Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century

Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century

by Chris Parry


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908739841
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Chris Parry joined the Royal Navy as a Seaman Officer in 1972. Promoted to Rear Admiral in 2005, he then became the MOD's Director of Developments, Concepts and Doctrine. He was appointed a CBE in 2004. Now retired from the armed forces, he heads a company which specializes in geo-strategic forecasting.

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Super Highway

Sea Power in the 21st Century

By Chris Parry, Maltings Partnership Derby

Elliott and Thompson Limited

Copyright © 2014 Chris Parry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908739-85-8


Globalisation and Sea Power

'When man ceased to look upon streams, rivers, and seas as barriers and learned to use them as highways, he made a giant stride toward civilization. The waterways of the world provided a new mobility – to man himself, later to the products of his toil and skill, and at all times to his ideas.'

Until the early modern period, oceanic travel was the exception rather than the rule, with only the Arabs and the Chinese venturing beyond the coastal regions of their known and familiar horizons, and not far beyond. Apart from the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, Europeans had made the Atlantic coast of their continent the limit of their ambition, with settlement of Greenland and Iceland and what proved to be unsustainable ventures beyond into the vastness of the North Atlantic.

This situation changed in the wake of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 and the 'Reconquista' of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, leaving the Western European monarchies free from the threat of external predators (if not struggles among themselves) and able to speculate about what the Atlantic might offer. The voyages and explorations of Columbus, Magellan and da Gama, at the start of the early modern period, kicked off the process of globalisation as Europe began to reach out across the oceans and the world became increasingly connected through the medium of the sea. As these maritime ventures continued to expand, states were able to take advantage of the new opportunities opening up in terms of trade routes, the exploitation of resources and the ability to exert military influence on the oceans. The fortunes of states became linked to their ability to access and exploit the seas, with globalisation, hand-in-hand with the development of sea power, becoming the driving force for imperial ambition and economic success.

The period led to the formation and growth of successive world-spanning maritime empires. Great Britain built and maintained an extensive empire through the maintenance of a network of markets and colonies, fuelled by trade, whose security and integrity were guaranteed by the barrels of naval guns and the cutlasses of its semi-mythic naval heroes. Although the maritime empires of Spain, Portugal, then the Dutch, French and English faced opposition and challenge in turn, not least from each other, no other power outside Europe or the Americas had the technical, organisational and industrial capacity to break the monopoly of sea power held by the Western world. The only non-Western power that ever came close to establishing a maritime-based empire, but only on a regional basis, was Japan in the Second World War. Its success was temporary and dependent on the peculiar conditions that prevailed while Britain and the USA were distracted by the necessity of defeating Nazi Germany and its Axis allies in Europe. Western maritime dominance resumed, this time led by the USA, although the European empires did not long survive the austerities that afflicted the home countries and the nationalist aspirations of their former colonies.


Until the time of the great oceanic voyages of the fifteenth century, maritime dominance had been always regional in its extent and ambition, constrained by the limitations of naval technology, an imperfect understanding of oceanic weather patterns and the presence of substantial regional powers determined to hold their own against interlopers. The limited maritime operations of the Greeks and Romans in the Mediterranean, with their extensions into the Black Sea and Red Sea and onto the Atlantic coast, disappeared amid the collapse of the classical world. In the ensuing fragmentation and instability, the idea of a securely navigable, accessible and interconnected world suffered something of a setback as both maritime and intellectual horizons closed down considerably. These gave way to contested sea-spaces and trading routes in the Mediterranean and around the Atlantic coast, occupied by no single dominant power and menaced by raiders, predatory warlords and dynastic rivalry.

The next phase, from the ninth century, was characterised by the rise of Italian maritime city-states (notably Venice, Genoa and Pisa), successively trading with the Levant and helping themselves to the spoils of the Crusades and the break-up of the Byzantine Empire. The key to sea power in the pre-modern era was the ability to maintain a balance between the need to sustain a profitable trading fleet in times of peace and stability and the ability to generate sufficient fighting power in wartime. Meanwhile, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean were controlled without serious opposition or competition – apart from the threat from pirates – by the warships and merchants of Islam, whose coercive power dominated the Red Sea, the western Indian Ocean and whose commercial reach extended to India and China.

Further East, Chinese imperial regimes, notably the Song and Ming dynasties, held most of what we now know as South East Asia and East Asia in a tribute-based political and economic system, whose power at sea was built around intricate trading networks, a huge fleet of powerful warships and the resources of the world's largest economy. Chinese ships at the time of the Ming emperors were rightly famous and remarked upon by European commentators. At about 120 m (400 ft) in length, with up to nine masts, watertight bulkheads and innovative technologies, they dwarfed comparable Western models, both in scale and sophistication. Such was the maritime dominance of the Ming dynasty fleets that, in the early fifteenth century, the great Ming Navy consisted of 3,500 vessels, 2,700 of which were warships stationed along the length of the coast of China.

Any account of China's maritime heritage has to mention Zheng He, a eunuch admiral, who commanded powerful 'treasure' fleets, comprising warships and merchantmen, on a succession of wide-ranging tribute-collecting, exploratory and trading voyages between 1405 and 1433. The scope of his operations extended to the Gulf and East Africa in the west, to all of South East Asia and to the Malaysian and Indonesian archipelagoes. Gavin Menzies in his book 1421 would have us believe that he went even further than that, but the argument would appear to become progressively more circumstantial, though no less engaging, the further the book, and its hero, travel from China.

However, Chinese maritime dominance only effectively extended to the South China Sea and coastal waters. Expeditions and trading that took in East Asia, the Indian Ocean and East Africa were less controllable and secure, as much of the trade was in the hands of Muslim merchants, who had a particularly strong grip on the Indian Ocean and the routes to the Indies. The Chinese never sought to challenge Muslim control of this trade; forward bases or emporiums were never established to offset the logistical challenges of projecting and sustaining power so far away. The Chinese knew about Europe, but were emphatically a regional power; they did not need anything from beyond their region, except what they chose to import on their own terms by means of middlemen.

Chinese sea power foundered on ideology and political partisanship. The philosophy of Confucianism emphasised the virtue of agriculture and was decidedly sniffy about the benefits to be gained from commercial activity and trade, while condemning the baleful consequences of contact with culturally inferior foreigners. As a result, even under the first Ming emperor, who was a strong believer in sea power, maritime trade and some foreign goods were banned and tribute was the only commodity that could legally be carried into Chinese ports by foreign ships. Other reasons for the decline of such a formidable ocean-going capability were linked to the power politics within the Imperial Court and economic stresses. Indeed, they have a familiar modern ring to them and present an instructive parable to our ears today. Factional disputes at court (party politics) and a hostile Confucian bureaucracy eventually scuppered the sea expeditions, limiting ship size and civilian participation in overseas trade (over-regulation), with the result that shipyards for large ocean-going junks were closed (industrial decline and loss of sovereign capacity) and Chinese naval technology lost its momentum (loss of research and development). By the sixteenth century, few shipwrights knew how to build the large ocean-going ships (loss of industrial expertise and skills). The development of guns and cannon also slowed, allowing the European powers to outmatch the Chinese in firepower. Finally, the expenditure on Chinese naval capability could not easily be justified in the absence of an opponent that presented a similar level of threat (also eerily familiar). As a result, the Chinese progressively lost their technological edge over the West, never to regain it.

The decline of Chinese maritime power and presence left the seas open for Europe. In 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople (Istanbul) and for eighty years they and their co-religionists along the North African littoral fought with Christian Europe for maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean. By the closing years of the sixteenth century, this struggle was effectively over – in the short run, after the Turks were firstly repulsed at Malta in 1565 and then defeated in the last major fleet action involving galleys at Lepanto in 1571 and, in the long run, once technically and tactically superior types of vessels, guns and technologies were introduced by the Europeans.

Thus, at almost exactly the same time as European seamen started to expand their horizons and probe the possibilities offered by oceanic travel, the pre-eminent maritime power and presence of the time, Imperial China, made a strategic decision to turn its back on globalisation and sea power and withdraw into a state of self-regarding self-sufficiency. Two centuries or more later, China would be wrenched into the global system, like it or not, according to the will of those maritime powers that did grasp the opportunities – and overcome the challenges – of globalisation.


Amid this pattern of regionally based political, cultural and economic systems, at what point do we identify the first inkling of globalisation, the earliest moment at which most of the people in the world knew that they were capable of being connected to most of the other people in the world? At what point in time did humanity gain an understanding of the global nature of its existence and an awareness of the existence and shape of most of the inhabited land masses? Adam Smith, with his good sense about most things, probably got it right: 'The discovery of America and that of a passage to the East Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.'

It is clear that the super highway really gets going in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, a remarkable period in the history of globalisation and sea power, with attempts by the Europeans living on the Atlantic coast to gain access by sea to Oriental markets that overland were dominated by hostile powers, Italian middlemen and high prices. It is worth remembering that, before those events, no one is recorded as having any meaningful knowledge of the existence and extent of the north and south halves of the American continent. When the early explorers set out from late medieval Europe, they travelled more in hope than in expectation. Indeed, in 1492, when Christopher Columbus, the 'discoverer' of America, landed on an even now unidentified island in the Bahamas, he thought that he had reached China. He quickly realised that he had discovered an island and his next expedition from there set out to prove that he could still reach China by sea. He was still not aware that America was in the way and continued to be remarkably steadfast in his original pursuit of a direct route to China. If the giant land mass of America and its offshore islands had not been in the way, we probably would never have heard of Columbus again, except as a footnote in the history of the joint reign of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

Oceanic routes had not been attempted before because technology and the accumulated store of human knowledge did not encourage extended voyages to be undertaken with confidence. There were also insufficient incentives to bypass familiar trade routes, by risking life and fortune on the high seas. In this sense, it is significant that Columbus was the first seafarer to demonstrate the viability of linking continents by oceanic travel. All previous trading and movements of people had occurred over land or along coastlines by ships probing short distances at a time, as with Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese explorers. As far as possible, they had maintained close contact with the land or had used known features to navigate from point to point all the way down the west coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. This willingness and ability to navigate successfully across the oceans represented the point at which trade went intercontinental and viral and the process of globalisation began. The oceans were the decisive facilitator of globalisation.

Oceanic travel and trade were made possible for Europeans by the arrival of sturdier ocean-going ships, new arrangements of sails and more reliable compasses and charts, which enabled voyages to reach out further into the Atlantic and along the African coast. Significant improvements to cannon and firearms arrived at just the right time to deal with any hostile or uncooperative elements that might be encountered. With their experience of life at sea in the Mediterranean, the Spanish and the Portuguese knew that if they wanted to trade, they needed to be prepared to fight. There were hostile potentates, pirates and brigands out there, not to mention various terrors of the deep (all graphically illustrated in the blank areas and margins of charts) that might require some careful handling. Coupled with the sailing characteristics of their late fifteenth-century ships, this technological edge gave European seamen in remote, uncharted waters a decided superiority in terms of manoeuvre and in the use of organised violence in support of their trading and other speculative ventures. It is an edge that Western countries have been careful to preserve throughout the centuries.

The subsequent age of exploration and colonisation saw countries becoming richer and more powerful through increasing levels of exchange. In a competitive market, it was always likely that power struggles would break out between the maritime rivals. When sea powers clashed, the country with the most skilled seamen and the most effective, innovative use of its ships and guns usually prevailed. In particular, the possession of relatively rapid-firing, reliable guns and more manoeuvrable designs of fighting ship saw the progressive defeat of countries that relied on boarding and fighting land battles at sea. Ships were now able to stand well clear of their opponents and either sink or pound them into submission. Thus, the English were able to defeat the Spanish in the Armada year of 1588 and in a whole series of running fights the length and breadth of the Americas, just as the Portuguese had defeated the forces of Islam at the Battle of Diu in the Indian Ocean earlier in the century.


Increasing levels of bitter rivalry and power struggles between the European nations, as they all continued to attempt to exert their power on the seas, had resulted in serious demarcation disputes and highlighted the need for some form of international agreements regarding access to the seas, trade and transport. In the marginal balance of risk and reward, conditions of anarchy and free-for-all in the remote regions of the sea were not in any country's interest, least of all those with what would now be called 'first-mover advantage'.

In 1494, the Pope, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, allowed Spain and Portugal exclusive rights to travel and trade globally to the west and east respectively of an arbitrary and geographically doubtful line drawn down the Atlantic. The treaty was of course only applicable and enforceable if the two countries had the will and power to prevent intrusions and infractions. The determination and ability of the English, the French and the Dutch over the next century to circumvent the cosy Iberian arrangement reflected a combination of entrepreneurial initiative, religious zeal (after the Reformation began to take hold) and commercial opportunity, as well as the complicity, indifference and occasional energetic and clumsy reprisals of the colonial authorities and mother countries. Interlopers were always liable to be caught out under the 'catch me if you can' principle, and outright war from time to time complicated things still further. There was good money to be made where legal theory came up against commercial impulse, private ambition and consumer demand in an environment that was indifferently policed. Legal theory came off decidedly worse.

On 25 February 1603, three ships from the Dutch East India Company seized an anchored Portuguese merchant ship, the Santa Catarina, off the coast of what is now Singapore. As Portugal had been absorbed into the Spanish crown in 1580 and the Netherlands was at war with Spain, the Dutch presumably did not take long to assess that the ship was fair game. This view was probably encouraged by the likelihood that she was carrying valuable cargo. Having captured her after a stiff fight of a few hours, it transpired that the Santa Catarina had 1,200 bales of Chinese raw silk and a substantial amount of musk on board. A quick calculation established that the value of this cargo would more than double the capital of the Dutch East India Company.


Excerpted from Super Highway by Chris Parry, Maltings Partnership Derby. Copyright © 2014 Chris Parry. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Globalisation and Sea Power,
2. Today's Global Super Highway,
3. Sea Power Today,
4. A Changing Seascape,
5. New Opportunities,
6. New Technologies,
7. Security at Sea,
8. Strategic Competition,
9. Maritime Warfare,
10. What's a Country to Do?,
Select Bibliography,
Picture Credits,

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