History revolves around two things – actions and ideas. If we take into account ideas, then the name of Alfred Thayer Mahan is worth mentioning. Mahan, a 19th-century naval strategist and author of the book Influence of Sea Power upon History, argued that “national prosperity and power depended on control of the world’s sea-lanes. Whoever rules the waves rules the world.”
Putting the above into action, one can conclude that it was imperative for the United States to become a naval power in order to be successful. And, to achieve this goal, it required two things – the acquisition of overseas naval bases and coaling stations. Thus one of the key factors in achieving its superpower status was its maritime presence around the world and its successful maintenance.
As Alice Slater, director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, has noted, the United States currently holds 800 formal military bases in 80 countries. In terms of sea power, it has nine overseas naval bases, the largest presence in different regions, and the world’s largest fleet of aircraft carriers, with 11 in service, 282 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft.
According to David Vine, author of Base Nation: How US Military Bases Overseas Harm America and the World, “only 11 other countries have military bases in foreign countries, some 70 altogether. Russia has an estimated 26 to 40 in nine countries, mostly former Soviet republics, as well as in Syria and Vietnam; the UK, France, and Turkey have four to 10 bases each; and an estimated one to three foreign bases are occupied by India, China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.”
The Trump administration’s New Defense Strategy (NDS) has demoted terrorism to a secondary threat to US national security and proclaimed as the primary threat the imminent rise of China and resurgence of Russia. The NDS will focus on building up a more lethal force, strengthening strategic partnerships and attracting new partners, and modernization of weapons and equipment, including space, cyberspace and missile defense systems. This strategy should be seen as the return of Great Power struggles in the 21st century.
This 21st-century power struggle can be seen in the following three scenarios. The year 2013 marked a significant juncture in terms of naval activism because of an enormous outbreak of global disputes that could have been caused by a huge level of escalation among the major powers. That year, three grave crises were moving side by side, namely the Syrian civil war, rebirth of the South China Sea dispute, and the Ukraine crisis.
After the outbreak of clandestine chemical-weapons incidents in Syria, the US announced it was sending a sixth warship, the USS San Antonio, armed with cruise missiles and around 2,200 marines, on a mission of limited, precise strikes against the Syrian government, which was dissolved through the successive containment policies of Russia and Iran. According to the Rand Corporation, in September 2015, Russian direct intervention in the Syrian crisis was a considerable and exceptional post-Cold War strategy to mitigate the threat of international terrorism and the defense of its naval and air bases in Latakia and Tartus.
It was paramount for Moscow to show power projection in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East to challenge Washington and its allies in the region. Russian deployment of both defensive (S-300) and offensive (SS-26) missile systems in the Syrian theater of operations was a preventive measure to safeguard its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Moscow’s motives were to regain the attention of its formally strategic partners in the Middle East and pursue arms sales to Arab governments.
In the second scenario, the Asia-Pacific region has been developing volatile insecurity patterns due to the trade war between Washington and Beijing under the pretext of the South China Sea island dispute. That sea has great importance for China and the rest of the world because around $3.37 trillion worth of trade passes through it annually.
After Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated a program of modernization of the People’s Liberation Army that focused on naval and missile forces, it shifted the balance of power in the Pacific region, and for that Beijing has included in its naval arsenal its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles. According to The New York Times, “A centerpiece of this strategy is an arsenal of high-speed ballistic missiles designed to strike moving ships. The latest versions, the DF-21D and, since 2016, the DF-26, are popularly known as “carrier killers,” since they can threaten the most powerful vessels in the American fleet long before they get close to China.”
The Strait of Malacca is a crucial passage for Chinese trade but because of a possible threat of clashes between Washington and Beijing, China has shifted its focus to globalization, including the flagship Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, promoting the banking system under Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to reduce dependency on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and becoming part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) initiative. China is also expanding its naval presence and military assertiveness in a vast region from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to the Pacific.
The US Embassy in Oman announced that Washington had confirmed a deal to utilize the Middle Eastern country’s air and naval facilities in the strategic ports of Duqm and Salalah. According to Andrew Korybyko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, “[given the] Indo-American alliance and each country’s network of bases that are progressively proliferating all throughout the Afro-Asian Ocean, it’s obvious to conclude that this is being driven by their shared desire to ‘contain’ China, which in the Omani context concerns the contingency possibility of cutting off S-CPEC+’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) between Gwadar and Africa in the event of a conflict or protracted tensions between one or both of them and the People’s Republic.”
The third scenario is the return of the geo-strategic significance of the Black Sea, specifically Crimea, which has vital importance for Moscow as a warm-water passage via Turkish straits to the eastern Mediterranean. The NATO enlargement policy as outlined in the Bucharest Summit Declaration of 2008 to include Eastern European states in its membership created a factor of fear and insecurity in decision-making circles in Moscow. Russia viewed this attempt as an imminent threat to its defense and stability.
Historically, in 1997 the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty split the Black Sea Fleet in a proportion of Russia 81% and Ukraine 19%, in exchange for which Russia would cancel out Ukrainian debt and provide concessionary energy prices, and to lease the Sevastopol naval base for 20 years, a term extended until 2042 in 2010. In March 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea paved the way for the deployment of S-300 and S-400 systems, Bastion-P coastal defense units, and other anti-air and anti-surface missile systems.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Thursday urged NATO allies to collaborate on a wide variety of emerging Russian and Chinese threats. The first meeting focused on how Russia could be deterred, including in the Black Sea, where three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized last year by the Russians.
According to Boris Toucas, visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, for Russia, Crimea is the military source, Turkey is the pivot, and the Turkish Straits are the strategic throughput; and the end goal is access to and military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as a counterbalance to US and NATO expansion eastward and its presence in the Aegean and Central Mediterranean.”
To conclude, the Great Power projection and maintaining the status quo through growing militarization of the chokepoints of sea lanes would lead to further escalation between the US, China, Russia and their client states from the Mediterranean to the Asia-Pacific region in the coming decades.