America’s Rethinking of Sea Power and Its Policy Impact

China International Studies (English) - - China International Studies - Xie Xiaodong & Zhao Qinghai

A new debate over sea power and a new understanding of it has emerged in the US, highlighting the increasing domestic anxiety about a rising East and a declining West. The return to sea control as the focus of US naval strategy may complicate the regional security situation and create more risks.

Sea power is the basic and decisive factor in traditional maritime security. It serves as a major pillar for the global hegemony of the United States, where the sea power theory was originated. In the 21st century, influenced by globalization, scientific and technological innovation and the rapid rise of China’s maritime forces, a new debate over sea power and subsequently a new understanding of it has emerged in the United States, leading to adjustments of relevant strategies and policies, which will have farreaching influences on the regional and international security situation.

Concept and Two Major Theories of Sea Power in the West

There has not been authoritative definition of sea power since the concept came into being. People’s understanding of sea power has evolved with the trends of the times, as well as scientific and technological development.

The US naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who formulated an influential concept of sea power, believed that sea power was the product of naval strategy, with different strategies determining the characteristics of a navy. Only when a strong navy is matched with appropriate strategies can sea power be finally achieved.1 It is generally believed that the sea power Mahan proposed has two aspects: in the narrow sense, to achieve control of

the seas through various kinds of advantageous forces; in a broader sense, not only the military power to dominate the sea by force, but also other marine elements that are closely relevant to the maintenance of a country’s economic prosperity.2

Scholars after Mahan have viewed sea power from an increasingly broader perspective. For example, Charles W. Koburger argued that sea power is the military capability to affect maritime affairs and to influence onshore affairs from the sea.3 Sam J. Tangredi pointed out that sea power can be defined as the sum of the abilities to conduct international maritime business, utilize marine resources, project military force, and exert influence on onshore affairs from the sea by means of the navy.4 Geoffrey Till argued that sea power consists of the navy, coast guards, marine corps, and civil maritime sectors along with ground and air support forces, and it is the seabased capacity to make use of the oceans, direct others’ activities from the sea or at sea, and thus influence the situation at sea or on the land. In the new century, non-traditional security challenges have become increasingly prominent. People now realize that, “In the 21st century, it is not enough to focus sea power only on the navy and naval forces, because the nature and scope of threats have changed. The extensive definition of sea power must include all factors of the relationship between the state and the sea.”5 Admiral Thomas H. Collins, former Commandant of the US Coast Guard, pointed out that, “Sea power in the 21st century is the ability of a nation to use the seas safely, securely, fully, and wisely to achieve national objectives… 21st century maritime power speaks to nations’ needs beyond the purely military capabilities needed for warfighting. It includes for each of us the use of the seas — to preserve marine resources, to ensure the safe transit and passage of cargoes and people on its waters, to protect its maritime borders from

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