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Don’t Give Up the South China Sea

At high noon, on June 1, 1813, U.S. Navy Captain James Lawrence disembarked from Boston Harbor with his frigate, the U.S.S. Chesapeake, to do battle with British Commodore Phillip Broke’s H.M.S. Shannon. At the time, the United States—a burgeoning country just a few decades old—was at war with Great Britain over perceived violations of American rights by the world’s preeminent superpower on the high seas.

Lawrence’s action was not officially sanctioned, nor did he believe a direct confrontation with the more powerful Shannon was wise or of specific strategic importance. But Commodore Broke had sent Lawrence a personal challenge, a tactic which Lawrence had used in the past to goad British ships into combat. This fight was a matter of honor, a code duello of the high seas common in an era in which reputation was worth more than life itself. It was almost impossible for the Chesapeake’s captain to turn down the invitation. On top of that, American frigates like the U.S.S. Constitution had accumulated an impressive streak of victories in one-on-one confrontations against the massive, but shellshocked British navy.

The battle that commenced produced the bloodiest naval combat during the War of 1812; 228 men were killed or wounded in the mere 15 minutes of bloodletting. The brave crews of both ships fired cannon round after cannon round into their enemies, and then fought hand-to-hand with blades and small arms in an even more deadly boarding action by the British. Historian Ian W. Toll wrote of one witnesses’ account of the battle’s aftermath in his book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy: “the coils and folds of rope were steeped in gore as if in a slaughter house… Pieces of skin, with pedant hair, were adhering to the sides of the ship, and in one place I noticed portions of fingers protruding, as if thrust through the outer wall of the frigate.”

The most dramatic moment of the battle—which was how it became etched into legend of the United States Navy—took place in the last desperate minutes of fighting. Upon receiving a mortal wound and seeing British boarders overcoming his beleaguered men, Captain Lawrence yelled out, “Don’t give up the ship! Fight her till she sinks!” Then he began repeating “Don’t give up the ship. Blow her up.”

The line “Don’t give up the ship,” would become the motto of the U.S. Navy and undoubtedly represented the dogged determination and toughness of the fledgeling naval arm of the United States military. Nevertheless, the British were able to capture the ship; the tattered and shell-shocked remnants of the leaderless crew were unsuccessful in their attempt to scuttle the ship.

Despite the unbelievable bravery and tenacity of those who served aboard the Chesapeake, the skirmish was a complete disaster for the United States and boosted the sagging morale of the British people.

The famous early-19th century writer James Fenimore Cooper wrote in his History of the Navy of the United States of America that:

Perhaps the capture of no single ship ever produced so much exultation on the side of the victors, or so much depression on the side of the beaten party, as that of the Chesapeake. The American nation had fallen into the error of their enemy, and had begun to imagine themselves invincible on the ocean, and this without any better reason than having been successful in a few detached combats, and its mortification was in proportion to the magnitude of its delusion.

Though the tiny American Navy performed extraordinarily well, the sheer size of the opponent’s forces ensured complete British dominance on the oceans. And once the distraction of Napoleonic France had been removed, the British Empire could bring all of its military might to bear against the United States. Through an almost miraculous victory at New Orleans, and negotiation by American and British diplomats in Ghent, the war was resolved honorably for both sides. However, the British Empire would remain the unquestioned maritime power for more than a century thereafter only to be truly replaced by the United States at the end of World War II.

Now, in a role reversal 202 years after this dramatic confrontation between the United States and Great Britain on the high seas, the rising superpower China is challenging U.S. hegemony and becoming increasingly antagonistic toward any efforts to thwart what its people see as their destiny atop the global hierarchy.

Friction between China, its neighbors, and the United States has been increasing significantly in the past weeks. The recent news that China is constructing and possibly arming “multi-story” structures on man-made islands in the contested Spratly Reefs has been alarming. The U.S. State Department’s Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken blasted this move, saying, “As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust and undermining investor confidence.” China has also released a white paper explaining that it will now start projecting power with its blue-water navy rather than simply focusing on regional defense, further evidence that it fully intends to do more than simply accept the global order maintained by American supremacy.

There is now a possibility that China may set up an air defense zone in the South China Sea as it did the year before in the East China Sea, which would mean that any aircraft passing through would have to get permission from the Chinese military. The United States has already begun testing China’s limits over these aggressive territorial claims. A U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon spy plane flying over the edge of Spratly Reefs was ordered to leave by the Chinese military, but the pilot ignored the order and flew on through.

“China and the Chinese military have never feared the devil or an evil force, and we are convinced by reason but not by hegemony,” China’s Admiral Sun said on Sunday according to the New York Times, “Don’t ever expect us to surrender to devious heresies or a mighty power. And don’t ever expect us to swallow the bitter fruits that would harm our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

China’s state-run newspaper has warned the United States that “war is inevitable” if “the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities.”

While the United States has been distracted by the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, international terrorism, and Russia’s continuing assaults on Ukraine, China has taken its opportunity to muscle its way to further regional and global dominance. It is now becoming quite clear to most Americans that China is a serious threat.

As the Wall Street Journal noted:

China’s cumulative behavior has led to a shift in American strategic thinking. Beijing’s gradual process of “salami slicing” its way to maritime control may have gone too far, resulting in a decisive hardening of opinion among U.S. officials, policy experts, business leaders and voters. This rethink could shape global security for decades to come.

So what is the United States to do given the reality of China’s challenge? In response to reports of massive Chinese cyberattacks on the American defense industry in 2013, a Breitbart News editorial advocated an immediate ratcheting up of spending priorities to build up America’s fleet of combat ships—which are at lower levels than any point after World War I — and getting American finances in order. The United States must be willing to threaten China with tariffs, and above all with demonstrations of force and power near their homeland. These recommendations are every bit as applicable today.

Establishing strong connections to and between other Asian countries with the purpose of hemming China in should be an American priority, as should cooling the friction between America’s greatest regional allies Japan and South Korea. In the 19th century, Britain played the guardian’s role, keeping the powerful continental European empires from crawling their way out of Europe, and the United States must now fulfill that responsibility in Asia. Simply waiting and watching as the South China Sea gets turned into a Chinese lake would demonstrate to the region that American power is in terminal decline.

The New York Post surmises that China is betting that President Barack Obama will be completely unwilling to use force when push comes to shove, a perilous diplomatic situation if the country really believes that it can and must surpass the U.S. Intensely nationalistic China is unlikely to voluntarily accept the United States upholding its hegemony along with international law in conflict with the Middle Kingdom’s national interests. Like the string of successes the U.S. Navy experienced in the War of 1812, China’s continual ability to push the envelope in foreign policy has emboldened them to act more aggressively and recklessly. Unless American leaders are willing to seriously counter that challenge, China’s strategy will likely accelerate.

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