THE GLOBAL WEST IS ALL AT SEA
By Julian Lindley-French
(This article has just appeared the October-December 2016 edition of The NAVY: The Magazine of the Navy League of Australia". It is reproduced with kind permission of the Editorial Board. The article has been adapted to fit the technical constraints of the blog).
"Britain now had world empire because she was the preeminent sea power; the lesson for Tirpitz was that if Germany wished to pursue Weltmacht, only possession of a powerful navy…could make it possible".
Castles of Steel, Robert K. Massie
The NAVY set this author an interesting challenge; to consider the maritime positioning of Australia,
Japan and the United States with regard to China. The challenge is interesting in two ways. First, my
first thought was that ‘maritime positioning’ was some form of dynamic navigation device. Second, my very British keel is firmly anchored in Dutch waters. And then I got to think. One of my theses is that the West is no longer a place but a set of liberal values, interests and strategic assumptions centred on the United States and shared by partners the world-over. And, that the very idea of the liberal West is being challenged by illiberal power the world over with much of that challenge emerging on, under, and above the sea. It is in that geopolitical context one must necessarily consider the ‘maritime positioning’ of Australia, Japan, and the United States with regard to China.
First, let me deal with what I mean by maritime positioning. It is the role of the respective navies of the three countries in relation to their own defence, all-important and evolving US grand strategy, and China’s own burgeoning geopolitical ambitions. This brief article will thus consider all three issues in turn before concluding by considering them all within the context of the global West.
The core message of the piece is direct; China’s naval challenge is not untypical of emerging illiberal powers. Beijing places much store on a powerful People’s Liberation Navy not just because such a force is a legitimate weapon for the world’s number two economy to possess. Powerful navies have always played well to the strategic egos of emerging powers – liberal and illiberal. China is little different from Imperial Germany at the turn of the last century in this regard. Like it or not, unless there is an unlikely new treaty that would limit naval armaments the likes of China and Russia will determinedly draw the liberal West into a naval arms race that in its scale and strategic implications will look a lot like that between Britain and Germany in the run-up to the First World War. The regimes in Beijing and Moscow simply cannot help themselves. So, where do Australia, Japan and the United States fit into this changing strategic maritime picture?
The Royal Australian Navy is a small, modern western force. Traditionally, whilst designed first and foremost to safeguard Australia’s national interests in and around Australian waters, the RAN has always played a wider geopolitical role as a strategic adjunct to other navies. For many years the RAN was in effect a farflung flotilla of Britain’s Royal Navy. As Britain declined in the wake of World War Two the role of lead force was steadily usurped by the United States Navy. Today, with a force of fifty commissioned ships focused mainly on frigates and conventional submarines, augmented by some amphibious and mine countermeasure capabilities, the RAN is again playing an important strategic role reinforcing the United States Navy (USN), particularly when it comes to the latter’s role in protecting the global commons vital to the well-being and security of the global West. Contrary to what some in Australia seem to think the RAN is not a strategic force in and of itself and future planning would not suggest any real ambitions on the part of Canberra for the RAN to play such a role any time soon.
The Japanese Navy is not dissimilar in role and function to the RAN, even if it is markedly larger. Since the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1945 and the adoption of the post-war Japanese constitution the role of Japan’s forces as self-defence forces has severely circumscribed any autonomous strategic role for Tokyo. This restraint has been applied rigorously to the Japanese Navy precisely because the Imperial Japanese Navy was at the very heart of Japanese power projection during World War Two. Like the RAN the Japanese Navy has for many years contented itself with guarding Japanese home waters and supporting the USN in maintaining a balance of power in East Asian waters and the wider Asia-Pacific theatre. So long as that balance was maintained the Japanese were content to play a purely defensive role as part of US naval and wider grand strategy. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned revision of the Japanese constitution would permit Japanese forces to play a more assertive role in defence of a wider understanding of Japan’s interests. This revision of Japan’s strategic stance ultimately reflects Abe’s own belief that the postwar balance of power in Asia-Pacific could at some point collapse. Abe has good reasons to be concerned.
THE UNITED STATES
One reason for concern in both Canberra and Tokyo is the growing global overstretch of US forces, in particular the USN. As the world’s only global power the United States looks increasingly like Great Britain in the 1890s when the naval challenge from Imperial Germany began to take shape. The Americans remain strong on paper but their forces are stretched thin the world over. Consequently, the illiberal powers now control the timing, the location, and indeed the manner by which they can choose to complicate American strategic calculation. It is a situation made worse by the political gridlock on Capitol Hill which for some years has been driving sequestration which in turn has badly damaged the US ability to undertake the long-term planning vital to strategic navies such
as the USN.
Worse, the threat to global power projection navies from smaller, regional actors is growing. The advent of super-silent submarine technology, navalised ship-killing drone and missile, and other technologies is making it ever easier to disrupt power projection and increase the cost and risk of effective sea control and sea presence. Such technologies are placing at risk the big, expensive platforms upon which a global reach navy like the USN rely upon to fulfil the global power policing role which has been thrust upon the Americans, not least because of the strategic and political
weakness of many key allies, most notably in Europe.
The big change-agent in maritime affairs is China which today is playing a role very similar to Germany in European waters prior to World War One and Japan in Pacific waters prior to World War Two. China has been growing its defence budget at double digit percentage figures since 1989. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is developing a form of joint extended-reach strategic defence force with blue water capabilities that is fast tipping the balance of power in the South and East China Seas.
This change has profound implications for Australia, Japan and the United States when the now highly-likely confrontation eventually happens.
Chinese strategy is clearly designed to establish exclusive control over much of the South China Sea, to force Japan into subordination in the East China Sea, and by demonstrating that China not the United States will determine the strategic shape of much of Asia-Pacific force Australia and other regional powers to treat with Beijing on Chinese terms. If successful China would successfully reduce both the influence of US forces in the region and the value of strategic partnerships with the US for regional powers. The stakes raised by the Chinese challenge are thus very high indeed, with particular implications for Western navies.
ALL AT SEA?
So, what to do about it? Let me take contemporary Britain as an example. There has been a lot of nonsense written about the state/fate of the Royal Navy. Some of the misplaced Schadenfreude about the Royal Navy borders on self-mutilation. However, the Royal Navy is actually showing the way forward for all non-American western navies. Yes, there are short-term investment, technological, equipment, and personnel challenges faced by the Royal Navy. This is hardly surprising for a country that provided the second largest force in support of US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq over thirteen long, attritional land-centric years. A country which had to endure a banking meltdown at the same time. Britain is roughly where the world’s fifth largest economy and top five military spender would expect to be after the last decade. Australia needs Britain to be strong – period!
The good news is that sea blindness in Britain is at an end.
RN’S RETURN TO STAGE
By 2023 the Royal Navy will again be one of the strongest power projection navies in the world. The commissioning of the two large 65,000 ton power projection carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales is proceeding. The Type-45s suffer from technical problems that are in the process of being fixed, and the new Astute-class nuclear hunter-killer submarines are powerful reinforcements of the British fleet, and for political reasons if nothing else the Type 26 frigates will eventually be built.
What matters is the place of the Royal Navy in the British future force concept which is by and large correct given the nature of the coming global challenge. The mistake of the critics is to make false comparisons with the Corbettian Royal Navy of Empire or the not-at-all customary Mahanian moments of the 1914-1918 Grand Fleet or Sir Bruce Fraser’s 1945 British Pacific Fleet when the Royal Navy deployed seven fleet carriers to support a hard-pressed, Kamikaze vulnerable Nimitz.
No, the twenty-first century fleet the Royal Navy is constructing will sit at the command hub of future coalitions of Europeans and other navies. It will leverage the naval power of others with the strategic aim of helping to keep the USN strong where the USN will need to be strong at moments
of crisis. As such the future strategic Royal Navy will again buy Britain influence in Washington and elsewhere that no other ally will match. The RAN and Japanese Navy will need to play a similar role in Asia-Pacific if they are to remain relevant to the power game that is afoot. And, if Australia can overcome its sniffy attitude towards the Royal Navy and focus on the positives rather than routinely seek the negatives then there are a lot of lessons for both partner navies to learn from each other.
THE GLOBAL WEST. NAVIES AND STRATEGIC
LESSONS FOR AUSTRALIA
Security and defence are today globalised and Australia is part of the global West. If the likes of China and Russia continue to attempt to throw their illiberal weight around as they seem destined to do then India and other powers will no doubt seek the comforting embrace of
the Global West.
However, the Global West will not happen by itself. It needs partners like Australia, Japan, the US, Britain and others to see the role of navies therein for what they are; power projection forces of an American-centric global liberal community committed to maintaining a just balance of power. And, if needs be have the capacity and capability to project power via a necessarily blue water concept that affords influence, effect, and deterrence for ALL of its members.
Then, only then, will the new strategic arms race China and Russia are driving be seen to be folly and both Beijing and Moscow realise that such policy is simply the road to strategic and financial folly. That aim would in turn help re-institutionalise global security from which the two illiberal
powers are currently breaking out.
The navies of the Global West will have a vital role to play in such strategy precisely because alongside the USN they can project power, exert influence through sea presence and project power discreetly and decisively through sea control. In other words, the strategic role of Global
Western navies will necessarily need to merge both Corbett and Mahan
and organise to that effect.
Therefore, Australia needs to realise the vital role of the RAN in such a strategy and seek the strategic partnerships – new and old – equally vital to realising such a role. If for no other reason than for the sake of Australia’s own security in a world where nowhere is a strategic backwater and in which no-one can free-ride. In other words, this author’s Yorkshire worldview of navies must be little different from the Australian world-view.
Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French is Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University, Washington DC, and Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute.