Asia’s Mediterranean: Strategy, Geopolitics, and Risk in the Seas of the Indo-Pacific

February 29, 2016

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The news that China has deployed advanced fighter jets to, and emplaced surface-to-air missiles on, Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Island chain confirms long-held fears that Beijing plans to militarize its possessions in the South China Sea. As Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, testified before Congress in February, China is militarizing the South China Sea, and to think otherwise, “you’d have to believe in a flat Earth.” He stated, “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia.”

There has been a prolonged American debate on how to respond to China’s moves in the South China Sea. The positions range from a legalistic stance based on accepted international law to calls for limited military actions, including freedom of navigation operations (ambiguously twinned with claims of “innocent passage”) by U.S. Navy ships and occasionally fly-overs by U.S. planes around China’s claimed territories. Plans for multi-nation maritime patrols in the South China Sea are discussed while observers tote up the acreage of China’s reclaimed islands and observe the construction of military-use facilities on the former reefs.

The intense interest in the South China Sea, however, has occluded a larger picture of the strategic environment in East Asia. We so far appear to prefer focusing only on one sub-region at a time. Thus, the Spratlys lately occupy our analysis while we ignore the Paracels in the same sea. And only three years ago, the Obama administration concentrated on the growing risk of a clash between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands (Ch. Diaoyutai) in the East China Sea. We thus are taken by surprise each time a new challenge to the status quo appears.

It is time to adopt a larger geostrategic picture of the entire Asia-Pacific region. To do so, it may be necessary to exhume a concept discussed briefly during the 1940s: that of the integrated strategic space of East Asia’s “inner seas,” or what was called the “Asiatic Mediterranean.” The utility of this concept will make clear that the geopolitical challenge the United States and its allies and partners face is an emerging struggle for control for the entire common maritime space of eastern Asia. It is helpful briefly to review the evolution of geopolitical thought in relation to this region if we are to adopt such an approach.


Geopolitics begins with Halford Mackinder and his oft-quoted, oft-misunderstood “heartland” thesis. Mackinder’s famous 1904 article, “The geographical pivot of history,” in fact discusses only briefly the idea of the heartland, essentially steppe Eurasia, as the ultimate goal of any world power. Mackinder may have written “whoever controls the heartland controls the world,” but his real insight was into the struggle over the “rimlands” that both guard and give access to the heartland. The rimlands properly include the European peninsula of the Eurasian landmass, as well as the littoral areas of Asia and the Middle East. As Wess Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel have recently reminded us, it is the rimlands that both Vladimir Putin and China seem to be trying to contest today.

Four decades after Mackinder’s original thesis, during the darkest days of World War II, the Yale geopolitical thinker Nicholas John Spykman returned to the rimland thesis, and further modified it to take into account recent great power warfare in the 20th century. In a posthumously published book, entitled The Geography of the Peace (1944), Spykman provided the insight that it is in the rimlands that the real struggle for mastery has taken place. More importantly, he argued that attaining control of the “marginal” or “inner” seas adjacent to the rimlands, bordered by the offshore “outer crescent” of island nations like Great Britain and Japan, was the prerequisite to dominating the rimlands. Thus, according to Spykman, the most crucial waterways for global power were the North Sea and the Mediterranean in Europe, the Persian Gulf and littoral waters of the western Indian Ocean in the Middle East, and the East and South China Seas, along with the Yellow Sea, in Asia.

Spykman’s claims put a new twist on Alfred Thayer Mahan’s assertion that control of the high seas was the great goal of the maritime powers. Instead of looking at the vast global maritime highway, like Mahan, Spykman instead concentrated on the areas where the majority of the global population lived and where production was most concentrated and trade most intensely conducted. In a 1943 Foreign Affairs article, “The round world and the winning of the peace,” Mackinder himself had already modified his earlier position. Mackinder, like Spykman, emphasized the importance of the rimlands, their marginal seas. The great naval battles of World War II, except for the Battle of the Atlantic, the Coral Sea, and Midway, were in fact fought largely in the inner seas of Europe and Asia.

Control of the inner seas was not a new military concept. It explains the decades-long war waged by the British Royal Navy against Napoleon’s ships in the English Channel and French littoral waters, as well as the Imperial Japanese Navy’s reduction of the Chinese and Russian fleets in the Yellow Sea in both 1894 and 1904, giving it control of access to Korea and China. As both these examples also point out, the struggle for control of the inner seas is often the first step to a larger contest over the rimlands, and this maritime-based competition can last years before a move is made on land or the issue decided by opposing armies.

It was in the air that Spykman struggled to expand his thesis to incorporate the most modern type of warfare. Command of the skies really only became a feasible military goal in World War II, and the ferocious aerial warfare of the Battle of Britain was one example of the struggle for the inner seas being expanded to the realm of aerospace. Indeed, due to the limitations of 1940s-era aircraft, aerial warfare was almost wholly restricted to the littoral and rimlands regions. The objective, however, remained the same: control the maritime/aerial commons that give access to the rimlands.

World War II, however, was the last major war where command of the sea, whether the high or inner seas, was a strategic necessity. In the post-World War II era, the United States dominated the oceans and most of the skies, except over the Soviet Bloc. The new era required a new geopolitical concept, and Spykman’s thesis was modified by Samuel Huntington. Prior Eurasian struggles for mastery had taken place among Eurasian powers. Now, with the balance of global military might held by a nation in a different hemisphere, how could the idea of maintaining geopolitical control fit traditional models?

Huntington provided an answer in his well-known 1954 article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings. “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” recapped the eras of U.S. naval strategy and argued that, in the modern era, the power of the U.S. Navy would be employed over trans-oceanic range, but for the same goals. Huntington presciently saw that naval power in the post-WWII era would be used almost solely for effecting land-based struggles in the rimland (and he could have made the same argument about the U.S. Air Force). Huntington’s insight helped explain Macarthur’s landing at Inchon in 1950, U.S. carrier-based air operations against North Vietnam, the air and amphibious operations of the 1991 Gulf War, and the Iraq War two decades later. No longer was naval power concerned with command of the sea, since the United States had it uncontested, except perhaps in the submarine race with the Soviets.


Today we have lost a conscious understanding of the strategic importance of the inner seas, at a moment when we face the greatest challenge to our control of them since 1945. We focus serially on one area when a problem crops up, and then return to a posture of benign neglect after taking short-term tactical action. We should instead acknowledge the matter bluntly: China is contesting for control, not of the high seas like Germany in World War I or Japan in World War II, but of the marginal seas and skies of Asia, even while the United States remains dominant on the high seas of the Pacific.

Acknowledging this fact not only unifies our understanding of Chinese military activity in the region, it also maps out the area under risk: the Asiatic Mediterranean. The integrated waters of the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the East and South China Seas, are as vital to the history, identity, and trade of eastern Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe. While it is geographically a stretch to connect the Asiatic Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the passageways between the two remain among the world’s most vital waterways, through which one-third of global trade passes in the form of over 70,000 ships per year moving into the Asiatic Mediterranean. The great factories and workshops of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and others, on whom our global trading network depends, are located along the littoral of the Asiatic Mediterranean. It forms the hinge between maritime Eurasia and the entire Western Hemisphere. To return to Spykman’s formulation, control of the Asiatic Mediterranean means control of Asia.

The challenge posed by China is thus two-fold. It threatens the maritime freedom of the Asiatic Mediterranean, and thus ultimately of Asia’s productive and trading capacities. It also is positioning China to have the preponderance of power that can be brought against Asia’s rimlands, as well as against what Spykman called the “outer crescent,” which, in Asia, includes Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. These rimlands and the outer cresecent, it should be remembered, are uniquely comprised of continental, peninsular, and archipelagic landforms. Japan’s control of Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) in the 1930s facilitated its invasion of China, which found its greatest success in the rimland, and only became enmeshed in quagmire when it attempted to extend towards China’s heartland or out into the trackless Pacific. China today is gradually attaining the capability to threaten Japan and Southeast Asia, not solely from the homeland, but from its expeditionary bases in the inner seas. From this perspective, the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that Beijing established in the East China Sea in November 2013 is another element in its attempt to establish control over the inner skies of Asia. Only by conceiving of the strategic environment in this expansive, integrated sense — as the Asiatic Mediterranean — can we fully understand, appreciate, and respond to China’s long-term challenge.


What is to be done? First, we must consciously adopt the idea of the Asiatic Mediterranean, stretching from Kamchatka in the north to the Strait of Malacca in the south, recognizing that all its waters are interconnected and are the “soft underbelly” of Asia. We must then accept that our goal is to ensure our continued and full control of the Asiatic Mediterranean and the insurance of its stability.

This requires several policy adaptations. First, we must integrate our planning and operations to seamlessly cover the entire space and maintain control. The Allied Powers in World War II would never have accepted losing the eastern Mediterranean while keeping open the western half, nor should we disassociate the South and East China Seas. Peacetime freedom of navigation operations, for example, should be coordinated throughout the region, while wartime planning should prepare for keeping the entire region a zone of maneuver and control by allied forces. Second, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities should be reordered so as to provide a holistic risk assessment for both peacetime and wartime. Third, the Department of Defense should begin discussions with both allies and partners on how we can cooperate specifically to help maintain stability, as well as jointly respond to gray zone incidents and open warfare. This may include formalizing joint patrols, agreements over non-lethal support, greater sharing of intelligence, and the like. U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Pacific Air Forces are already charged with the responsibility for this area, greatly facilitating the shift in thinking and planning proposed here.

The question of upholding both our promises and our interests is not a light one. Walter Lippmann admonished in U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943) that foreign commitments must be brought into balance with national power. Writing, like Spykman, during the dark days of World War II, he asserted that an imbalance was a direct cause of war. He scathingly faulted U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific from 1899 to 1942 with failing to recognize the imbalance between U.S. commitments and its power in relation to the rise of Japan. Since 1945, however, except for a limited challenge by the Soviet Union, we have not had a credible challenger in the Pacific. Not since Vietnam nearly a half-century ago (which was the last time we brought localized power to bear on the Asiatic rimland) have we had to ensure that our Asian commitments and our power were in balance.

Unlike when Huntington was writing what might be considered the urtext of offshore balancing, we now have a credible challenger for local control. This challenger may not yet be able to defeat the full force of U.S. power today, but he is gaining in power. More importantly, that challenger has identified control of the Asiatic Mediterranean as his goal, and is acting to permanently change the geopolitical balance, such as through the island-building campaign. We are thus at risk of failing to meet his challenge in two respects: in ensuring that our commitments and our power in the region are in balance, and in appropriately recognizing the full scope of the challenge and its holistic development.

The growing concern in Washington over China’s capabilities and intentions is a belated, and possibly semi-unconscious, recognition of these facts. Policymakers are now increasingly worried that our power is not commensurate to our commitments, especially if the commitment is understood as the continued stability of the marginal seas and ensuring that no one power controls them. From that perspective, our alliance structures ironically may be secondary to the primacy of control of the marginal seas; losing that control would make fulfilling our alliance commitments even more difficult or costly.

The suggestions offered above will be difficult to implement, but they are necessary if we are realistically to preserve both our power and our influence. Losing one part of the Asiatic Mediterranean will certainly cause allies and partners in other parts to consider either severing ties with the United States or declaring neutrality, so as to preserve their own freedom of action. A geopolitically isolated United States is an operationally weakened United States. Being pushed out of one sea will require us to expend national treasure to fight our way back in. The better course of action is to keep the Asiatic Mediterranean whole and maintain its stability. Only then can we be certain that the vital rimlands of Asia will remain free from conflict. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the Asiatic Mediterranean must certainly hang together, or it will assuredly hang separately.


Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The End of the Asian Century (forthcoming, Yale). Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.


Photo credit: Cmdr. Ed Thompson, U.S. Navy

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