Donald Trump must reassert US control of the seas

Donald Trump must reassert US control of the seas, by Roger Boyles.

Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s adviser, said recently there was “no doubt” that Beijing and Washington would go to war in the next five to 10 years in the South China Sea. Well, Bannon’s predictions are not etched in stone; there is nothing inevitable about this particular clash.

But what is true is that strategic planners in the US, China, Japan and Britain are seriously worried about maritime warfare. Because of the long lead time in developing weapons and constructing warships, decisions are having to be taken today to hedge against a devastating battle on the high seas.


The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson started patrolling in the disputed South China Sea this week

Trump’s opponents talk as if his presidency will be uniquely dangerous to the world. His strained relationship with the ­intelligence community could nudge the US into war by miscalculation. More likely, I think, is that Trump will preside over an ­interregnum, one that bridges the strategic retreats of Barack Obama and a future president who will have to face down a hardening China and an unstable post-Putin Russia.

The most interesting part of Bannon’s prediction is that the showdown would be in “five to 10 years”. That’s another way of saying his boss will not be a war president. If Trump understands how short his term will be (given that he’s 70 it will probably be a one-term presidency) then he should be using the time to shore up US defences.

South China Sea

Under Obama, China made nonsense of the notion that there should be free passage in international waterways. It transformed atolls, sandbanks and small islands into military bases — all without incurring sanctions. Trump needs to reset the terms of that relationship. For a long time, the US enjoyed command of what has been called the “commons” — that is, it could move unrestrained on and under the seas and in the air above a height of 4500m. Crucially, it also had the muscle to keep any other state from having this power.