Monday 11 Oct 2021 | 16:48 | SYDNEY
Monday 11 Oct 2021 | 16:48 | SYDNEY

US-China: Naval gazing


Graeme Dobell

17 March 2009 12:09

In the modern media age, the strategic corporal is the soldier on a street corner whose decision or mistake is seen around the world. The image is of someone making a move at the tactical level that quickly has implications at the strategic level where generals and leaders debate policy. In the South China Sea, as we have just been reminded, that strategic moment of truth is likely to come wearing a naval uniform.

The Chinese confrontation with the USNS Impeccable could have been worse.

We know this because we have experienced those moments. Two recent examples where escalation seemed more likely: the dispatch of the US 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Straits in 1996 when China was lobbing missiles over Taiwan, and the EP-3 incident in 2001 when a mid-air collision caused the death of a Chinese pilot and the emergency landing of the US spy plane on Hainan.

Both sides know the stakes involved. That’s why the Chinese Defence Ministry and the Pentagon established a hotline last year. In the Impeccable incident, apparently, neither side picked up the phone. All the discussion in Asia about strategic architecture is an attempt to build in failsafe points so that tactical mishaps don’t escalate into strategic blunders.

When Washington talks about ‘hedging’ against future hostile behaviour by China, it is really talking about maritime grand strategy. Alfred Thayer Mahan's scribblings on 19th century sea power and the course of history had a profound impact on the two Rossevelt presidencies in the 20th century. The Mahan influence put to sea first in the form of Great White Fleet and then as the carrier forces of World War II. And as the last helicopter left Saigon in 1975, the US returned to its maritime traditions in thinking about Asia — the lessons of Korea and Vietnam were to avoid the jungles and stick to the sea lanes.

China, with land borders with 14 countries, can be the continental power in Asia. The US wants to maintain its role as the maritime power. This is an equation open to both accommodation and conflict. Certainly, it is grand strategy that will produce a lot of spying and probing by both sides.