World War, it effectively became the “heir apparent” to this vast oceanic trade and communication “empire”. When the sun finally set on the British Empire; 1945, 1956, 1967, or even as late as the turnover of Hong Kong in 1997 (take your pick), the U.S. assumed full responsibility for its new imperial domain.
     The “Anglosphere” is even more important now than it was at the height of the British Empire. It is now comprised of many nations who do not speak English. In addition to ocean trade routes and underwater communications cables it includes, air, space, and cyberspace pathways. English is still the global language of communication, whether on bridge to bridge channel 16 or on much of the Internet. Like the British Empire, the United States is vitally dependent on this system for its military and economic security. The U.S. must also continue to protect this system in a period of financial difficulty. Like the Royal navy from a century ago, the U.S. Navy should eschew smaller short-range combatants in favor of globally deployable warships that maximize its ability to rapidly surge portions of a smaller overall force to remote parts of the globe. A rebalance of a significant military strength to the Pacific would concentrate U.S. forces in the most likely theater of action. It would also send an important message to those who would disrupt global trade routes. China’s unilateral declaration of control over a key part of a major Pacific trade route is a disturbing example of what happens in a vacuum of power.
     It is one thing to compete with and even do better than the United States within the Anglosphere, but it’s different when the physical aspects of the system itself are threatened. The U.S. must not stand by and allow any one nation to usurp global trade routes used by all states. The U.S. ought to call for an immediate regional conference on the jurisdictional claims of all nations in the South China Sea. Such an action is not necessarily anti-Chinese. They may very well have a good claim to some part of the vast potential petroleum and natural gas profits lurking beneath the waters around the Senkaku islands. Stability in this otherwise peaceful region must however be maintained, and only an international conference on the future economic exploitation of the South China Sea can ensure use for all concerned. As the protector of what MIT political scientist Barry Posen called the “global commons”, only the United States can call forth and mediate such an event. The U.S. must also embrace the British Imperial approach and make protection of global maritime, air, and cyberspace routes its first strategic priority. As the “heir to the Empire,” we can do no less.

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