The famous 1972 “Nixon to China” moment, in which President Richard Nixon opened up relations with the Chinese Communists to peel them away from the Soviet Union’s orbit, is often considered a major turning point in the Cold War. Since that time, those who guide U.S. foreign policy have mostly seen China as a long-term partner in a future, global system with America as the first among equals. The American eagle and Chinese dragon would rise together with “constructive engagement.”
However, the recent aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea—in which they claim that this massive waterway is a virtual extension of their country’s sovereignty—should open the eyes of the American people. The recent, extensive cyber attack on the Office of Personal Management system, which Breitbart’s John Hayward and others have called the “Pearl Harbor of the First Cyber War,” should also be a clear sign that the Chinese intend to do much more than trade and rise alongside the United States. The Middle Kingdom poses the greatest challenge to the global system the United States has propped up, and history offers a good lesson about what the world’s preeminent superpower must do to remain on top.
By the late 17th century, the British Empire’s rule over the world’s oceans was virtually uncontested. Rising competitors were quickly smashed and legendary admirals like Horatio Nelson, Samuel Hood, and Sir Edward Codrington racked up incredible victories on the high seas. It is virtually forgotten that in the early 17th century it was the Dutch, not the British, who ruled the waves and utterly dominated the global system of trade.
The tiny Dutch Republic, occupying a mere toehold in the upper west side of the European continent, dominated the globe through its relentless business acumen. It was a grand, commercial republic that spanned the oceans and rose to the top because of its ability to bring goods to market all over the world.
As the great 19th century historian John Lothrop Motley wrote of the Dutch in his famous The Rise of the Dutch Republic:
A great naval and commercial commonwealth, occupying a small portion of Europe but conquering a wide empire by the private enterprise of trading companies… must always be looked upon with interest by Englishmen, as in a great measure the precursor in their own scheme of empire.
But Morely recognized an even deeper connection to the United States with its strong adherence to religious liberty, self-government, and individual liberty, “For America the spectacle is one of still deeper import. The Dutch Republic originated in the opposition of the rational elements of human nature to sacerdotal dogmatism and persecution—in the courageous resistance of historical and chartered liberty to foreign despotism.”
The transition of power between these two great Protestant nations of an earlier time offers an important lesson for the now-hegemonic United States, which has largely inherited and expanded upon the global system of the British.
Guided by the theorist Hugo Grotius’s influential book Mare Liberum (The Free Seas), which declared the world’s waterways to belong to all humanity, the Dutch merchants thrived in and embraced a system that rewarded free trade and competition (even when they occasionally violated those principles).
Great Britain envied the small but potent Dutch Republic; the British people and leaders were unhappy and unwilling to play second fiddle.
Historian Arthur Herman wrote in To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World about how the British coveted, but rose to challenge Dutch supremacy:
The English watched the 1600s turn into “the Dutch Century” with a particular envy and resentment. They puzzled over why the success and power their fellow Protestants and former protégés enjoyed, seemed to have passed them by. Yet the meteoric rise of the Dutch seaborne empire also obscured basic weaknesses of Dutch society and its governing institutions—and important lessons for the future of England’s own maritime power.
Though the Dutch garnered almost unprecedented prosperity through this global system, they lacked the desire to create a “unified state” that could act as a force in world affairs. The other British rival, a quickly-declining Spanish Empire, had the opposite problem: it focused almost all of its energy on state building, but very little on promoting the vibrant private business community essential to building a strong economy.
While the decaying Spanish Empire focused too much on state-building and the Dutch pursued business at the expense of country, the British found a balance between the two that propelled them to global dominance.
After a fleet of Dutch fishing ships nearly overran traditional British whale-hunting grounds in 1618, British King James I dredged up one of his country’s best legal minds to create a theory to challenge what he saw as the unfair and assured Dutch dominance under the “free sea” system. He turned to the great British thinker John Selden, who wrote an potent rebuttal to Grotius’s defense of free seas and free trade. In Mare Clausum (The Closed Sea), Selden turned the Grotius theory upside down. He claimed that an open sea was “merely a pretext and license for Dutch piracy” according to Herman. The seas were not open to all humanity as Grotius suggested, but could be seen as an extension of the sovereign land of kings and countries.
“The King of England was free to exclude whomever he wished from his watery dominion, and claim it exclusively for his own fishermen and sailors,” wrote Herman. Sovereignty extended to wherever the navy could go; the idea of the free sea was a sham.
A British general summed up exactly what the British planned to do about what they saw as this unfair system. He said, “The Dutch have too much trade, and the English are resolved to take it from them.”
The Dutch continued to dominate the oceans until 1650, when the British finally put Selden’s theories into practice by passing a series of “Navigation Acts.” These acts, specifically targeting the Dutch, prohibited foreigners from trading with the fast-growing English colonies and forbade the “importing of goods from Asia, Africa, or America except on English ships with English crews.”
The Navigation Acts created for the first time a seaborne English economy geared toward a single national interest, with Parliament and businessmen in London joining hands to promote profits and grow the system—the system later to be called mercantilism… In fact, the very first English translation of Selden’s seminal work appeared in 1652, with a frontispiece showing the allegorical figure of Britannia wielding her scepter over her watery dominion—the first explicit reference to Britannia ruling the waves.
All trade would go through the British Empire, and the potent British Navy allowed the country to continue tightening its grip on the maritime system.
The dramatic transition from Dutch to British dominance came when a British squadron of ships was passing through the Dover Straights and demanded that famous Dutch Admiral Tromp lower his ships flag in deference. Tromp refused, shots were fired, and the great confrontation was on.
The end of Dutch power came spectacularly in a massive battle near Texel Island in which a British fleet crushed a Dutch fleet and killed Admiral Tromp.
Herman wrote, “The Dutch had had enough. Their navy had been ravaged and their best admiral killed… The once bustling streets of Amsterdam were empty. Riots broke out in the nation’s seaports. Desperate, the once all-powerful republic sued for peace.”
The Dutch decided that the game was not worth the struggle. They simply accepted that all trade would go through British hands under the menacing eye of the British Navy.
Though the Dutch Republic survived, “the Navigation Acts remained in force; Dutch fisherman had to pay for the right to fish in English waters, and Dutch captains had to dip their colors in the Channel.”
Herman noted that while the Dutch economy eventually recovered, “the once-invincible Dutch Republic had been humbled, and the English had finally arrived.”
There is an old saying, often yet probably mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The current showdown between the United States and China somewhat mirrors the confrontation of great powers in the 17th century. Today, it is the United States that upholds the “free sea,” and rising China that is clearly now challenging that system with ideas similar to Selden’s mercantilism. A lagging Russia plays the role of Spain, combining political strength with economic weakness.
In 2013, Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College John D. Holmes wrote about the strange, but distinct connection between China and the old British imperialists. He wrote in The Diplomat, “It must be uncomfortable for a country like China, whose leadership constantly decries imperialism, to keep company with imperial Portugal and Britain. Yet Selden could be the face of Beijing’s new normal in the region.”
With Chinese man-made islands—which the U.S. State Department called “sandcastles”— replicating in the South China Sea, the Chinese are clearly testing the limits of what America will do to uphold its system of free trade in the Pacific, and perhaps beyond.
“If indeed a new normal settles in across Southeast Asia, the half-forgotten English jurist John Selden should be the toast of China. Selden’s contemporary and foil, the 17th-century Dutch sage Hugo Grotius, will find himself a lonely exile,” Holmes wrote ominously. “The South China Sea controversies mark the latest phase in a centuries-old debate: can states exercise sovereignty over waterspace the way they do on land?”
Foreign policy expert Michael Pillsbury challenged the idea that this issue can be staved off for the next generation in his recently-released book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.
The reality is, Pillsbury contends, that China is running a 100-year Marathon with the United States for global dominance. Using the subtle strategies learned in the country’s Warring Era, China’s leaders believe that their country will ascend to the top of the global system by 2049—coinciding with the anniversary of Communist China’s founding in 1949.
“China would come from behind and win the Marathon by stealthily drawing most of its energy from the complacent American front-runner,” wrote Pillsbury. China has simply reached the critical stage in which it believes it can push and test what the United States will tolerate. Americans must “lower the colors” if they wish to do business in the Chinese sphere of influence.
The United States must respond and cannot simply abandon the South China Sea. The seeds of future Chinese containment, a long-avoided strategy, have been sown by their aggressive moves. Various countries in the Asian-Pacific region have voiced their dismay over the increasingly belligerent China and it is likely the United States can court their sympathy in preparation for a potential confrontation. Philippine President Benigno Aquino even compared the recent Chinese sea grab to Nazi Germany’s takeover of the Sudetenland on the eve of World War II.
It is time the United States accepts this challenge and makes efforts to hem in and encircle China, which is the Middle Kingdom’s worst strategic nightmare. Sending sorties of military aircraft through claimed “sovereign” airspace in the South China Sea, along with an increased naval presence will definitely send a message. Re-prioritizing the budget toward strengthening a military relationship with regional partners would also signal that America is serious about countering China’s moves for dominance. But most importantly, American leaders must indicate that they recognize China’s challenge and will not be willing to acquiesce to China’s growing demands.
A future with the United States as the undisputed hegemon is still likely, but this future will depend on the decisions the American people and their leaders make in the upcoming years. If the Chinese threat is neglected, there is a distinct possibility that, like the Dutch, the United States could be browbeaten into a secondary role where it accepts that trade will flow through the new unquestioned superpower.