Use it or lose it: Seagoing nations must defend embattled waterways

Use it or lose it: Seagoing nations must defend embattled waterways
© Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Great Britain is returning to seaways “east of Suez,” decades after freeing its colonies and withdrawing, more or less, to the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. A warship from Britain’s Royal Navy demonstrated on behalf of nautical freedom in the South China Sea last September, drawing a stern rebuke from China. This month the frigate HMS Argyll joined the destroyer USS McCampbell for six days’ worth of exercises in the South China Sea.

Beijing will doubtless grouse anew.

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To say this token of allied solidarity constitutes a welcome development understates matters. All seafaring nations have a stake in freedom to use the sea for mercantile and military endeavors; all of them should help defend freedom of the sea where it is in peril, including the contested Sea of Azov and South China Sea. Britain’s return to Asia thus warrants a cheer from the age of sail, when ships were made of wood and mariners were steel: “Huzzah!”

Britain pulled back from Eastern waters starting in the 1950s for compelling reasons: It had exhausted itself outlasting imperial Germany and the Axis in the world wars, it no longer had to police an empire on which the sun never set, and the United States had taken up the mantle of Western naval and military leadership to wage the Cold War. It only made sense for this weary Titan to set down the too-vast orb of its fate.

Three points about the British resurgence are noteworthy. One, it telegraphs that old fellowships are being made new. By no means are the Southeast Asian maneuvers the first sign of this. London recently established a military base at Bahrain — the seat of U.S. naval power in the Persian Gulf — and plans to build another in Southeast Asia. Director Woody Allen once reputedly proclaimed that 80 percent of life is showing up. The Royal Navy and British Army intend to show up — and stay.

And they are working with longstanding allies with new vigor. Last year the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth conducted its first flight-deck qualifications with F-35 stealth fighters. The flattop held its trials while operating out of Norfolk — Virginia, that is, not England. U.S. Marine Corps pilots were among the aviators who landed F-35s aboard ship and took off again.

This marked a leap for the Royal Navy, which has not operated fixed-wing aircraft from carrier decks in years. The sort of “interoperability” displayed off Norfolk — meaning dissimilar forces’ ability to work together — is priceless. It telegraphs allied compatibility and competence in peacetime, putting China, Russia and rogue states on notice that they confront indomitable fighting forces. Interoperability also prepares seafarers and aircrews to execute operations in wartime. The more such maneuvers European, American and Asian navies conduct together, the better.

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Two, London’s pivot to maritime Asia admonishes wonks not to get too swept up in the political histrionics of the day. Governments — in particular, military and intelligence services — have a way of working together in harmony even when political leaders feud with one another. For instance, French and American intelligence agencies collaborated amicably during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when “Freedom Fries” were featured on Congress’s lunchtime menu.

So step back from Brexit, Russian collusion, or whatever political ruckus is emblazoned across today’s headlines. The British and U.S. militaries are professional and overwhelmingly apolitical institutions. They are an implement of policymakers and see themselves as such. That being the case, their mission is to design the military machine tool to carry out the jobs policymakers are likely to assign. They furnish London and Washington with options.

One commonsense option is to work alongside allies and partners all around the Eurasian periphery, including not just the Atlantic and Mediterranean but the Pacific and Indian oceans. This workmanlike mission has little to do with daily political squabbling. The Anglo-American allies could break faith someday, but there’s little reason to think today is the day. Just the opposite.

And three, middleweight powers such as Britain and France can punch above their weight if they field navies and armies capable of showing up in distant regions, and if their political masters speak up on behalf of common causes. And in fact, France has commenced its own return to Asia. The Royal Navy and French Navy reportedly are discussing pooling naval resources by creating an Anglo-French aircraft-carrier task force for overseas duty. Such moves merit another hearty “huzzah.”

A European presence is sorely needed outside the Atlantic. International law affirms that the sea beyond 12 nautical miles of shore is a “common.” Like Boston Common in revolutionary times, it belongs to everyone and no one. The law of the sea affirms nearly untrammeled freedom to use the common apart from poaching natural resources within 200 nautical miles of coastal states.

China and Russia oppose the concept of the free sea in waters they hold dear. They want to make the rules and see others obey. Lovers of nautical freedom must defend it. That means everyone.

But upholding freedom of the sea in the South China Sea and Black Sea should not pit the United States against China or Russia in a one-on-one exercise of raw power politics. Like the right-of-way in English common law, maritime freedom could lapse over time if no one makes use of it. In other words, use the rights codified by the law of the sea or lose them. Hence the imperative for seagoing nations to show up in embattled waterways and speak up about why.

Reciprocity, a.k.a. enlightened self-interest, also prods London and Paris to re-establish a presence in the Far East. If they expect Washington to have their backs when Moscow makes mischief around the European periphery, they need to have Washington’s back when Beijing acts up in the China seas. Europeans can safeguard the principles underwriting the liberal maritime system while also tending to their parochial diplomatic and defense interests.

Venturing east of Suez, then, helps protect Western Europe back home. The more principles and interests converge, the more durable Europeans’ return to Asia will prove. They will have met the Woody Allen standard and then some. And Eurasian autocrats will weep bitter tears.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. He is the co-author of “Red Star over the Pacific” and the author of “A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy,” forthcoming this November. The views voiced here are his alone.