Scholars at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., probably nodded in vigorous agreement with a recent lecture delivered at another military institution 130 miles away. Speaking at West Point to leaders of tomorrow’s Army, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” This underscored Gates’ point that “the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements — whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.”
Here at this 127-year-old college, where the American practice of war-gaming began in 1887, the faculty members are professional worriers, especially about Asia, meaning China. Its naval doctrines, procurements and deployments invite inferences about its geopolitical intentions. Faculty members were interested that when Libya descended into chaos, China sent a frigate through the Suez Canal to be in position to assist Chinese nationals in distress. This was the first time the People’s Republic had positioned a high-end combatant ship for a possible evacuation.
From such scraps of evidence, scholars here try to solve a high-stakes puzzle involving a decades-long process of designing and building ships: How should the U.S. Navy be configured for a world in which China’s maritime capabilities and intentions will be … what?
These scholars note that America has not always been good at predicting its next adversary. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers have ruefully said, “This isn’t what we gamed.” But for 22 years before Pearl Harbor, war games successfully anticipated the nature of a war with Japan — from amphibious attacks to capture islands for bases to floating dry docks.
Before the gaming, the assumption of America’s battleship-centric Navy was that it would steam west and fight something like the Battle of Jutland, the World War I engagement of the British and German fleets. After the gaming and the war, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific fleet and U.S. signatory at Japan’s surrender on the battleship Missouri, said kamikaze attacks were the Pacific theater’s only major surprise.
The Chinese, too, have studied World War II and, according to some here at the college, have concluded that Japan’s experience should be pertinent to China’s planning. Japan was defeated by sea and air blockades plus the threat of invasion. As one person here puts it, America assured its victory when it controlled the Luzon Strait, a choke point between the Philippines and Taiwan.
China has no foreign bases, but myriad ocean-borne needs: It is ravenous for imported raw materials — oil, coal, minerals — and its economic dynamism is built on exports. It has huge domestic constituencies — oil refiners, shippers and shipbuilders, among others — utterly dependent on certainty in global transportation.
Today, China is a free-rider on a global maritime order built upon a network of treaties enforced by the U.S. Navy. The Chinese frigate that came through Suez then entered the Gulf of Sidra, which Libya no longer claims to control. It does not because of President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 forceful insistence that the gulf is international water.
The arrival of U.S. ships off Libya’s coast underscores the primacy of the Navy for projecting power. Mark Helprin of the Claremont Institute notes that “40 percent of the world’s population lives within range of modern naval gunfire, and more than two-thirds within easy reach of carrier aircraft.”
Whatever China’s navy becomes, some thoughtful people will be surprised. What they do here is scholarship, not intelligence — they devour the flood of Chinese military publications. And the scholars differ about the most fundamental question, which is: Will China, for the next three to five decades, concentrate on economic growth — on prospering from globalization’s unimpeded flow of raw materials, goods and services — and be content to let America bear the burden of policing this?
The answer will be yes — if China makes a purely economic calculation. But nations usually have deeper and stronger motivations. This is particularly true of ascendant nations feeling their oats and spurred by long memories of impotence and humiliations.
Russia is still at sea with submarines carrying ballistic missiles. But these, like renewed Russian air patrols that echo Cold War practices, are probably primarily psychotherapy for Russian leaders eager for the world’s respect. China’s naval purposes are more interesting and potentially more ominous.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.