The Center for Naval Analyses built their new report, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: maritime Dominance at Stake?” on a comforting trellis of assumptions:

“First, there will be a continued demand for a safe and secure global maritime environment. Advantages to having an open world economy and trade for all major powers are growing…Increasingly, nations are trying to formulate a set of maritime rules to support local/regional development and maritime policing of illicit activities.”

How nice! This vanilla-flavored assumption is positive, doesn’t challenge status quo, and, in addition, makes excellent consultancy fodder for high-paying corporate audiences.

But is this assumption valid? A recent bulletin from Inside the Pentagon (subscription, sorry) suggests otherwise:

“U.S. and Chinese officials agreed last December to hold the next plenary meeting under the 1998 bilateral Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in March or April of this year. But China subsequently suspended a range of military-to-military activities to protest the Pentagon’s planned arms sales to Taiwan. And now PACOM is confirming the safety talks are a casualty of that row.”

Oops. Other countries (particularly Asian navies that seem to have a higher tolerance for settling maritime disputes via intimidation and, often, gunfire) may not fully subscribe to the U.S. vision of maritime safety.

Here’s CNA’s second set of assumptions:

“Second, no other country (or combination of countries) will create the forces required for a navy with global influence…[other] navies can also conduct short-term surges for uses of force against low end threats or act as supporters to USN-led naval operations; however persistent out-of-area operations (even by a low number of assets) would quickly deplete their resources and political support at home.”

New navies, when well used, pay enormous domestic political dividends. Remember the Maine? Or the year-long voyage of the Great White Fleet? What about Imperial Germany’s use of their growing fleet to build/bolster a colonial empire? Wasn’t Germany’s acquisition of Tsingatao (done after the murder of German Catholic priests) rather…popular?

So..with history in mind, how might China (given its self-acknowledged internal domestic weaknesses) use their fleet? To forge a better sense of national unity, maybe?

Which brings us to CNA’s third assumption-set:

“…China is behaving exactly as every growing nation has behaved since the dawn of the Maritime Age in the 1400s…”

Hey, they got one right (two out of three ain’t bad)…but, hey…Didn’t those new navies ultimately make the seas less safe? Did they not lead to increased conflict at sea? To wider naval conflict?

Seems that the CNA researchers don’t think so.

To be blunt: Other nations may share U.S. appreciation for a “safe and secure global maritime environment.” The problem is that other nations may define “safe and secure” somewhat differently than America does.

U.S. defense thinkers must stop assuming the rest of the world shares our world view. You heard it here first…America’s habit of mirror-imaging (a symptom of having a rather poor grasp of history) is a well-known point of exploitation.

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Posted by Defense Springboard in Foreign Policy, History, Maritime Security, Navy
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  • UltimaRatioReg
  • ArkadyRenko

    What’s funny is if the CNA paid attention to their third point, they’d be arguing for the rapid expansion of the USN…

    Let us recall the last 3 times a country decided to challenge another country for command of the sea (I will leave out the Soviet Union, because it appears their navy was focused on sea denial, not sea command). Note, the countries named didn’t want total command of the sea, they just wanted a limited command in a limited area. This will apply to China trying to turn Western Pacific into its Pacific.

    1. Napoleonic France tried to wrest control of the sea from Great Britain. The goal was very limited, just to control the Channel enough for an invasion. But, the result was a 15 year + conflict, with a heavy naval emphasis.

    2. Imperial Germany in the first decade of the 20th century. They tried to challenge Great Britain for control of the sea. What resulted? A naval arms race and the preparation for Great Britain’s involvement in European affairs. And, as a side note, the First World War.

    3. Imperial Japan in the 1930s. They tried to gain control of just the Western Pacific, not the oceans, just half an ocean. What resulted? A US, Japan arms race. The eventual petroleum embargo on Japan. And the Second World War.

    There is a very distinct trend here. The change of naval power in the world has not in the last 200 years been accomplished peacefully. There was wars, violent and brutal ones, not small little conflicts in Crimea, that accompanied this changes.

    The fact that the CNA claims that China is following the established pattern is something to be worried about. If China is following that pattern, the US should prepare for a conflict. Or, if the CNA uses the claim “China is just like any other rising naval power” to argue that China’s rise will be peaceful, then it is clear that the CNA doesn’t understand history.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Your point is a superb one. Many voices tell us not to worry about China because of various calculations of combat power and naval power and assumptions about China’s foreign policy and economic objectives. Yet, they seem to be following to type, as CNA admits.

    They don’t need domination of the world’s oceans. Just theirs. And each example you cited showed us how and why.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Tis too true, but will not provide a clue

    to those whose policies will all too soon

    lead to our sailors’ blood on white or blue

    or non cammo cammo.

  • Derrick

    How many big carriers (like USS George Washington size) can the US field in the Pacific theatre at the exact same time? How long does it take to move a carrier strike force from the Atlantic theatre into the Pacific?

    Also, I noticed the USAF has bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam. I think its a total of 6 bases?

    If the Chinese decided to use their navy for overseas aggression, I guess it would be difficult to deter such action unless the US knew where they were headed, but the US should be able to stop re-supply of forward deployed Chinese ships via the US 7th fleet as well as air force fighters and bombers in Japan, South Korea and Guam. Or is that a bad assumption?