The nineteenth century American naval historian Alfred Mahan once asserted that the nation with the most powerful navy will hold the reigns of control in the new world. Global military strategists seem to share his assertion. For, any crisis on global sea routes has the potential to affect the entire world economy.
This is primarily because, in the last year alone, almost $7 trillion in trade plied along the sea routes of China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, while almost half of all global trade passed through the Indian Ocean. In such a scenario, China, for the first time in over four centuries has paddled out of its traditional waters with a view to exert its sphere of influence in the Pacific region.
The Asia Pacific has long been the home of U.S. warships and under the sway of American control that is slowly being forced to make way for the Chinese intrusion. Most of this change is owing to America’s weakening global power and China’s thumping economic prowess that makes protecting its trade routes imperative to its growth story.
As the Chinese influence grows, there is a growing disquiet amongst its neighbours in the region. India, is queasy about the growing presence of Chinese naval vessels and port facilities in the Indian Ocean, an area it feels belongs in its security zone. The recent investments by China in Srilanka and Bangladesh to build ports and naval bases have raised alarm bells in the Indian establishment.
China’s ambitions have led India to aggressively expand its naval arsenal that includes three new aircraft carriers and several nuclear-powered stealth submarines. South Korea similarly is also upgrading its naval arm and military. However, amongst all the nations, the one that is the most nervous, is the island nation of Japan.
Japan has both, the volatile North Korea and the mistrustful China to worry about. Japan’s anxiety has lead to a reversal of decades of passive Japanese military presence in the Pacific that was up until now mostly dependent on America and its military base at Okinawa. Japan, traditionally militarized to defend its northern islands against Russia but has now shifted its focus to confronting threats from North Korea and especially China. The shift comes in the light of an understanding that America may not be able to come to its aid considering its economic dependency on China. Japan is now slowly coming out of its mould of a quasi-isolationist nation and is entering into close naval exercises with the America, South Korea, Australia and India.
As China seeks to alter the historic shift in the balance of power in Asia, other nations are jostling to determine the extent of China’s maritime ambitions. Security experts and strategists across the region believe that China, at the very least wants to dominate the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and the South China Sea. Geographically that is an enormous amount of reach and practically covers the trade routes of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
China’s maritime strategy is reminiscent of the imperial empires that controlled trade blocs and sea routes in the era of colonization. As nations ally together against what they see as a potential anti-access or denial zones that may be imposed on them by China to acclimatize its claim, the growing distrust and wariness involving the richest trade routes in the world will inevitably lead to an arms race and the possibility of a potential global conflagration.