China’s Caribbean Sea
By Francis P. Sempa
Real Clear Wire
At stake in the clash over Taiwan is not only control of the South China Sea, but also control of what Nicholas Spykman called the “Asiatic Mediterranean” and its islands and littorals. The outcome may determine whether this region of the western Pacific remains a vital international maritime artery or becomes China’s Caribbean Sea. To put it in classical geopolitical terms: Who controls the South China Sea commands the Asiatic Mediterranean; who commands the Asiatic Mediterranean controls Asia; and who controls Asia commands the destinies of the world.
The Asiatic Mediterranean consists of the region’s marginal seas. This includes the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea; the series of island chains that form successive geographical arcs that define the eastern boundaries of those marginal seas; and the straits (Malacca, Sunda, Lombock) that serve as sea arteries connecting the Asiatic Mediterranean to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Spykman called it “an insular world par excellence.” In 1942, he warned that a “modern, vitalized, and militarized China . . . is going to be a threat . . . to Japan . . . [and] to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean.” In 1944, he warned that China would emerge as the dominant power in the Far East after World War Two, and urged U.S. policymakers to establish bases in Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the region to contain China’s geopolitical ambitions.
In his famous “Old Soldiers Never Die” address to a joint session of Congress in April 1951, General Douglas MacArthur characterized this region as America’s “strategic frontier,” which we control “to the shores of Asia by a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas.” “From this island chain,” MacArthur said, “we can dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore--and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.”
Why is the Asiatic Mediterranean the most important region in the world in the first-half of the 21st century? The region hosts three of the world’s top six economic powers (China, Japan, India) and three of the top four most populous countries (China, India, and Indonesia). More than 60 percent of global maritime trade traverses the Asiatic Mediterranean, including more than 40 percent of global petroleum products. More than five trillion dollars of U.S. trade annually passes through the South China Sea. As Michael Auslin has pointed out, 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.”
This includes Taiwan’s Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. As Chris Miller, author of "Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology," noted in Time magazine, Taiwan is the world’s leading producer of advanced semiconductors “that power phones, computers, and data centers” throughout the world. Taiwan’s position in the advanced chip market dwarfs OPEC’s position in the oil market. Miller notes that Taiwan is more than the Saudi Arabia of advanced microchip processors; the world’s digital infrastructure depends on Taiwan. Miller contends that if China gained control over Taiwan’s semiconductor industry and processes, it would be “disastrous for America’s economic and geopolitical position.”
But Taiwan’s importance transcends economics. As far back as the 1950s, geopolitical strategist James Burnham described Taiwan as “a key link in [the U.S.] western frontier, which runs from the Aleutians down the Japanese islands, the Ryukyus (Okinawa) . . . to the Philippines.” Taiwan, Burnham explained, commanded “China’s . . . vulnerable and all-important north-south communications, both by water and (through the use of airpower) by land.” Should China gain Taiwan by war or diplomacy, Burnham argued, it would open a gaping hole in the American defense perimeter in the western Pacific and endanger the “integrity of the West’s Pacific frontier.” Burnham wrote that Taiwan’s independence was so important to U.S. security that we should consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend it.
China has been improving its ability to project power in the region, too. Scholars M. Taylor Fravel and Charles Glaser note that China’s construction of seven military bases on reefs and artificial islands in the South China Sea, its reaffirmation of the so-called “nine-dash line” by which it claims sovereignty over the entire sea, and its growing “maritime presence” in the region (destroyers, frigates, corvettes, SSBNs, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, a 200-vessel coast guard, a maritime militia) give it a regional naval superiority vis-a-vis the United States. Fravel and Glaser claim these advances “are significantly reducing the U.S. ability to fight a large war close to China’s coast.” Meanwhile, China’s nuclear weapons build-up threatens to undermine America’s extended nuclear guarantees to the region’s smaller powers, such as Japan and South Korea.
China’s goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland is part of a broader goal to establish its version of the Monroe Doctrine in the western Pacific. China seeks to dominate the waters and surrounding littorals of the Asiatic Mediterranean the way Rome dominated the Mediterranean Sea and its littorals in the first century B.C., and the way the United States established geopolitical supremacy in the Caribbean Sea and Central America in the late 19th-early 20th century. The Asiatic Mediterranean, Michael Auslin notes, “forms the hinge between maritime Eurasia and the entire Western Hemisphere.” Spykman even compared the Malacca Strait—through which the world’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region travels—to the Panama Canal.
While the war in Ukraine continues to consume much of Washington’s attention, the Asian Rimlands (again using Spykman’s terms) have superseded in importance the European Rimlands. The impact of the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine War for U.S. national security interests pales in comparison to the importance of the struggle over Taiwan and the broader Asiatic Mediterranean. Yet, as Washington pours more money and supplies into the Ukraine War ostensibly to protect NATO from further Russian ambitions, leading NATO allies such as France and Germany and representatives of the European Union have indicated that they will not align with the United States in its struggle with China in the western Pacific.
American statesmen and American policy should recognize that our most important security alliances are now in the Indo-Pacific. More specifically, the most important of all are in the Asiatic Mediterranean region—Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, India, and, yes, Taiwan. Except for England, Europe is not going to help us very much in the Far East. French President Macron and Germany Chancellor Scholz have embarked on independent (from the United States) foreign policies toward China reminiscent of the Ostpolitk toward the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.
In the development of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States claimed predominance in the Caribbean-Central American basin long before it had the capability to achieve and enforce it. Thomas Jefferson in 1780 and later in 1809 envisioned an “empire of liberty” extending to much of the Western Hemisphere. President Monroe at the urging of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine to exclude further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. But it wasn’t until America’s economic and military rise to global power after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the First World War that the United States acquired the resources and determination to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. China has followed a similar course, first proclaiming sovereignty over the South China Sea region in the late 1940s, but only acquiring the economic and military power to attempt to enforce it in the 21st century.
Political scientist Steven Jackson accurately describes China’s approach to the Asiatic Mediterranean as a doctrine of denial and regional exclusion aimed primarily against the United States. Auslin urges Washington policymakers to recognize the concept of the Asiatic Mediterranean and focus our resources to deny China hegemony in the region. That means, integrating “our planning and operations to seamlessly cover the entire space and maintain control of the region in cooperation with our Indo-Pacific allies.”
Above all, we must begin viewing the Asiatic Mediterranean as some once viewed the European Mediterranean: the maritime center of a geopolitical rivalry among great powers.
Francis P. Sempa writes on foreign policy and geopolitics. His Best Defense columns appear at the beginning of each month.