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What Can Thucydides Teach Us About China’s Rise to Power?

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“The problem with America as a maritime power in Asia is that, like the United Kingdom of yesteryear, the United States is not an Asian power.”

There are two types of civilizations: Continental and Marine. From Thucydides to the present showdown in East Asia, history has been a contest between these two types of civilizations. The guidance of Thucydides and geopolitics should offer us a map to the outcomes of the great game in East Asia between China and the United States.

Thucydides and Geopolitical Reality

One of the significant undercurrents to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is the geopolitical dynamics in the rivalry between Athens and Sparta and the war strategies used by both sides. Athens was the great maritime empire and marine polis. Sparta was the dialectical contrast as the great land power and continental polis.

The movement to war was between proxy continental and maritime civilizations in Corcyra and Corinth. Though Corcyra was a colony of Corinth, Corcyra had grown into a prosperous maritime city with the second largest navy in Greece. This reality was something that the Corcyraean representatives sold to Athens in their bid for independence. The Corcyraeans even tell the Athenians that they are, “favourably situated for a coasting voyage either to Italy or Sicily.”

While Corinth was a major naval power, its foremost position was that of a land-based city-state. It was important for Sparta, then, to pull Corinth into its orbit by ensuring Corinth be an enemy of Athens. Through the Corcyraean struggle for independence we see the land-sea dynamic at play in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. Sparta aligned with the more immediate land power and Athens with the more immediate sea power because Sparta was the great land power and Athens the great sea power of fifth-century BC Greece.

Indeed, the most famous dialogue of Thucydides’s history is rife with the land-sea dialectic. The Melian dialogue is many things, but one thing it is for sure is a display of the folly of a sea civilization trying to ally with a land civilization when its more natural disposition would have been to ally with a fellow maritime civilization. Melas was a great maritime polis. As an island city-state, and a seafaring people, Melas’ self-interest would have been to align with Athens rather than entrench in its isolation and then hope for rescue from Sparta.

The Melians were guilty of not truly following their self-interest as Thucydides makes clear. If the law of nature was self-interest, as the Melians claimed, then they should have taken the offer the Athenians gave them in allying with them precisely because of geopolitical self-interest. A maritime civilization should join with another maritime civilization rather than rebuff it. That would be the law of self-interest—and geopolitics at work in its finest form. Since the Melians did not follow their natural course, dictated to them by the demands of their geopolitical situatedness, they suffered. 

This basic geopolitical dynamic, which Thucydides observed, has been repeated throughout history. Carthage and Rome. France and England. The Soviet Union and the United States. It suffices to say that now it is China and the United States.

From Thucydides to Asia

China has been the predominate cultural and political force in East Asia for almost its entire history. Asia has also been a continent in which the tension between land and sea has been less pronounced than in other parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean. The nineteenth century saw the United Kingdom sail into the waters of East Asia as the preeminent sea power for nearly a century. However, the industrialization and rise of Japan led to a new contest.

The sudden and spectacular rise of Japan began in the First Sino-Japanese War, and the Battle of Yalu River in 1894 ensured Japan’s preeminence as the great Asian maritime civilization of Asia. Although the British were nominally the maritime force which commanded authority and respect in the region, the Japanese ascendency could no longer be stopped by the British who were stretched across the globe. The Asiatic sphere of land and sea was leading to a confrontation between China and Japan for dominance in Asia, just as Athens and Sparta or Rome and Carthage in the past.

Japanese ascendency was marked by its turn to the sea and maritime empire building, which culminated in the seizure of Taiwan in the First Sino-Japanese War and the disintegration of European empires in East Asia during the Second World War. It seemed inevitable that Japan and China would clash again, and they did during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which merged into the broader Second World War after Japan’s gambit for maritime dominance in the Pacific.

Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Singapore serve as the barrier to contain the preeminent land power of Asia, which is and always has been China. Therefore, it has been crucial for the maritime powers of Asia to hold these regions. Britain’s inability to hold this sphere was among the many reasons for why its maritime supremacy in Asia was always delicate and waiting exploitation. Japan’s seizure of Taiwan in 1895, coupled with its actual geographical situatedness as an Asian nation, made Japan the natural and energetic force to seize the Philippines, Singapore, and the Chinese coastline, to consummate maritime ambitions as it tried to do in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.

The defeat of the Japanese during the Second World War did not bring about the end of the land-sea dialectic. The shadow of Japan’s empire, which was partly taken from Britain’s empire, was passed to the United States, who replaced Japan and Britain as the primary maritime power of Asia. The problem with America as a maritime power in Asia is that, like the United Kingdom of yesteryear, the United States is not an Asian power. The sidelining of Japan, the natural maritime civilization of Asia—though under American orbit—gives the Chinese an opportunistic moment now that it has recovered from the stagnation of the Qing dynasty, the civil wars, and the solidification of communist hegemony on the mainland.

Reclaiming a Natural Role: China and Asian Hegemony

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The rise of China on the global stage, and indeed in Asia, is not a mere recovery of the nation’s historic position as the great power of Asia but also the hegemonic sea power of the continent. Before the rise of the European colonial empires and Japan, China was also the foremost maritime power in Asia although the country periodically contended with other Asian civilizations for this hegemony. While Chinese civilization is undeniably continental, its reach generally extended into the waters of the Pacific, making China a hybrid civilization for much of her history. But China’s maritime ambitions have always been largely contained to protecting its continental status. This lack, or deficiency, in being a primary maritime civilization always left the door open for a more central maritime civilization to emerge. And emerge that civilization did in Japan before its defeat in 1945.

This geopolitical reality makes the great game in Asia even more interesting. The United States, as mentioned, is not only not an Asian power—America is also not a primary maritime civilization either. Isolationism’s appeal in the United States is because of the continental heartlands which constitute the core of American civilization. America’s maritime reach was the accidental outcome of the vicissitudes of history more than the natural maritime cornerstone of America being a sea power. For much of America’s history, it was not a sea power. This was eventually compensated for beginning in the late 1890’s and reached an apex during the Second World War when the United States transformed into the global maritime power thanks, in part, to distant global affairs. 

America’s chain, or blockade, of China assembles the more natural maritime civilizations of the region together: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. This blockade is a maritime blockade, one that hedges against Chinese maritime hegemony. The future of Asia is not a land-game, for no power can compete with China as being the primary continental civilization. The future of Asia is a sea-game. To this end, America is on the losing side.

China’s positioning to be regional maritime hegemon is obvious. Not to mention its historical role in this capacity, China’s gambit for increased power is marked by a turn to the sea and not to the land. But to complete this goal China must overcome a maritime blockade nominally imposed by the United States.

The American strategy in East Asia is winding down to an end-point. America’s hope will not be pinned on maintaining maritime supremacy over a continent 6,000 miles away from the West Coast of the United States. America’s hope would be in having a confederation of the natural maritime civilization and economies of East Asia to be under its political orbit. For all the ills concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the TPP was an attempt to achieve this geopolitical goal. Having failed at this, America is now at a crossroad in its East Asian strategy.

China senses this opportunity to reassert itself. Despite talk of China’s gambit for world power, this is simply not the case. China’s ambition is for Asian hegemony, which has always been its civilizational and political disposition. The Chinese are not interested in global domination but rather in reclaiming and reconstituting its historical dominant role in Asia. This entails China becoming the maritime hegemon of Asia. Since the end of 1945, there has been no primary Asian civilization to fulfill this role. America’s role in temporarily filling that window is fading. The failure of constituting a Pacific confederation of maritime nations under its political orbit has now all but ensured China’s door to sail into this emerging vacuum.

Unless the Asian nations want to go the route of Melas, they will choose to align with China because it will be in their self-interest to do so. But we shouldn’t despair if this happens. The glory of Athens collapsed because of overambitions. America would do well to return to Thucydides and consider its geopolitical nature and relationship to the Pacific. It is true that America has a coastal outlet into the Pacific. But China’s Pacific ambitions are likely contained to just East Asia. Whether America can accept this, or how the nation will react to Chinese assertiveness—something which Huntington saw as a possible flag for conflict—remains to be seen.

If Thucydides, history, and the reality of geopolitical dialectics are a guide for us, we shouldn’t be alarmed over China’s assertion of its position in East Asia. It is the natural end for China to pursue. Though that does involve a clash with the maritime power which happens to be, by the accidental vicissitudes of history, the United States.

Paul Krause holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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