The New Age of Naval Power in the Indo-Pacific: Strategy, Order, and Regional Security

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Release Date: 
June 1, 2023
Georgetown University Press
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“Just as Imperial Germany challenged British sea power in the early 20th century, China in the early 21st century has challenged U.S. sea power.”

The editors and contributors to The New Age of Naval Power in the Indo-Pacific emphasize the “centrality of the sea” in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. A glance at a map makes that obvious. The region encompasses the Indian Ocean, the South Sea, the South China and East China Seas and the western Pacific Ocean. It is home to large continental nuclear powers (China, Russia, India and Pakistan), insular sea powers (Japan and Australia), the always tense Korean peninsula, and various islands and strategic chokepoints that dot the region. This volume in a sense is an updated version of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s early 20th century book The Problem of Asia.

The contributors hail from the Naval Postgraduate School, the Naval War College, the Royal Danish Defence College, the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, and include retired naval officers from the United States, the U.K, Australia, and India. The book takes a Mahanian view of the crucial importance of sea power to the geopolitical competition among states in the region and outside powers like the United States. The editors claim that they are bringing “geography back into the understanding of international politics.”

In truth, geography never left international politics but was relegated to secondary importance by many international relations scholars who frequently focused on more esoteric academic theories of global politics. The contributors to this volume mostly eschew academic theories, though once in a while academic jargon rears its ugly head—professors sometimes can’t help themselves.

The elephant in the room in the Indo-Pacific is the U.S.-China rivalry—and that rivalry impacts the policies of, and relations between, other states in the region. All of the contributors recognize this fact. This rivalry among great power peer competitors pervades most of the essays in the book, but the contributors provide historical, political, and geographical context as well.

Christopher Twomey sets the “strategic geography” of the Indo-Pacific, surveys the flashpoints of the Sino-U.S. competition there, and predicts that great power competition will “intensify well into the future.” Peter Alan Dutton explores the various legal claims by smaller states in the region, including broad “law of the sea” concepts such as freedom of navigation—which is especially relevant to the competing claims in the South China Sea. Clive Schofield analyzes the competing claims to marine resources in various bodies of water in the region.

Nicola Leveringhaus discusses the “nuclear order” in the Indo-Pacific, including nuclear navies and the strategic role of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The region’s nuclear powers include China, the United States, India, Pakistan, Russia, and North Korea, and Leveringhaus worries that SLBMS in the geographical context of the Indo-Pacific may become “first-strike” weapons instead of a stabilizing retaliatory force. James A. Russell writes about the impact of digital-age and precision weapons in the maritime realm, including land-based systems in the enclosed seas of the East Asian littoral.

Ryan Gingeras and Richard Dunley provide brief histories of pre-modern and early 20th century imperial competition in the Indian Ocean sub-region and elsewhere in Asia. Dunley expressly invokes Mahan’s The Problem of Asia in assessing Anglo-Japanese relations in the early 20th century and shows how Mahan presciently envisioned in 1901 the sea power vs. land power alignments of the Cold War. Daniel Moran writes about naval competition in the Far East between the two world wars.

Kevin Rowlands reminds us that long before President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” the United States fought two fierce proxy wars in the Indo-Pacific (Korea and Vietnam), and President Ronald Reagan near the end of the Cold War described the Pacific as the ocean where “the future of the world lies.” The world’s “strategic center of gravity,” Rowlands writes, “. . . moved inexorably eastward.”

The book concludes with essays on contemporary naval competition (and cooperation) in Northeast Asia, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. China’s rise, its assertive actions in the South China Sea, its Belt and Road Initiative, and its “wolf-warrior” diplomacy have moved India, Vietnam, and the Philippines closer to the United States, caused Japan and Taiwan to significantly increase their defense budgets, and produced an emerging security partnership between the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India.

Just as Imperial Germany challenged British sea power in the early 20th century, China in the early 21st century has challenged U.S. sea power. Germany’s challenge resulted in the catastrophic First World War. Hopefully, China’s challenge to the U.S. will remain peaceful competition because the tragic consequences of a 21st century great power war would dwarf the destruction of World War I. In any event, “China’s ability to project power at sea and to contest the control of key maritime areas,” the editors conclude, “has become a crucial test for America’s continued global leadership.”