In 1907, America’s “Great White Fleet” began its circumnavigation of the world, as ordered by President Theodore Roosevelt.
It was an important symbolic step in America’s transition from from a policy of self-defense to one of international policing. “Teddy” claimed that his policies as president were derived from the Monroe Doctrine, the culminating foreign policy statement of the Founding Fathers. In truth, however, he was the president most responsible for the dramatic shift in American foreign policy towards “making the world safe for democracy.” This resulted in its entanglement in first European, then Middle-Eastern, and — in the shift that will characterize the 21st century — far-Eastern affairs (beginning with Obama’s “pivot to Asia”).
The expansion of America’s capability to project force anywhere in the world was obviously a part of its shift towards actively engaging the world as a police power, and the Great White Fleet announced this capability to the world.
In 2002, less than a hundred years later, the Chinese navy completed its first circumnavigation of the globe. It was far less spectacular, to be sure, with the expedition consisting of a single missile destroyer and fueling ship. Nonetheless, it was a statement, to be considered within a wider context of China’s changing conduct.
In 2008, Chinese navy vessels began operating in the Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates, in the first ever military deployment for China outside of the “Asia-Pacific” region.
In 2010, Chinese navy ships were deployed for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea, which, in consideration of world history seems to have an even greater symbolic significance than the prior circumnavigation. Undoubtedly, they watched as Western powers overthrew the Libyan regime, and are there to gather as much intelligence when Syria is targeted.
In September 2011 the PLAN made further steps to a “blue water navy” when its first aircraft carrier, the rebuilt ex-Soviet carrier Varyag was deployed for sea trials.
That’s an interesting list of firsts.
In the explosive geo-political context of Asia, I’m struck by the following: How long was it, after the US navy circumnavigated the world was it that the United States was playing the decisive role in World War I? Ten years.
We are now ten years after the Chinese navy first did it.
To be sure, China has not indicated that it intends to police the world. Wen Jiabao is no Teddy, and the world can be thankful for that. However, with virtually all of its oil flowing from the Indian Ocean into the Straights of Malacca, it is notable that China’s naval development is accelerating and its posturing for control of the South China Sea is increasing.
In the second installment of 1HFA5: Japan, China, India, and the New Era of the Balance of Power, we’ll be looking specifically at China, and its increasingly confident and aggressive response to subordination by the West. We’ll explore the history of China, from its founding through to the present, in order to answer the question: What is China? And what will it do?
It is perhaps the question of the 21st century. It certainly is not a question Americans can afford to ignore.
Registration for this course segment, as well as the entire “First History” of Asia, is now open.
We’ll cover the story of China in eight lectures, once a week, starting September 22. See the program webpage for details. Live classes using WebEx are available, along with podcast recordings, easily accessible through iTunes.
Registration is available here.