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Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere Redux? (Part One)

In Economics on June 2, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , , , , ,

Writing in June of 2009, The Economist’s correspondent, having attended a security conference in Singapore, noted that “(f)or China’s strategic planners, securing sea lanes against hostile powers has become perhaps the chief preoccupation.” (The Economist, “Chasing Ghosts”, 11 Jun 2009) It is no wonder – China’s continued economic growth is utterly dependent on the seaborne importation of huge quantities of of oil, coal, iron ore, and other raw materials necessary for continued industrial expansion. The quantities of these required, especially those fulfilling China’s burgeoning energy needs, are only expected to rise in coming years. China’s strategists would be foolish to think that securing these supply routes was anything short of a necessary precondition of China’s continuing rise.

Interestingly, the aforementioned author notes that the predominant influence on current strategic thought in maritime Asia – not just China, but India and other concerned nations as well – is the American naval theorist who contributed so much to the strategic developments of the first half of the 20th Century, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Captain Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, was enormously influential, positing that command of the sea, which was of vital importance for the survival and success of empires which aspired to global power, was best obtained by effecting the destruction of the enemy fleet. When the time came to do so, the fleet must be ready, able and concentrated; the time necessary to build such a fleet and train its crews being measured in years if not decades, Mahan argues that such a fleet must be maintained at all times, not just when war appears imminent. Having achieved decisive victory, the ability of one’s opponent to meaningfully interdict what are referred to as “lines of communication” will be severely impaired, ensuring the security of the geographic and material sources of one’s own economic power while starving rivals of theirs.

Perhaps more important, however, is the tantalizing promise Mahan offers: that naval power and success are the key to national greatness on a global scale.Though intended primarily for an American audience, and utilizing the successes of the British Royal Navy (mostly at the expense of the French) as evidence to support its conclusions, The Influence of Sea Power upon History was and is often seen to be offering a set of truths far more universal than is perhaps the case; note, for example, Mahan’s linkage of success with a representative system of government supported by a free commercially-active populace: “History has proved that such a purely military sea power can be built up by despot, as was done by Louis XIV; but though so fair seeming, experience showed that his navy was like a growth which having no root soon whithers away.” Such distinctions were and are easily glossed over (Mahan, like Clausewitz, is often paraphrased to the point of non-recognition) when the prospect of a formula for success on the scale of the 18th and 19th Century Britain or the United States in the 20th Century presents itself. For ascendant maritime powers, this is a difficult lure to resist.

This is not the first time Mahan has contributed to the strategic thought of a rising and resource-dependent Asia industrial power: Japan’s early 20th Century navy was home to many of Mahan’s committed disciples. The foundations of Japan’s naval strategy at the height of its power were at least as much the product of Mahan’s theory as they were of conditions particular to Japan and of the experiences of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), and the First World War (1914-8). Aspiring to greatness, the Japanese Navy took Mahan’s ideas and used them to attempt to focus the attention of the nation on the sea, with all the prospects for success that it seemed to offer, and away from the Asian mainland (primarily China and Far Eastern Russia), which was the primary objective of the rival Japanese Army faction. The lessons of history were clear: focus on the land offered only limitations and resistance; the sea promised abundance and power, if control of its vital routes could only be secured. It is not hard to see how modern Chinese strategists might draw the same conclusions.

Part Two will examine the specific influence of Mahan on Japanese strategy, as well as the importance of resource availability on the economy, and the extent to which these elements combined to move Japan inexorably toward conflict with the United States.

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