Yo Ho Ho.

            One excellent business book is called Ninety Percent of Everything,[1] because ninety percent of all goods make part of their journey by sea.  Moreover, a good deal of what does not move on the surface—data, for example–does move by undersea cables.  It is a symbol, a cause, and an effect of globalization.  That is all the more marvelous because the seas have had an episodically bloody history.[2]  This tends to be forgotten during periods of extended peace.  We have been living through such a period for many decades.  Now we are warned that a less peaceful time may be at hand once again.[3] 

            Since the Second World War, the United States Navy (and to a diminishing degree the Royal Navy) have policed the world’s sea-lanes.  That vital prop to world commerce requires a large fleet manned by skillful crews. 

            China’s rise to a central position in the world economy linked it inextricably with merchant shipping.  Shipping, especially container ships and super-tankers, carry the country’s vast quantity of imports and exports.  This ocean-born trade both profits from American naval power and—in changed circumstances—would be threatened by it.  One logical solution for China has been to construct its own ocean-going navy.  On average, Chinese ships are ten years younger than are American ships.  It has matched this building program with an aggressive claim to sovereignty over the South and East China Seas.  In addition, Zi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” has given China control of container ports in Somalia, South Korea, Belgium, Somalia, and Greece.[4] 

However, China’s quest for maritime security inevitably poses a threat to American predominance.  One problem may arise from the general ignorance.  People are ignorant to the benefits of globalization, while all too aware of its alleged costs.  They are ignorant of the importance of the sea lanes for globalization.  They are ignorant of the place of the U.S. Navy in securing those sea lanes.  And they are ignorant of the current state of the Navy. 

That navy is immense in comparison to the fleets of other nations.  It is widely dispersed around the globe.  It also suffers from budgetary neglect by the same leaders who are working it to a frazzle.  The size of the fleet will glide downward as aging ships are retired.  A couple of recent collisions at sea by American destroyers can be explained by inadequate time training in basic seamanship on ships constantly at work fighting terror (or political embarrassment). 

Inevitably, the historian is reminded of earlier times.  There was the Anglo-German naval arms race before the First World War.  There were the defense budget constraints on the democracies during the appeasement era.  There was the British announcement that the last Royal Navy ship would be withdrawn from the South Atlantic before Argentina invaded the Falklands.  It might be better if the two naval powers reconciled their differences.   

[1] Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything (2014). 

[2] A few favorites: Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (1959); Lord Morley’s entry on Nelson in the DNB; and S.E. Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific (1948).  Many amazing stories in each. 

[3] Bruce D. Jones, To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers (2021); Gregg Easterbrook, The Blue Age: How the U.S. Navy Created Global Prosperity—And Why We’re in Danger of Losing It (2021). 

[4] China may also be interested in a “Reverse Burma Road” through Myanmar that would short-circuit any efforts to close the Straits of Malacca. 

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