The global rivalry between China and the United States dominates the geopolitics of the 21st century. The world’s two largest economies armed with an impressive array of military capabilities are engaged in a struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the outcome of that struggle will determine the 21st century’s world order. If the United States prevails, the liberal world order established after the 20th century’s two world wars and that was sustained during the Cold War will continue. If China prevails, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party will establish a new world order according to their priorities, interests, and worldview.
Great power rivalry, of course, is nothing new to global politics. Indeed, it is a common feature of international relations. In an anarchic world of nation-states and empires, countries pursue selfish national interests first, even when they also sometimes engage in humanitarian and other multinational efforts. Although President Donald Trump’s appeal to “America First” is widely condemned by the foreign policy establishments of many countries, including the United States, it is simply a blunt statement of how great powers’ leaders approach the world. And in practice, the Trump administration’s “America First” policy has not meant “America alone”.
The notion of international politics as a never-ending struggle for power and preeminence used to be a staple of foreign policy theorists and historians: just peruse the writings of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes—and closer to our own time, Halford Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality, EH Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis, Nicholas Spykman’s America’s Strategy in World Politics, James Burnham’s The Struggle for the World, AJP Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, Robert Strausz-Hupe’s The Balance of Tomorrow, Raymond Aron’s The Century of Total War, Richard Nixon’s The Real War, Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, Colin Gray’s The Geopolitics of Superpower, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, and Lee Kuan Yew’s One Man’s View of the World. Today, however, foreign policy realism-nationalism is considered by many to be unprincipled, shortsighted, parochial, and insufficiently sensitive to global issues that affect all of mankind. Other foreign policy theorists contend that it is “realistic” to conduct foreign policy with a mix of principle and selfish national interests depending upon circumstances.
One hundred twenty years ago, the American naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote a series of articles for Harper’s and the North American Review that were subsequently collected into a book entitled The Problem of Asia. Mahan, a naval officer who served on blockade duty during the American Civil War and who taught at and later served as president of the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, authored twenty books and over a hundred articles on naval history and international politics. He gained international fame in 1890 with the publication of his book The Influence of Sea Power upon History. The book was translated into seven languages and was studied by the naval leaders of all of the great powers.
Mahan’s interest in Asia first manifested itself in the debate over whether the US should annex Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands). Mahan believed that control of those islands was essential to American security in the North Pacific, and he expressed concern that if the US failed to act decisively an Asian coastal power, such as China, might fill the security vacuum. “Many military men,” Mahan wrote, “look with apprehension toward the day when the vast mass of China—now inert—may yield to one of those impulses which have in past ages buried civilization under a wave of … invasion.” Should a politically unified China “burst her barriers eastward,” he continued, “it would be impossible to exaggerate the momentous issues dependent upon a firm hold of the Sandwich Islands by a great, civilized, maritime power.”
In May 1897, Mahan wrote a letter in which he urged his friend Theodore Roosevelt, who was then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to pay more attention to Asia. Three years later when he wrote The Problem of Asia, he told Roosevelt that he intended the book to be his “swan song on contemporary politics.”
In The Problem of Asia, Mahan focused geographically on a broad middle-belt of the Asian landmass, roughly between the 30th and 40th parallel, that he called the “debatable and debated ground.” This middle-belt of Asia stretched from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to the Korean peninsula. Within this region, Mahan wrote, “are to be found … the most decisive natural features, and also … political divisions the unsettled character of which renders the problem of Asia in the present day at once perplexing and imminent.”
In Mahan’s time, the principal Asian land power was Russia. He feared that Russia could expand into the “debatable and debated ground”, gain access to the sea “by the Chinese seaboard” and possibly through India, and become a great sea power. The nightmare of Western geopoliticians was a great Asian or Eurasian land power that developed the resources of the great continent to become the strongest sea power. Mahan recommended an alliance among the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan to forestall that geopolitical nightmare.
Mahan recognized China’s political and organizational weakness, but expressed the concern that China would strengthen and take its place among the great powers of the world. “[I]t is scarcely desirable,” he wrote, “that so vast a proportion of mankind as the Chinese constitute should be animated by but one spirit and moved as a single man,” and warned that “it is difficult to contemplate with equanimity such a vast mass … of China concentrated into one effective political organization, equipped with modern appliances, and cooped within a territory already narrow for it.”
To deal with the “problem of Asia”, Mahan recommended policies designed to create:
a condition of political equilibrium … whereby the equality of opposing forces, resting each on stable foundations, should prevent the undue preponderance of any one state, or of any one force resulting from a combination of states …
A glance at the map shows that Mahan’s “debatable and debated ground” is a central focus of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s naval build-up and its aggressive moves in the East China and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean show that China is challenging US sea power in the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, China is in a geographically more favorable position than Russia was in Mahan’s time due to its extensive Pacific coast.
In dealing with the current Sino-American rivalry, statesmen and strategists can benefit from Mahan’s analysis in The Problem of Asia. Mahan recommended a US-led coalition to contain Russia from exerting overwhelming influence on the Eurasian landmass. Many observers today recommend a similar US-led coalition to contain China. “Past history,” Mahan wrote in the book’s preface, “contains … lessons which, well digested, are most valuable for future guidance.” But he cautioned that attempts to utilize history’s teachings without taking into account contemporary conditions may result in misapplication of the lessons of history with unfortunate results.
Some in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere in the world may welcome the decline of the US-led world order. It is a world order, to be sure, that has not benefited all countries and peoples equally; it is also a world order established and maintained with US priorities, interests, and worldview paramount. But differences with the United States should not obscure the fact that the likely alternative to the US-led order is a China-led order with all that entails, or no order at all.
With any luck, time may lead to the gradual “mellowing” (to use George F Kennan’s memorable description of the goal of his proposed containment policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union) of the Chinese Communist regime. Unless and until that time arrives, the problem of Asia will be with us.