Geography and the coming Sino-American war at sea

A member of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force takes part in an amphibious drill on May 13 during joint military exercises on Guam involving Japan, the U.S., France and Britain that were intended to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters amid concerns China may restrict access to the South China Sea. | AP


Geography is determinate in military plans, a fact that planners understand at all levels, from tactical to strategic. While tailored combat elements may traverse difficult environments on land and at sea, heavily laden logistics craft that follow and enable them can rarely do the same. This is what pushes armies and fleets toward certain immutable routes, resulting in battles occurring at the same locations, over and over, throughout recorded history. Much as the ridge at Megiddo, better known as “Armageddon,” played witness to strife no less than 13 times since the 15th century B.C. because it stood astride the route from Mesopotamia to Egypt, key maritime straits such as the waters of the South China Sea and the Sunda and Malaccan Straits will provide the backdrop for future naval battles. Geography and geopolitics are intermeshed and unavoidable. Unfortunately for China, they sit upon the wrong side of the former and are rather poor at the latter. Western advantages in both must not be squandered.

However, these same lines invariably pass through extremely constrained nexuses that cannot be avoided, and hence offer moments of critical vulnerability. Almost as much of war is about finding the opponent as it is about acting upon him. When an opponent absolutely must use one of a very limited number of geographically constrained avenues, then there are options. In short, control of chokepoints can determine the course of a conflict. As a result, even in situations short of war, holding these channels essentially secures a nation’s opportunity for wealth and greatness.

The Chinese are rediscovering the facts that their global aspirations place them on the wrong side of geography and thus perpetually behind on the great power “curve,” an observation that sheds light upon much of the military development and geopolitical actions of China over the past generation.

It is from this vantage point that China’s broad and illegal claims in the South China Sea become understandable as an effort to transform that area into an internal bastion sea. Similarly, while China and its People’s Liberation Army Navy have no ability to control either of the critical Sunda or Malaccan Straits, they are establishing a series of bases that sit astride those straits at places like Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan, creating the potential for China to deny their enemies access to those channels. A more recent development, the construction of a Chinese base in Djibouti, does much the same for the Red Sea/Suez Canal while simultaneously holding that route as a risk for us.

Such actions, and the poorly played political geostrategic gamesmanship that lies behind them, will inevitably bring China into conflict with the United States and its allies. Fortunately for the U.S. the sites for these future conflicts are well understood and established, and U.S. long-term investments in long-range stealth, directed energy, precision strike and hypersonic weapons can target the maritime ground zero that these straits represent. China’s strategic miscalculation is that their economy needs access to use the straits, while the U.S.’ does not.

Strategy involves choices about the vision of war a nation chooses to pursue; one of annihilation, attrition, or exhaustion. Geography, however, remains an unmoving, constraining factor, as the Chinese are re-learning. The U.S. should seek to develop the doctrines, organizations and technologies to exploit these ironclad limitations to their aspirations in the most economical manner possible. Sensors, mines, missiles and unmanned air, surface and subsurface craft can force China back on the defensive, and shape their spending in the decades ahead while freeing our own resources to focus on other domains.

Full article: Geography and the coming Sino-American war at sea (The Japan Times)

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