New Cold War at Global Commons: A New U.S. Naval Strategy for the Great Power Competition Era

The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group.
The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Although the entire human population lives on lands, more than two-thirds of our planet is covered by oceans. Considering that water constitutes two-thirds of the human body, it would not be wrong to suggest that people and the world share a common destiny in terms of vitality. As human life is dependent on water, the lives of the world and societies are also dependent on the oceans.

Oceans are indispensable for life in many ways. First of all, although they are considered as an insurmountable obstacle that separates people from each other, they are indispensable and the most essential means of transportation and communication that connect continents and societies. Considering the fact that approximately 90% of world trade is made possible by the oceans, this situation will be understood more clearly. The important role played by the seas in mail communication in the past has become even more important today. Today, 99% of all digital data, including Internet usage, phone calls, and text messages, goes through the cables under the ocean. Human civilization has been able to reach its present level with the opportunities offered by the oceans, and the world’s greatest powers have faced the fact that controlling the oceans is a sine qua non.

Today, global politics is undergoing a great shift. This change is largely due to the rise of China, the deepening of globalization and countries’ interdependence, and the violent movements that transcend borders such as international terrorism. In particular, the rise of China has led to a change in the world order that emerged after the Cold War, and geopolitics is again gaining a central role in the global agenda. The policy of focusing on the Asia Pacific, which began under the Obama administration, has evolved into a politics in the Trump era where China is seen as the primary threat. This approach is reflected in almost all U.S. official documents, such as the US National Security Strategy Document. Furthermore, this approach manifested itself in the approaches of international organizations led by the United States. We see the most important example of this in NATO’s view of China.

We can compare China’s rise, its desire to implement an ambitious project such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its advocacy of free trade, with the emergence of the United States on the world stage first as a great power and then as a superpower. The United States influenced the whole world culturally and aimed to be present in every region of the world with 11 aircraft carrier strike groups.

The United States was able to control the global economy after the Second World War, thanks to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). With the Marshall Plan, it aimed to improve the infrastructure and increase the purchasing power of its allies. It would not be wrong to suggest that China follows a similar course today. Similarly, China’s goal resonates with the United States’ past desires. China uses the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in this regard. Similar to the Marshall Plan, the BRI is a tool of a larger strategy that aims to bring soft power, diplomacy, and infrastructure investments together.

China has not only grown economically but also made a great leap forward militarily. China, which started an aircraft carrier building program, today has two aircraft carriers, one is its own production. It is anticipated that China, which is building the third domestic aircraft carrier, aims to have at least four aircraft carriers in the near future. Although it expressed at every opportunity that it doesn’t pursue a hegemonic agenda, China has indicated that it aims to be an effective power all over the world by opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti. The situation within the scope of defense expenditures is much more striking. While China’s military expenditure in 1989 was approximately $20 billion, it increased more than 13 times by 2019 and exceeded $261 billion. As such, China has become the second-highest defense spending country in the world following the United States.

At the point we have reached today, it is seen that the great power rivalry between the United States and China goes beyond trade and technology, and both states are increasingly preparing themselves for a new cold war. Since the emergence of nuclear weapons in the mid-20th century, it has been seen as unlikely that two nuclear powers have been fighting each other. As a result, conflicts either take place over other states as a proxy or are carried out on global commons.

Oceans, outer space, and cyberspace, defined as global commons, are vital to great powers. Because global commons are indispensable for great states to maintain their influence on international politics, global economy, and transportation routes. In this context, it would not be wrong to claim that global commons will constitute the main ground in the great power rivalry between the United States and China, which is expected to become even more severe in the coming period.

Among the global commons, we can highlight the oceans as primus inter pares. As of the end of 2020, the United States has issued two important documents on the oceans and naval power: U.S. naval strategy titled “Advantage at Sea“, and a report by Congressional Research Service on China Naval Modernization.

The naval strategy titled “Advantage at Sea” is a document prepared jointly by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Marine Corps, as in the case of the previous two strategies. The most distinct feature of the document is that it is much of a crisis/conflict strategy rather than a peacetime one.

The United States published two naval strategies in 2007 and 2015 respectively. The 2007 naval strategy titled “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” was the first strategy the three maritime forces of the United States prepared together. The strategy focused on preventing wars rather than winning wars. Looking at the overall strategy, it is seen that the confidence of the United States in maintaining the international order was quite high at that time. Maritime security and acting together with partners come to the fore as priorities. The strategy considers a major conflict between the great powers as a remote possibility and does not mention any state’s name, including China and Russia, in this context.

The next strategy, published in 2015, signals that there have been significant changes in global politics in the past eight years. First of all, it is possible to see the traces of the financial crisis experienced in 2008 in the strategy. It is possible to see this situation in the use of phrases such as “constrained resources” and “fiscal uncertainty” between the lines of the strategy. The concept of forward naval presence constitutes the core of the strategy. It touched also on the topic of geopolitical challenges, a concept that was never mentioned in the previous strategy. Unlike the previous one, the 2015 strategy has addressed geopolitical risks by region. Partnerships and alliances played an important role in this strategy as in the previous one. However, it named potential allies and partners in the region identified as Indo-Asia-Pacific. While the 2007 strategy did not mention China at all, the 2015 strategy mentioned China as an important stakeholder that accommodates both opportunities and challenges. On the other hand, it mentioned Russia once by pointing out its aggressive actions such as the illegal seizure of Crimea and ongoing military aggression in Ukraine. However, it openly delegated the Russian issue to NATO.

Released only five years after the latest naval strategy published in 2015, the 2020 naval strategy has a quite different narrative from its predecessors. While reading Advantage at Sea, you can fully feel the era of great power competition and easily get caught up in the idea that it will inevitably turn into a Cold War or even a limited conflict. It is also possible to see between the lines of the strategy that the United States perceives as a real threat to the global order, which it has led for decades and described as international rules-based order. For instance, the phrase “rules-based order” appears eight times in various parts of the document.

Unlike the previous strategies, the 2020 naval strategy clearly defines China and Russia as rivals and even adversaries. It places China in an exceptional position among these two, given its economic and military capacity. It clearly states that China is the most important and long-term strategic threat to the United States’ unfettered access to and dominance in the world oceans. The strategy includes this issue with the following statement: “We prioritize competition with China due to its growing economic and military strength, increasing aggressiveness, and demonstrated intent to dominate its regional waters and remake the international order in its favor.”

The importance of oceans, in terms of the prosperity of the United States and rule-based international order, has been emphasized in the Advantage at Sea. The importance of the oceans is accentuated in the document by expressing some figures: “The oceans connect global markets, provide essential resources, and link societies together. By value, 90 percent of global trade travels by sea, facilitating $5.4 trillion of U.S. annual commerce and supporting 31 million American jobs. Undersea cables transmit 95 percent of international communications and roughly $10 trillion in financial transactions each day.”

The 2015 naval strategy has set a target of keeping 60% of the U.S. naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The 2020 naval strategy has confirmed that this goal has been achieved: 60% of the U.S. Navy ships are located in the Indo-Pacific region. At this point, the preference of the United States to define the region is striking. The United States made a significant change in 2018, renaming the Asia Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command. Although it may seem like just a name change, the United States’ inclusion of India and the Indian Ocean in the region is an important reflection of its outlook on the region. Moreover, in October, U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite called for the Navy to establish a new numbered fleet closer to the border of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The name of the new numbered fleet (First Fleet) is also a clear indication of where the United States has placed the region in its priorities.

The 2020 naval strategy highlights the following five themes:

– to generate Integrated All-Domain Naval Power,

– to strengthen alliances and partnerships,

– to prevail in day-to-day competition

– to control the seas in conflict,

– to modernize the future naval force to maintain credible deterrence and preserve advantage at sea.

In this context, it is noteworthy that almost all of the document focuses on China and the elements of Chinese naval power. It states that China has increased the navy battle force by more than three times in the past 20 years. According to the document, the Chinese shipbuilding capacity that provides this rapid growth can rapidly produce the required number of ships in case of a conflict. Referring to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the strategy emphasizes that China will have the opportunity to operate far from its coasts thanks to the ports it has access to in this regard. The Arctic sea is another issue that finds a place in the strategy. Special attention was drawn to the possible competition in the region in the medium term due to the receding ice cap.

At this point, the report published by the Congressional Research Service mentioned above becomes important. The report, which takes a closer look at the Chinese naval power, finds that the PLA Navy is by far the largest in East Asia. It went even further and stated that the PLA Navy surpassed the U.S. Navy in terms of the total number of warships and became the largest navy in the world in numerical terms. In line with the narrative in Advantage at Sea, the report does not hesitate to state clearly that in the age of great power competition, China’s military modernization efforts, including the navy, have become the focus of U.S. defense planning and budgeting.

Another important issue highlighted in the Advantage at Sea is technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, additive manufacturing, quantum computing, and new communications and technologies defined as “New and Converging Technologies.” According to the document, the technologies in question will be able to generate enormous disruptive change. It is noteworthy that these technologies have also been mentioned in the NATO 2030 report prepared by the NATO Reflection Group as “Emerging and Disruptive Technologies” two weeks ago. We can say that the impact of these technologies on security strategies will be felt more in the upcoming period.

The most prominent point in the new naval strategy is the importance given to the crisis and conflict period rather than the competitive activities during the peace period. In this context, alliances and partnerships came into prominence. In particular, it was emphasized that a resilient network of alliances and partnerships are the fabric of free and open order within the scope of the day-to-day competition. It has also been stated that alliances and partnerships are a true force multiplier in a crisis period with the intelligence, logistics, cyber, and space capabilities they will provide. According to the strategy, allies and partners could control critical chokepoints and cause serious military and economic damage to adversaries in a time of Conflict.

In the last part of the strategy, under the topic of “Developing Naval Forces,” priorities for integrated all-domain naval force are listed as follows:

– Concepts and capabilities that apply across the competition continuum over those that are narrowly focused.

– Emphasis on sea control relative to other naval missions,

– Greater numbers of distributable capabilities over fewer exquisite platforms,

– Integrated naval modernization,

– Training and education for warfighting advantage in dynamic environments.

Advantage at Sea, which is the first naval strategy of the era of great power competition, bears the first signs of the competition between the United States and China. Global commons will undoubtedly be the main grounds of the ​​competition between the two great powers. The ongoing conflict in cyberspace will also manifest itself in the oceans and seas in this new era. The United States has started to clearly define China and Russia as adversaries in an official document. This strident definition will probably be reflected in the new NATO Strategic Concept, which is expected to be published next year. Considering that the new Biden administration will place special emphasis on enhancing and strengthening alliances and partnerships, it remains to be an essential question of whether the national security strategy of the Biden administration likely to be published by the end of 2022 will have a similar tone.

It is clear that a new cold war is now at the door. The first confrontations in this sense seem to take place at global commons. Among the global commons, confrontations are most likely to evolve into a limited conflict in the oceans. It should be borne in mind that in the coming period, if the U.S. and PLA navies come face to face in the South China Sea, around Taiwan, or in the East China Sea, it could easily turn into a conflict if it is not managed well.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.