China no longer accepts that America should be Asia-Pacific’s dominant naval power
Oct 17th 2015 | From the print edition
IN THE next few days, out of sight of much of the world, the American navy will test the growing naval power of China. It will do so by conducting patrols within the putative 12-mile territorial zone around artificial islands that China is building in the disputed Spratly archipelago. Not since 2012 has America’s navy asserted its right under international rules to sail so close to features claimed by China. The return to such “freedom of navigation” patrolling comes after a visit to Washington by Xi Jinping, China’s president, that failed to allay concerns about the aggressive island-building in the South China Sea.
China will protest, but for now that is probably all it will do. The manoeuvres are a clear assertion of America’s sea power, which remains supreme—but no longer unchallenged. The very notion of “sea power” has a 19th-century ring to it, summoning up Nelson, imperial ambition and gunboat diplomacy. Yet the great exponent of sea power, the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who died in 1914, is still read with attention by political leaders and their military advisers today. “Control of the sea,” he wrote in 1890, “by maritime commerce and naval supremacy, means predominant influence in the world; because, however great the wealth product of the land, nothing facilitates the necessary exchanges as does the sea.”