Nearly fifty years before the birth of Columbus, when western Europeans like Prince Henry the Navigator were merely studying the possibilities of a sea route to the Far East, the Emperor of China was dispatching naval forces as far as the east coast of Africa. Between 1405 and 1433, Chinese naval power was being felt throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. During that period the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty sent out seven major expeditions, some of them comprising as many as 62 ships, transporting 37,000 troops. These forces, under the command of the Grand Eunuch, Cheng Ho, visited more than thirty countries in the Indian Archipelago and the Indian Ocean, as well as ports in the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. Even Mecca was visited on one of the cruises, Cheng Ho being a Mohammedan.
The naval forces sent out by the Chinese Emperor brought the majesty and, when necessary, the terror of the Imperial Ming name to all the rulers of the area. A prince of Ceylon and a local chief of Sumatra who refused to submit to the Emperor’s power were seized and carried off to China. Cheng Ho proclaimed that “the countries beyond the horizon and from the ends of the earth have all become subjects of the Imperial Ming.”
From the cruises of Cheng Ho’s fleets in the early 1400’s to the present time, sea power has been a major factor in determining the course of events in Asia. The rivalry among various European nations for colonies and trade in the Far East was largely a test of the relative maritime strength of the countries involved. Such historic events as the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry, the Battle of Manila, the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War, the defeat of the Japanese Navy in World War II, the Inchon Landing in Korea, and the patrol of Formosa Strait by the Seventh Fleet, all bear witness to the fact that the history of Asia has been greatly influenced by sea power. Moreover, the geography of the area appears to have ordained that, in the struggle against the spread of Communism in the Far East, sea power, with or without unconventional weapons, will again play a leading role.
In recent years some have felt that the advent of air-atomic warfare has so overshadowed everything else that the role of sea power has become a relatively minor one. They have become convinced that just as the atomic blast changed forever the face of Hiroshima, so it changed forever the basic principles of war and diplomacy.
But when we look back on the decade that has elapsed since Hiroshima, certain facts emerge, solid, impressive, like the shape of ships from drifting fog. One of the most impressive of these is the fact that in spite of the tremendous problems raised by the new weapons of mass destruction, the course of international events has not been radically changed by the existence of these weapons. Neither in China nor in Greece was the outcome of the Civil War influenced by the atomic bomb. Air power broke the back of the Berlin Blockade, but the threat of atomic bombing did not decide the outcome. The invasion of South Korea in June, 1950, was not prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons, nor did these weapons play any part in the fighting that followed. The outcome of the seven years’ struggle in Indo-china would have been the same if the atomic bomb had never been developed.
There are those who maintain that the atomic bomb saved Western Europe from Sovietization between 1945 and 1949, and there can be little doubt that it constituted a major deterrent to the initiation of hostilities by the Kremlin. But there is good reason to believe that it was actually the Marshall Plan which prevented Sovietization by “cold war” tactics, and the threat of general war, with or without atomic bombing, which dissuaded the Russians from attempting to march to the Atlantic.
The foregoing is not intended to suggest that the development of nuclear weapons has made no difference in the deliberations of statesmen and military leaders during the past decade. It is merely intended to imply that as a nation we have perhaps been overly impressed with the significance of nuclear weapons—impressed to the point where many feel that nothing else matters. We have been fascinated, like a bird before a snake, with the terrifying destructiveness of these weapons. But only a beginning has been made in understanding the effect of the threat of nuclear warfare on world events, and the odds are that much of what is assumed today will prove in time to have been distorted, incomplete, or imperfectly understood.
We do not know, for example, what effect the growing atomic capabilities of the Soviet Union will have on our allies and on their willingness to cooperate with us in time of crisis. We do not know what course of action the Soviet leaders might follow should a stalemate develop in weapons of mass destruction. Above all, we do not know at what point world events might reach a “critical mass” and set off a chain reaction where violence becomes self-supporting and the dreaded holocaust becomes inevitable. Diplomatic and military history throws only a very uncertain light on such questions.
One of the significant facts concerning the influence of nuclear weapons on world diplomacy which is emerging, however, is that the fear of becoming involved in an atomic war between the USSR and the United States has greatly strengthened the neutralist attitude of many countries, especially in Asia. Often when we read the speeches of some of the leaders of Free Asia we are puzzled by their logic and wonder how they can think the way they do, let alone expose their thoughts to the judgments of history. It is now becoming quite clear that the fear of suffering untold destruction in a future war between the major powers explains in large part the neutralist views of these leaders and their indulgent attitude toward Communist countries. It helps to explain why several of the most important nations of Southeast Asia—Ceylon, Indonesia, India, and Burma—refused to join SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization). It also helps to explain such unusual governmental actions as that of the Burmese Government two years ago when, in the face of acute economic difficulties, it declined any further economic aid from the United States. The Burmese Government, in seeking foreign loans, has looked to the so-called “neutral” countries, such as India and Yugoslavia—the latter of which, it should be noted, has not hesitated to accept economic assistance for itself from the West.
It is becoming increasingly clear that whatever the value of nuclear weapons in dissuading the Communist leaders from initiating a global war, the possession of these weapons by both the USSR and the United States poses the very real danger that the neutralist attitude of the countries of Free Asia will become so strong that they will concede almost anything to the Communist bloc to avoid becoming involved in a major war. This is a serious situation indeed, for the problem of dealing with international Communism is as much a question of what we do in our relations with the non-Communist world as it is a question of what we do in our relations with Russia and Communist China directly.
Hence, the possession of a large and rapidly widening family of atomic weapons, tailored to meet a variety of military requirements, is no guarantee in itself that the Communists may not gain control of the rest of Asia. In the struggle against the spread of Communism in the Far East there is a very real danger that the West, and its thermonuclear deterrent, may be outflanked and isolated by the gradual transfer of enormous territories, populations, and resources from the western to the eastern orbit without the detonation of a single weapon of mass destruction. We must constantly bear in mind when analyzing this problem that it is by a process of gradual conquest that most of the empires of history have been established.
Whatever the future in a rapidly changing world, certain basic facts remain, and with them we must cope. In the struggle for Asia one of the most significant basic facts is that the geographic features and economic structure of the Far East ensure that a major part of the fight against Communism will be for control of the sea lanes which carry the trade of Asia.
The mere statement of this fact, however, does not reveal the true nature of the struggle we face. While it is generally realized that seaborne trade is the life blood of nearly every country of Asia, both Communist and non-Communist, some of the significant features of the contest for control of the sea lanes are not always appreciated. This struggle is being waged in many interrelated fields—naval, diplomatic, economic, psychological—and if we would fight effectively we must understand the nature of the battle we face.
First of all, in the discussion of any complicated problem, it is generally advisable to begin with the obvious. In the battle for Asia it is obvious that the entire Free World position in the Far East is dependent upon the maintenance of sea supremacy in this area. Factors other than sea supremacy are of great importance, of course, but they are important only so long as the West maintains control of the sea lanes. Without sea supremacy in the Far East nothing else would matter very much.
This was made painfully clear to the American people in the early days of World War II when the Japanese overran Southeast Asia and the islands of the western Pacific. Again in 1950, at the time of the invasion of South Korea, it was apparent that without control of the surrounding waters it would have been impossible for the United Nations to intervene effectively. The present need for the Seventh Fleet in the Formosa Strait is but further evidence of the vital importance of maintaining sea supremacy in the Far East. It is no overstatement to say that SEATO would be nothing but a wishful dream without this supremacy.
The political existence and economic life of the non-Communist countries in the Far East are so dependent upon seaborne transport that the fate of the present governments would be sealed if the Communists ever gained control of the sea lanes in that area. Mohammad Hatta, the former Vice-President of Indonesia, bore witness to this fact in 1953 when he pointed out that “Indonesia is bounded by the British Navy and the American Navy which control the Indian and Pacific Oceans.” Few would doubt that democracy would have very little chance of survival in Indonesia if the day ever came when that country became “bounded” by the Russian or Chinese Communist navies. In such an event Peiping and Moscow would be in a position to bring the Government of Indonesia to terms without putting a single soldier ashore in that country.
The situation is not radically different if we consider the non-Communist countries which are actually located on the Asiatic mainland and have common frontiers with Russia or Communist China. The Communists stand at the back door of each of these countries. The sea lanes represent the front door. If Peiping and Moscow can secure control of the sea lanes upon which these countries depend for their economic life and military help from the outside world, they can, in effect, encircle them. On the other hand, as long as the sea lanes remain under Western control, the Communists will have great difficulty in isolating these countries. The “back doors” consist in almost every case of extremely rough terrain with very poor transportation facilities. One of the reasons India and Burma seem so frustratingly unconcerned about the military strength of Russia and Communist China is because their common borders consist of high mountains which permit only tortuous and difficult passage.
In this connection it should be emphasized that the Communists do not have to actually achieve naval superiority in the Far East to bring telling pressure upon the countries of Free Asia. Any sizeable increase in the naval forces of Russia and Communist China relative to the strength of the Western countries in this area could have very serious repercussions. The leaders of Free Asia are counting for their very existence on the ability of the West to keep the sea lanes open. If the Russians and Chinese Communists can achieve sufficient naval strength, especially submarine strength, to cause Free Asia to doubt the ability of the West to keep these lanes open, the leaders of the non-Communist countries will feel that their position is hopeless. We saw in the case of Czechoslovakia how easily a democratic government can fall, and a Communist government replace it, once all hope of outside help is dashed.
In one sense, at least, the submarine threat may be a more effective psychological instrument in the hands of the Communists than the air-atomic threat. We have already seen how the danger of nuclear war has strengthened the neutralist feeling in Free Asia. This has been brought about in spite of the belief in many quarters that nuclear weapons of mass destruction would not actually be used in the event of another war. As for submarines, there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that they would be used.
If there is one thing the Japanese taught the leaders of Southeast Asia in World War II, it is that any nation which can cut the sea lanes which connect Asia with the rest of the world can easily overrun the entire area. This fact was deeply impressed on the minds of the Filipinos, the Indonesians, and the Malays when they witnessed the collapse of the entire Western political and military structure in the Far East once the Japanese had attained naval superiority on the sea lanes of Asia. The memory of that experience will not be erased easily.
A second significant feature of the struggle for sea supremacy in Asia is the heavy dependence of the Soviet Union itself upon seaborne transport in the Far East. From the Chukotsk Peninsula in the extreme north to the Korean border in the south, the economic life and military strength of the Soviet Far East are heavily dependent upon seaborne transport. This is due to the fact that not only the offshore islands, such as Sakhalin and the Kuriles, but also many of the strategic points on the mainland, such as the Kamchatka and Chukotsk Peninsulas, are inaccessible by overland transport and bulk transport cannot be handled by air. Inter-urban highways, which are scarce everywhere in the Soviet Union, are virtually nonexistent in the Far Eastern regions of the USSR. The renowned Trans-Siberian Railroad runs from western USSR to Vladivostok and Nakhodka with a branch line to Komsomolsk and Sovetskaya Gavan. The rest of the Soviet Far East is without rail connections of any kind with the industrial centers of the USSR. The difficulties imposed by unfavorable climatic conditions and extremely rough terrain preclude the construction of such railroads in the foreseeable future. Hence, the shipping lanes from the rail heads at Vladivostok and Nakhodka to the centers of civil and military power in the outlying regions are the life lines of the Soviet position in this entire area.
The significance of this from a military standpoint is not hard to perceive. We are often told that, from the point of view of range, the Chukotsk Peninsula opposite Alaska provides one of the best locations for air bases from which Russian bombers could take off or stage for bombing missions against industrial centers in the United States. But this is merely a popular magazine or Sunday Supplement type of analysis. We are not often told that any air bases constructed on this peninsula must be supplied by sea because of the nonexistence of overland transport facilities and the excessive magnitude of the problems which would be encountered in attempting to supply such bases by air.
Sometimes we read that only the narrow Bering Strait separates the Chukotsk Peninsula from Alaska, the suggestion being that it would be an easy matter for Russian troops to invade Alaska. At such times we need to be reminded that any Russian troops attempting such an amphibious invasion would have to depend upon sea transport, not only for the actual invasion, but also for the pre-invasion build-up on the Chukotsk Peninsula.
The picture is essentially the same if an airborne invasion of Alaska were attempted. Because of the enormous distance between Alaska and the nearest railhead in the Soviet Union, the air bases for such an undertaking would have to be located much closer to Alaska than, say, Vladivostok. This means, of course, that they would have to be located in areas which can be supplied only by sea. Although the range of aircraft is increasing, such increases are generally accomplished by augmenting the fuel capacity and reducing the payload. Moreover, longer ranges mean longer time in the air, greater vulnerability, and weaker fighter protection. For these reasons, and others not mentioned, it is virtually inconceivable that the Soviets would attempt an airborne invasion of Alaska from any of their present railheads (e.g. Vladivostok or Sovetskaya Gavan).
From the foregoing it is evident that seaborne transport is absolutely essential to Soviet military power in the Far North. In fact, the entire position of the Russians in the eastern Arctic is dependent upon control of the sea lanes along the maritime coast of Far Eastern USSR. This is an extremely important fact in the modern air age when the polar regions have assumed such strategic importance.
Whatever economic or military problem we consider in the Soviet Far East, we are invariably forced to the conclusion that control of the sea lanes is the sine qua non of Russian power in this area. Without this control the leaders in the Kremlin not only cannot think realistically of offensive military thrusts in the Far East (e.g., against Japan), they cannot even be certain of being able to supply their own outlying areas.
A third significant feature of the struggle for sea supremacy in the Far East is that in the immediate future this struggle will not be for the sea lanes which cross the Pacific, but for the sea lanes which skirt the Asiatic Continent and for the “choke points” through which these lanes pass. We must not be lulled into complacency by the feeling that our Navy is firmly in control of the sea lanes which cross the Pacific. Admittedly, without control of the trans-Pacific trade routes our position in the Far East would be completely untenable. The outcome of the struggle for Asia, however, will be determined by which side gains control of the sea lanes along the Asiatic coastline and among the islands in that area. Should the Communists gain control of these sea lanes they would be in a position to dictate to every country of Free Asia.
Sea supremacy along the Asiatic coastline is a far different thing for us to maintain from sea supremacy in the vast Pacific Ocean. Communist merchant and naval ships plying along the coastline of Asia are constantly within range of land-based air.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the Communist leaders are endeavoring to obtain control of the sea lanes of Asia. The acquisition of southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands at the end of World War II turned the Sea of Okhotsk into a Russian lake. The 1955 exploratory talks between the USSR and Japan in London disclosed that the Russians are attempting, by diplomatic maneuvering, to exclude Western warships from the Sea of Japan. Recent Chinese Communist maps reveal that Peiping, for propaganda purposes at least, lays claim to all the island groups between Indo-China and the Philippines as far south as latitude 4°N, almost to the shore of Borneo.
The Communists also appear to be well aware of the strategic importance of certain “choke points” in Asia. They appear to be very appreciative of the fact that from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to almost the beginning of World War I, British naval power was extended to the far corners of the globe in great measure by virtue of the deliberate acquisition of sites which controlled key “choke points” through which seaborne commerce had to pass. Gibraltar, Malta, Ceylon, Singapore, and Hong Kong were acquired almost exclusively for this reason. By the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 the gateways of almost all the waters of the world, with the important exception of the Dardanelles, were held by Britain.
The Communist leaders served notice on the world in June, 1948, when they halted all rail traffic to the western zones of Berlin, that they knew how to use “choke points” for their own ends. Should they ever obtain control of the strategic “choke points” on the principal sea lanes of Asia, there can be little doubt that they would ruthlessly exploit this advantage to their own purposes. In this connection the current struggle against Communism in Indonesia and Singapore is of tremendous importance.
Indonesia stretches like a huge net across the water between the Asiatic mainland and Australia, and between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. From the northwestern tip of Sumatra through Java and the Lesser Soendas to eastern Timor—a distance of approximately 2,400 miles—the largest passage of water is only about twenty miles wide. East of Timor the islands are slightly farther apart but even there the width of the passages does not exceed seventy miles.
Because of these geographic facts, Indonesia dominates the vital sea lanes which connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans. He who controls Indonesia can exercise considerable influence over the trade of Asia. He is in a position to blockade or harass the trade between Japan and India, Ceylon and Communist China, Pakistan and the Philippines. He can also control a large part of the trade between Asia and Europe. In view of this, it is easy to see that the loss of Indonesia to the Communist camp would be a disaster of the first magnitude, in comparison with which the loss of northern Indo-China is relatively unimportant.
The Communists have made a determined bid to enlarge their influence in Indonesia. At the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in April, 1955, Chou En-lai made a great play for Indonesian friendship, using the occasion to renounce Peiping’s claims to the ethnic Chinese residing in that country and backing Indonesia’s claim to Dutch New Guinea. Communist sympathizers have from time to time achieved high positions in the Indonesian Government. In the parliamentary elections of September, 1955, the Communist Party surprised the world by polling approximately one-fifth of the total votes cast, almost enough to hold the balance of power among the other rival parties.
The Communists are also expending great effort to neutralize Singapore, another site which commands a vital “choke point” on the sea lanes of Asia. The Strait of Malacca, separating the Malay Peninsula from Sumatra, is one of the foremost shipping routes in the world, ranking with the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez and Panama Canals, and the English Channel. Singapore dominates this strait. It is also the most important halting place on the trade route from Europe to the Far East and has the best harbor and dock facilities within a thousand miles. For these reasons, it is Southeast Asia’s greatest commercial and shipping center.
The traditional pattern of shipping in this area is one in which cargo and passenger liners stop en route between East and West and unload their cargoes for local distribution by feeder services. The long sea-voyage ships belong mainly to shipowners in Europe and America. The feeder lines, which connect it with the rest of Southeast Asia, are predominantly Chinese owned.
Singapore is thus one of the key strongholds of the Free World in Asia. But there is a catch—Singapore is essentially a Chinese city. More than eighty per cent of the population of the colony is Chinese.
It would certainly be an untruth to state that all the Chinese in Singapore are united in their allegiance to Peiping. It would be fair to say, however, that the Chinese in this colony have become increasingly pro-Peiping and have moved steadily leftward.
The British never expected that self-government would come anything but gradually in Singapore, and they assumed that the process of achieving it would destroy support for Communism. As a stage in this evolution, they permitted the first elections in April, 1955. These elections were to produce for the first time a legislature with an elected majority and a responsible ministry, the British retaining control over foreign affairs, defense, security, and finance, and the Governor retaining ultimate authority. The British expected that the election would be won by the conservative and moderate parties. Instead, not only did the left-of-center, strongly anti-colonial parties win, but the election became a signal for a claim that the process toward self-government should be completed at once. The newly elected legislators consider themselves as constituting a national assembly of impatient sovereign people rather than a parliament-in-training. What is worse, the present feeling of the Chinese population is such that it is highly probable should Singapore become independent it would be not simply neutralist but under the strong influence of Communist China.
A fourth significant feature of the struggle for sea supremacy in the Far East consists of the relationship of this contest to the ideological threat to Free Asia. It is no exaggeration to say that the ideological threat to this region is as great as the military threat.
The outcome of the struggle for Asia may well be determined by the relative economic progress achieved by Communist China as opposed to the rest of Asia. Everywhere in the Far East there is poverty and with it ferment and aspiration for an improvement in living conditions. Asians today are reacting to issues and political ideologies in terms of their probable effect upon their hopes for a higher standard of living. Peiping and Moscow are trying to convince Asians that Communism is the only movement with a program drastic enough to be relevant to the economic needs of the Far East. If the Chinese Communists can demonstrate by industrial progress in China that Communist methods are faster than democratic methods, our position in the Far East may be undermined completely.
Mao-Tse-tung is now engaged in a ruthless effort to industrialize China. He is mobilizing a high percentage of the national income in the hands of the state and concentrating on heavy industry at the expense of agriculture. He is making a determined bid to win Asia by demonstrating rapid industrialization. He is presenting Communist China as the model solution for Asia’s problems of backwardness and poverty.
The cost of Mao’s policies may be hunger and starvation on a vast scale. We cannot count on this, however, to turn the tide in our favor. Agriculture is often described as the Achilles heel of the Chinese Communist economy. But while this is true, we should bear in mind that Achilles could after all walk on his heel. The Soviet Union has been walking on its agricultural Achilles heel for many years now.
The leaders in Peiping are drawing upon Russian experience and aid in their efforts toward industrialization. They have, however, an even more backward starting point than did their Russian counterparts, and a heavier defense burden. Stalin, in a corresponding period of development, used the threat of war to tighten discipline, but devoted only about one-twentieth of his budget to arms. In the latest Chinese budget, defense accounts for nearly a quarter of total expenditures. China is therefore being forced to strain its resources to the full.
The overseas Chinese, however, may turn out to be an important asset to Peiping in the contest for economic growth. There are approximately ten million people in Southeast Asia who consider themselves ethnic Chinese. Although accounting for only five or six per cent of the total population of this area, the overseas Chinese possess an importance, both actual and potential, that is far more impressive than their numbers. Over the years they have acquired increasing power in the economic life of most of the countries of Southeast Asia. In many places they have secured a near-monopoly control of both the wholesale and retail trade. Being thrifty and born traders, they have entered the banking business, the export and import trade, and the shipping industries. In Malaya, in addition to controlling pineapple and poultry raising, they own and operate more than a third of the tin mines. In Thailand they own eighty per cent of the rice mills and furnish seventy per cent of the nonagricultural labor. The complicated network of shipping lines, both steam and sail, which connects Singapore with the rest of Southeast Asia is predominantly Chinese owned.
The overseas Chinese are by no means united in their allegiance to Mao Tse-tung, but they are watching closely the great experiment underway in their homeland. Mao, since the beginning of his rule, has made increasing efforts to win these people to Communism. He has played every angle to gain their loyalty—propaganda by radio and the printed word, leadership of labor unions, infiltration of schools. He has even offered a free college education in China to the youth of the overseas Chinese.
Should a large segment of the overseas Chinese decide to throw in their lot with Communist China, the economic dislocation in Southeast Asia would be serious indeed. The important position which they occupy in the trade, banking, and shipping of that area would make it possible for Peiping to exercise great influence over the economic life of Southeast Asia.
Against this background of Chinese advantages and disadvantages, the struggle for control of the sea lanes of the Far East assumes critical importance in the economic contest between Communist China and Free Asia. All of the countries of the Far East have the sort of economies which require production for export. None of them can provide out of their own resources for even the bare minimum of industrial development required to prevent living standards from falling even further. The task is so enormous that it can only be accomplished by the closest cooperation with the technologically advanced countries of the West. Asia is rich in natural resources, but the full fruition of possessing these resources can come only with the opportunity for foreign commerce. The importance of water-borne transport to the economic development of Asia is such that there is no chance of an Asiatic country achieving a higher standard of living without overseas trade.
It is axiomatic that the more dependent a country is on overseas trade, the more vulnerable it is to sea power. This is true whether the war be “cold” or “hot,” conventional or unconventional. Hence, the side which is in control of the sea lanes and “choke points” of the Far East can exert great influence on the ideological contest in Asia by aiding the economic development of certain countries and harassing the development of others. Such control need not be expressed in anything as drastic as an actual blockade to be effective. It can take the form of administrative regulations on shipping and commerce which are expressly designed to alter the course of trade to the advantage of the side imposing them.
In summary, sea power is a major factor in the struggle for Asia. It is absolutely essential to the Free World position—military, economic, ideological. Any large increase in Communist naval strength, especially submarine strength, relative to that of the West in the Far East should be viewed with the gravest concern. The economic life of Free Asia is dependent upon the ability of the West to control the sea lanes of the Far East. If the leaders of Free Asia ever come to doubt the ability of the West to keep these sea lanes open, it will be the beginning of the end of democracy in Asia.
A graduate of the University of California with his doctorate in economics from American University, Dr. Hellner holds the rank of lieutenant commander in the U. S. Naval Reserve. He served on active duty from 1942 to 1946 as a Japanese Language Officer. Since 1948 he has been a civilian analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence.
This article, his first contribution to the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, was awarded Honorable Mention in the 1956 General Prize Essay Contest.