The Challenge to US Naval Power.

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By JOSÉ LUIS FIORI e WILLIAM NOZAKI*

After 1991, the US monopolized the world's seas. But today, almost thirty years later, this monopoly is being threatened by China and Russia.

“Whoever has the sea has the world's trade, has the world's wealth; and whoever has the wealth of the world has the world itself” (Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), economic and military adviser to Queen Elizabeth I of England) [1].

Two thirds of the “terrestrial” surface is covered by sea water; most of these international waters are “free” and do not obey any type of sovereignty other than that of the “naval power” of the great maritime powers of each era and each region of the world. Two thousand years before the “Common Era”, it was the naval power of the Isle of Crete that conquered and subjected the Aegean Sea to Cretan civilization, in the same way that the Phoenician navy subjected the Mediterranean Sea to its commercial empire. And the same happened during Classical Antiquity, with the naval power of Athens and the Roman Empire, and later, with the maritime power of Venice, Genoa on the trade routes of the same Mediterranean Sea, which became the scene of the secular war between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, culminating in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

However, in all these cases and also in the Chinese maritime expansion of the 1415th century, there was no “logistic autonomy” or clear separation between the commercial fleets and warships of these peoples, empires and civilizations. Neither was there for the Arab ships that dominated the Indian Sea and South China trade routes in the 1991th and XNUMXth centuries. Everything indicates that it was the first European national States that ended up developing and perfecting ships prepared for naval warfare, the famous “gunboats” that paved the way for the Eurocentric domination of the world’s seas, which began with Portugal in XNUMX, and reached its apex with the global domination of the US Navy, after XNUMX, over all the “free waters” of the five oceans and all the strategic seas of the world.

For this reason, perhaps it was the Europeans, and in particular the Anglo-Saxons, who best formulated the thesis that naval power was an indispensable condition for the conquest of “international power” by any State that proposed to transform itself into a great power. Sir Walter Raleigh, (1533-1603), who was also an English sailor, financier and pirate, condensed this idea in a few words, looking at the Atlantic Ocean and stating that, “whoever has the sea… has the world itself”. Much later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Admiral Alfred Mahan – adviser to President Theodoro Roosevelt – would echo this same thesis when he proposed that the United States strengthen its naval power by looking towards the Pacific Ocean, as the first step in the project of construction of an American global power. In the same line, the great Anglo-American geopoliticians, Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, contributed to this same project, underlining the importance also of the control of the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, and of the Persian and Arabian Gulfs.

After the Iberian powers, the supremacy of British naval power was imposed throughout the world during the 1992th and 1994th centuries, and was only surpassed by North American naval power in the second half of the 2th century. Even so, it was only after the end of the Cold War that the US Navy managed to extend its monopoly control over all the “free waters” of the world. It was the moment when the US Navy redefined its own objectives in the new international context, in two documents dated XNUMX and XNUMX [XNUMX], where it is stated that “our strategy changed its focus from a global threat to a focus on regional challenges and opportunities . At the moment when the prospect of a global war disappeared, we entered a period of enormous uncertainty in regions critical to our national interests”.

Today there are around 60 merchant ships around the world, and 80% of global trade takes place via maritime transport; these figures are even more expressive when it comes to trade relations between the richest countries. But in these 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the world panorama has completely changed with the displacement of the dynamic center of capitalism to Asia, and with the appearance of two new poles of naval power – China and Russia – that already compete with the United States control of the Asian oceans and seas, but also of the Arctic region, and of the Pacific Ocean itself.

In a recent study, the National Interest [3] published a ranking listing the largest navies in the world system, and the US navy appears in first place, followed by China and Russia. The US Navy, the US Navy, currently has 10 aircraft carriers, 9 landing ships, 17 frigates, 22 cruisers, 62 destroyers and 72 submarines. The Chinese Navy, the People Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy), has 1 aircraft carrier, 3 amphibious vessels, 25 destroyers, 42 frigates, 8 nuclear submarines and about 50 conventional submarines. In third place appears the Russian Navy, the Russian Navy, which inherited most of the Soviet vessels being modernized and, in addition, has 1 aircraft carrier, 5 cruisers, 13 destroyers and 52 submarines.

It is in the context of this new correlation of naval forces in the world, within the permanent struggle of the great powers for the strategic resources of the planet, and, ultimately, for “global power”, that the recent “military escalation” of the great powers must be understood. , in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic [4]. But this recent movement did not fall from the sky, and is part of a dispute that has been intensifying with each passing day, especially between the US and China, and between Russia and the US.

For some time now, the US has been stepping up its naval exercises in the Atlantic and Caribbean Seas. Its recent maneuvers of cooperation between warships and cargo ships stand out, with the simulation of the transport of war material, a type of exercise that has not been carried out since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, new submarines have been added to the IV Naval Fleet, and in the Caribbean Sea there has been intense movement, with the monitoring of Venezuelan and Iranian vessels, aiming to increase pressure against the government of Nicolás Maduro.

The American naval fleet has also carried out tests in other scenarios, as was the recent case in the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea, but also in the Baltic Sea, where supersonic bombers with nuclear weapons were even used. And the same has happened in the Sea of ​​Japan and the South China Sea, and the importance of the American announcement of the installation of “low intensity” nuclear bombs in the Trident missiles used by the 14 submarines USS Tennesse of its submarine fleet should be underlined.

This US military onslaught over the Pacific and over the Arctic, however, has not gone without a naval response from China and Russia. China has set a strategic goal to complete the modernization of its People's National Liberation Army by 2035, but naval power has long been central to China's strategic concerns. In recent years, the PLA Navy built more warships, submarines, amphibious ships and support vessels than the total British fleet [5], and today China's naval power already poses a real threat to US troops in the South Pacific, particularly in the Strait. from Taiwan. In 2013, China started building artificial islands, such as the Spratly and Paracelsus Islands, in a region that, in addition to being a crucial route for international maritime trade, also has large reserves of strategic natural resources, in a disputed region as well. by Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines and Brunei, countries that have North American support.

Russia, for its part, has invested heavily in the arms race for the strategic resources of the Arctic Circle. With these objectives, the Russian Navy has been modernizing its heavy, medium and light icebreakers, and is advancing rapidly in the construction project of the most powerful and heaviest icebreaker in the world – the 10510 Leader – together with the construction of a new nuclear ship – the Arkitika – which will operate in the polar perimeter. In addition, Russia proposes to commission its new diesel-electric submarines of project 2020 Varshavyanka in 6363, along with the construction of six large diesel submarines with Kalibr-PL cruise missiles. In addition, the Russian Navy put into operation this year, a new nuclear submarine in the Arctic region, where several adjacent countries are also strengthening and modernizing their military infrastructure.

In the Atlantic as in the Pacific, in the Arctic as in the Caribbean, or in the Persian Gulf, this military escalation involves a dispute for strategic natural resources, with special emphasis on oil, which will continue to be the fundamental source of energy for the economic system and infrastructure military power of these great powers, at least for most of the XNUMXst century. For this reason, the maritime straits that constitute circulation routes for these strategic resources, and oil in particular, have become the object of increasing tension.

This includes the Strait of Hormuz (key for the US) through which 19 million barrels of oil pass, from Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. But also the Bab el Mandeb Strait (key to Africa), which is located between Africa and the Middle East, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden to Asia, and which is a kind of “anteroom” for the oil that later crosses the Suez Canal, or is drained by the SUMED pipeline. 5,5 million barrels a day pass through the Suez Canal, most of it heading towards the Middle East or Europe. And the SUMED pipeline (Egypt) is the only alternative route to the Suez Canal, to transport crude oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

However, it is in the Strait of Malacca and in the South China Sea where the biggest naval dispute in the world is concentrated today. Today, 64% of global maritime trade circulates through there, and 16 million barrels of oil flow per day, most of it heading towards China. This region is under the naval control of the US Pacific Fleet, the main naval fleet of the US Navy, whose headquarters are in Pearl Harbor, and which has about 200 ships, 2.000 planes and 250.000 men. It is a region also disputed by many other countries, in particular by China, which has been concentrating a firepower that grows geometrically exactly where the United States has its largest naval fleet. For this reason, it can be said with certainty that the Strait of Malacca is today the naval region where the main thermometer is located that measures the variation in the intensity of naval competition between the great powers that dispute the maritime sovereignty of the “free waters” of the world. .

In short: after 1991, the US monopolized the world's seas. But today, thirty years later, that monopoly is being threatened by China and Russia. Finally, it is good to remember that many analysts and historians consider that the German challenge to British naval power was the trigger for the “hegemonic war” that shook the world between 1914 and 1945.

*Jose Luis Fiori He is a Full Professor at the Institute of Economics at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of the american power (Voices).

*William Nozaki He is a professor at the São Paulo School of Sociology and Politics Foundation (FESP-SP) and technical director of the Institute for Strategic Studies on Oil, Gas and Biofuels (INEEP).

Notes

[1] Cf. FIORI, JL History, strategy and development. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014, p.142.

[2] United States of American, 1992, “Introduction” & 2 and 3, http:globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/navy/forward-from-the-sea.pdf

United States of America, 1994, “Forward…from Sea”, &1, www.comw.org/qdr/fulltext/02navyvision.pdf.

[3] https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/no-nation-owns-ocean-these-5-navies-control-it-104147.

[4] “In the past, when similar explosions have occurred, provoked by increased competitive pressure, they have been invariably accompanied by an increase in internal disorder of the system, an expansive movement of the system outside its former boundaries, and finally some kind of “hegemonic war” that helped to remake the order and hierarchy of the system, after its expansion inside and outside Europe". (Fiori, JL and Nozaki. W. Military escalation in the pandemic, In: the earth is round, https://aterraeredonda.com.br/escalada-militar-na-pandemia/)

[5] https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2020/global-military-expenditure-sees-largest-annual-increase-decade-says-sipri-reaching-1917-billion

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