China is yet again storming the world. And the United States, purportedly the only superpower on Earth, appears indifferent to it.
After enjoying decades of economic progress and rapid national modernization, China is now translating its prosperity into real strategic power. In fact, Beijing’s rulers are clearly laying the groundwork for both an inevitable challenge to – and eventual victory over – America’s global dominance.
When American geo-strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote his seminal treatise The Influence of Seapower Upon History (1660-1783) in 1890, he assessed that the collapse of Britain’s European rivals (namely France) allowed London to look farther afield in its ambitions.
That fact, coupled with the fact that Britain’s industrial output was far greater than what its domestic market could absorb, empowered the rise of Britain’s world-spanning empire.
American policymakers at the time also believed that the United States, with the Western frontier having been “closed” to further expansion by the turn of the 20th century, needed to secure foreign markets for its own excess industrial capacity.
Thus Mahan advised America’s budding imperialists of his time to establish a merchant navy, to create a fleet of battleships to deter or destroy the warships of rival states, and to establish a network of naval bases at key locations throughout the world to support America’s global ambitions.
Washington’s leaders followed Mahan’s recommendations perfectly. The 20th century is known as the “American Century” in no small part because of the contributions that Mahan’s work made to America’s geo-strategic thinking.
China’s autocratic leaders have taken similar steps to create their own global empire. What the world is witnessing in the Indo-Pacific region is the birth of a new imperium that will threaten the American-led world order and potentially replace it with a Chinese-led order.
China intends to refurbish an old World War II-era airstrip in the island nation of Kiribati, some 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) from Pearl Harbor. This is part of a larger play by Beijing to expand its influence beyond its shores, penetrating deep into the South Pacific.
By claiming this territory and placing Chinese assets there, Beijing can further extend its range and reach nearer to Australia and New Zealand – two states that China desperately wants to bring to heel.
Beijing’s leadership anticipates the capture of the “first island chain,” which is a defensive line that China’s strategists have drawn running south from Japan all of the way down to Vietnam – and includes Taiwan.
Clearly, Beijing’s leaders believe that Taiwan will be brought under their control soon, because Kiribati and the South Pacific, according to China’s own designs, would constitute part of the distant third island chain. In essence, Beijing is enclosing the Indo-Pacific region.
That chain extends from the first chain deep into the Pacific, near traditional American areas of operation to China’s west and Australian areas to China’s south. Plus, by placing Chinese air and naval forces so close to Pearl Harbor, Beijing will be able to threaten the United States militarily in a way not seen since the Japanese Empire in World War II.
Just like everything China has done, these plans right now are small. But, as China has proved over the past half-century, big things have small beginnings.
Meanwhile, China wants to establish a naval base on the East African coast that would allow it access to the Atlantic Ocean. Just like Kiribati in the South Pacific, the potential Atlantic port for China’s navy would expand its reach into regions of the world that were traditionally reserved for the Americans and their allies.
From there, China could not only reach into the Atlantic, but across into Latin America and the Caribbean (an area that China has already invested considerable resources into co-opting right under Washington’s nose).
Further, Beijing refuses to leave the South China Sea. Chinese naval strategist Hu Bo has argued that his country must create a two-ocean navy, one for controlling the western Pacific and one for dominating the Indian Ocean. China plans to use its illegal holdings in the South China Sea to tie together its naval ambitions for both the Pacific and Indian Oceans – and beyond.
Hu’s plan is predicated on China developing a larger fleet of aircraft carriers. Beijing has already constructed three flattops. China looks poised to build many more over the next decade. From their conquest of the Indian Ocean, Hu believes China would be better able to control events in Africa and dominate the Middle East, from which so many of China’s natural resources emanate.
Here again, we see rudimentary Mahanian thought in practice.
China is expanding into Africa and toward Latin America through the Atlantic Ocean. China’s reach is spreading down toward the South Pacific.
Just like China’s early investments in high-tech research and development, and just as Beijing’s initial investments in massive infrastructure programs went virtually unnoticed by Washington, China’s small yet methodical naval strategy has either gone unnoticed or has been drastically downplayed by America’s purported experts.
Meanwhile, the Americans bicker among themselves. Their allies are divided. From China’s steady investments in high-tech innovation capabilities, Beijing has presided over one of the greatest economic success stories in history. China is rich and prosperous when much of the West appears to be in decline. Washington is distracted, whereas Beijing is focused.
Now that China is rich and its high-tech capabilities are only increasing, its attractiveness – despite its overt ruthlessness on the world stage – is also increasing. Because of this, the non-military successes China has enjoyed are now translating into actual strategic opportunities that, very soon, will threaten America’s military dominance on Earth.
President Joe Biden’s administration had better figure out quickly how it will prevent China from realizing its lofty naval ambitions. Otherwise, China will do to the American empire over time what the United States did to the British Empire. And soon, we may see Chinese warships patrolling near America’s shores.