GFJ Commentary

August 28, 2018 

The Presence of Britain the Maritime Empire

and China’s Ambition

By SUZUKI Yoshikatsu

Since the ancient times, people have sailed into the ocean, developed trade routes, and sometimes struggled over hegemony. As the Age of Discovery began in the 15th century, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands led the formation of world order, which was followed by the two maritime imperial powers, Britain and the United States. Then in the 21st century, Trump administration inaugurated. There are no longer the reflux to the ‘age of Pax Americana.’ China tries to venture into the ‘power vacuum’ around the world where the US has decreased its presence. China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ or Maritime Silk Road Initiative is intended to lay the ground for its ambition towards the global maritime hegemony. In this article, I would like to shed light on the importance of Britain, which holds plenty of maritime infrastructure, through the ‘maritime geoeconomics’ in the midst of the current power competition among the US, China, Russia and others, over the new maritime order. British sailors often say “the ocean is one.’ The cumulonimbus rising from the horizon where the blues of ocean and the sky meet in the Indian Ocean, tanker-swaying strong wind turns the marine blue surface of the water into white in Mediterranean Sea, and the in the northern Atlantic Ocean where Titanic hit the iceberg and sunk, it is always misty and the sights are blocked. The ocean that covers the earth has many faces, and if you ask the sailors who spend their days in the world there’s nothing but the sea, they would say the three most important things for their job are nautical chart, compass, and port of call. First, the nautical chart is necessary to know the countless waters, areas, gulfs, straits, canals, ports, river depths, currents depending on the seasonal climates. The captain of the around-the-world cruise ship, for example, first gets all the necessary nautical charts of the route. Britain possesses plenty of the nautical charts of the world. Second, no matter how much the computer controls the ship today, the compass and triangle ruler, together with the nautical chart, are inevitable to measure the direction and the distance.

And last but not least, the importance of the port of call is increasing. China is trying its best hurrying up to develop its port of call globally, based on its ambition to be the maritime giant. Hambantota Port, one of the example that Sri Lanka was entrapped to be indebted to China as part of the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean, is just a tip of the iceberg. Forming of the new order, however, involves various backgrounds as the ocean or the sea areas are all interconnected with straits, canals and warters. Particularly the port of call for the battle ships is political/diplomatic concern in the national security level. For instance, in the case of the Britain, despite being relatively a small sized country, it has a history once it ruled the world as the maritime empire. Although its mightiness of the Pax Britanica has long gone, the advantage it has on the maritime infrastructure still remains as one of the best. The Britain especially still remains with no doubt as the most inevitable partner to the US, for its strategy to build the world order during the Cold War, as well as the following unipolar world led by the US.

Gibraltar that monitors the 14 km-wide international strait between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea around the clock, or the former colonies, Malta and Cyprus, still function as suppling bases to the British and US vessels. They are particularly inevitable ports of call to dominate the Mediterranean, which is handled by the Sixth Fleet of the US Navy. Fernand Braudel, a French historian, has called the Mediterranean that is surrounded by the land, and where maritime path, the trade route are developed by the Europe and African continent, the ‘crossroad of the civilizations.’ The Mediterranean Sea is not a singular, but it is with ‘countless sceneries,’ ‘various seas,’ and ‘the multi-layered civilizations,’ he wrote. In the 20th century, when geopolitical perspective gained the importance, the Britain assigned itself of the role to bridge the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. That was the choice the great leader Sir Winston Churchill made, who called the Atlantic and the US were Britain’s ‘extensive offshore.’

There were ‘Hot Wars’ ---World War I, World War II, and the following Cold War. It was symbolic that Malta, the strategic key location also known as the ‘center of the Mediterranean,’ was chosen where the US and Soviet’s leaders announce the end of the Cold War. While the Strait of Gibraltar is the western door to the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal is the eastern one. It leads to the Indian Ocean via Red Sea, and further reaches to Singapore, the former British colony, through Indonesia and Malaysia, which today co-manages the Strait of Malacca. Britain still maintains today many key maritime infrastructures at crucial points on the sea lane. In fact, Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, and Diego Garcia on the Indian Ocean, went full throttle as the military foothold eyeing the Middle East, during the Gulf War in 1991, as well as the Iraq War in 2003. Additionally, Britain also has its military bases in its overseas territories, such as Ascension Island and Falkland. The Commonwealth of Nations consists of mainly the former British colonies and through their lingua franca, English, is a reminder of its vast expansion of the maritime empire. The glory of the British royal family, for example, even shines over Nassau, the capital of Bahama, on the islands off the Southwestern coast of Florida.

For the US, the alliance with Britain is the most important and the ‘special relationship’ for its national strategy. The alliance, however, does not last eternally. The existing framework of the current order gets strained and the relations of the countries get shaken in the era of dramatic transition of the international politics. Since Xi Jinping topped the Communist Party in 2012, its dynamic and aggressive ambition of the further naval projection has billowed the world. Britain reacts to protect its interests amidst of the global transition. Here, it is much worth to remind ourselves of the well-known political cliché by former Prime Minister the Viscount Palmerston. As we are witnessing the transition of the century in such a wide ranged fields --politically, economically, militarily, science & technology, etc., his words be firmly borne in our mind: We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. In the 19th century, Britain expanded its trade activities worldwide at the level the world had never seen, based on its naval power and banking business. Even though Britain and the US have ‘special relationship’ based on their lingua franca (English), in the post WWII 1950s, they disagreed with each other regarding Iran’s nationalization of oil, or the other time, on Egypt’s nationalization of Suez Canal. Although, they kept a close relationship on the security affairs.

Having said that, Britain is quite sensitive to the ‘change of time’ or in another words, ‘momentum.’ They came closer to the European Continent while the Pax Americana that stood on the Smithsonian Agreement had weakened in early 1970s (joined EU in 1972). In recent years as China is rising, they were one of the first advanced democracy to show the interest in joining Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, proposed by China. The US was not informed on this in prior despite their alliance, thus the news was even more shocking to the world, and it triggered other major countries to join AIIB. The background of this event is that the change of momentum, symbolized by the obvious rise of China while the decline of the US. The transformation of the grand situation, id est from the hegemony of the US after the Cold War when two superpowers, US and Soviet had competed, to G2 era, the competition between the giant and rising China versus already peaked US. While the current world order gives signs of a big change, how Britain, the closest ally of the US, is acting is particularly worth an attention. After the Cold War, Britain, together with the US, led the financial globalization, and aimed to develop its City as the international financial hub that equals Wall Street. The global financial crisis in 2008 originated in US, however, forced Britain to shift its external policy. The decision to join AIIB can be seen as one of the reaction to such circumstance.

The change of the momentum is reflected on other issues as well. 2019 marks the 30th anniversary since the end of the Cold War. The power game over the Mediterranean Sea in the post-Cold War period is being formed thanks to the birth of Trump administration, after the changes caused during the Obama administration. Russian President Putin intervened in the conflict struggling Syria to show their support to Assad administration, and in 2015, Russia built an air force base beside Bassel Al-Assad International Airport located south-east of the city of Latakia: that is Khmeimim Air Base. The base fully functioned for the fighter jets in the military support to the Assad government for its mission to take back the city of Aleppo in December, 2016. Additionally, Syrian port of Tartus near the border with Lebanon is said to be a major maintenance hub and supplying point for the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet, and it’s role has been reinforced again since the Cold War period. Tartus is one of the two Syrian major port facing the Mediterranean, as well as their key base. The area consists of Alawites residents thus President Assad, who is also Alawites, has a solid support there. Such military expansion and the presence of Russia in Syria demonstrates a part of ‘Putin’s dream’ ---the reemergence of strong Russia. As a reaction to this, the US, cautious on such Russian moves, announced to restore its Second Fleet to take care of the East Coast and the northern Atlantic.

What China is paying attention amidst of the ‘change of time’ is the presence of Britain the naval empire. China cannot ignore Britain, which still keeps plentiful maritime infrastructure today, if they understand that the ‘ocean is one.’ Britain is politically influential in the world here and there, as the center of the Commonwealth of Nations, consisted of 53 members connected with the royal family and the language. In fact, its announcement to join AIIB in 2015 triggered the other European nations to do the same. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping who made the state visit to Britain in the same year called the relationship led by then-Prime Minister Cameron a “golden age” and shown it dramatically. If the maritime affair gives impact on geopolitics, nation’s trade relation is like the one side of the coin, while the other is the military (sea) power, as Alfred Thayer Mahan had pointed out. Therefore, I am doubtful to the opinion that the China’s Belt and Road is nothing but a giant economic zone initiative; it is rather politically and economically integrated, and we shall not forget its expansion will be led to militarily backed ambition to the hegemony. Britain, exiting EU soon while there’s the Trump administration in the US, is trying to build a relationship with non-EU countries like China. But what Britain is different from the US in the relations with China is that they clearly points out the human rights situation in Honk Kong, as a democracy and with its historical tie, unlike the Trump administration which has never referred to such issue, despite it is a weak point of China. At the Chinese-British summit held on the occasion of Prime Minister May’s state visit to China in February, 2018, Premier Xi called for a new China-Britain relationship by quoting the well-known Shakespeare “what’s past is prologue,” emphasizing its willingness to deepen the relations in finance, nuclear power, investment, and other fields. Prime Minister May agreed to the promotion of the Belt and Road that Premier Xi initiated, and of expanding economic/financial cooperations, saying that “it would bring a big impact to the world,” though the strengthening of the trade, investment, science & technology, environment were left to be “done at the working level.” Meanwhile, she referred to the case in the Hong Kong Parliamentary election, of which democratic candidate’s candidacy was annulled, thus expressing the ‘concern’ over how China treats the autonomy, rights, and liberty in Hong Kong by reiterating the importance of One State, Two Systems. For China, Britain, a mother country of democratic politics, could be tougher to deal with than with the United States.

(This is the English translation of an article written by SUZUKI Yoshikatsu, Journalist / former Editor-in-Chief of “Gaiko” the magazine on diplomacy, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Giron-Hyakushutsu (Hundred Views in Full Perspective)” of GFJ on June 19, 2018.)