Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans

Admiral James Stavridis (ret.), Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. New York City: Columbia University Press, 2017, 384 pages. $18.00/hardcover.

By Chad Pillai

Since the dawn of civilization, the seas have been a part of the human story. It has shaped commerce, the spread of ideas, and even wars. When someone thinks of geography, they usually associate it with features on land and its impact on mankind. However, the seas and by extension the oceans have played a bigger role since they are nature’s super highways that have and continue to connect far flung landmasses and people together. Where the oceans have met the land, especially areas that present an opportunity to constrict movement, represent key terrain known as chokepoints for people and nations to control and benefit while denying others such privilege.

The private intelligence company known as Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR) recently published a report titled “The Geopolitics of Maritime Chokepoints” that states, “Area where geography constrict movement by land or water, known as chokepoints, has been fought over time immemorial…for most of history, commerce and military ambition were limited to small localities and confined regions. In these contexts, contested chokepoints usually meant points where roads or rivers narrowed enough to allow disruption by hostile actors…while land and riverine chokepoints are still relevant to business and military planners, maritime chokepoints have taken center stage in power politics.” This precise explanation on the importance of maritime chokepoints fits well with Admiral (Retired) James Stavridis’s new book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. While many cite Harold Mackinder, the twentieth century British geographer who coined the term “World Island” for Eurasia (and updated recently by Robert Kaplan as Afro-Eurasia) and the warnings associated with its dominance, the real maximum should be the nation that controls the seas and the chokepoints dominates the world. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has been that nation.

Before I discuss Sea Power, I recommend all readers enjoy the book with a glass of scotch, or whatever libation suites them, a cigar, and a map of the world to visualize the geography and its associated history. Sea Power is part biography of Admiral Stavridis’s career in the Navy, part history of the world’s oceans influence on mankind, and part modern geopolitical analysis impacting foreign relations, global economics, and military strategy. In his opening chapter, Admiral Stravridis states his central thesis when he writes that “Some observers may not be interested in the geopolitics of the oceans, but they will haunt our policy and our choices in this turbulent twenty-first century. The oceans will matter deeply to every aspect of human endeavor.” Along those lines, George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR and GEOPOLITICAL FUTURES, and Jacob Shapiro, wrote that “Geopolitics is the supposition that all international relationships are based on the interaction between geography and power.” The oceans as geopolitical entities has shaped mankind’s quest for power and glory throughout the ages because they have served as the highways that have linked distant civilizations and made commerce both possible and profitable between them, which caused competition and friction that have led to war. To highlight the history and geopolitics of the oceans, Admiral Stavridis takes the reader on an oceanic voyage across the world by focusing the chapters on four oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic) and three seas (Mediterranean, South China Sea, and Caribbean).

The advantage the United States has, according to Admiral Stavridis, is that it can look at the oceans from a strategic sense by elaborating that “while the essence of sea power is the connective power of the unity of the oceans into a single global commons, there are historical, cultural, political, economic, and military reasons to think about each from a strategic perspective.” The United States grapples with an increasingly complex security environment described as contested norms and persistent disorder according to the Joint Operating Environment. It is being challenged to develop a strategy to maintain the world order it established post-WWII. Admiral Stavridis provides the reader with a chapter proposing “A Naval Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The central premise of the strategy is that the United States, the “World Island,” enjoys a geopolitical competitive advantage over challengers such as China and Russia. Their persistent vulnerabilities from lack of warm-water ports to being enclosed by island chains and chokepoints allows the U.S. and its allies and partners to, “contain powerful nations that have concentrated their use of forces ashore, ignoring the sea out of lack of interests, or an inability to see the force of the sea power argument, or simply because the lack the geography, character, and political will to exploit the oceans.”

The Russians and the Chinese are not standing idle though when it comes to sea power as both nations have increased their investment in their naval capabilities. As I wrote previously for CIMSEC, with China opening its first overseas base in Djibouti, the critical chokepoint at the mouth of the Red Sea and Russia’s active military engagement in Syria, both are setting the conditions to potentially counter U.S. influence in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf Region. As the Joint Force continues to develop the Multi-Domain Battle Concept, there is potential to utilize maritime geography to our advantage. This ranges from employing long-range land-based surface-to-sea missiles to hold Russian and Chinese naval forces at risk (a reversal of their A2/AD concepts), exploiting vulnerabilities in undersea cables, practicing “hybrid warfare—disruption and degradation with little overt engagement,” to the employment and aggregation of land forces from multiple locations to create complex dilemmas. Admiral Stavridis states that we should follow “Mahan’s advice to keep a weather eye on the rising power of both of these potential competitors at sea and maintain the ability to defeat both.”

The author had the privilege of attending a meeting between Admiral (Retired) James Stavridis, then the Supreme Allied Commander – Europe (SACEUR) and the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (CJCS) General Joseph Dunford, then Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. He also had the humorous privilege of being present at NATO HQ in Brussels when former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the Stavridis as General Stavridis while doing his best to not look shocked or surprise. (Photo courtesy of Chad Pillai)

Throughout the book and especially in his final chapter on a twenty-first century naval strategy, Admiral Stavridis balances his approach by highlighting both the dangers and opportunities for the U.S. due to its unique geographical location and how its economic, military, and political might give it the means and opportunity to shape and influence the development of regional powers across the globe. The geopolitics of the oceans, its “supposition on geography and power” stated by George Friedman and Jacob Shapiro, ensure that the oceans will play a critical role in the national security decision-making of the U.S. and other global powers. Tim Marshall in his book Prisoners of Geography succulently reinforces this proposition when he wrote that, “as the twenty-first century progresses, the geographical factors that have shaped our history will mostly continue to determine our future.”

As an Army Strategist who studies the nature of war and character of war, I have a profound appreciation of the world’s oceans and their geopolitical significance. And while I may not root for Navy during Army-Navy football games, I know full well that America’s Army cannot win without America’s Navy.

Lieutenant Colonel Chad M. Pillai is an Army Strategist stationed at Macdill Air Force Base who has previously contributed to CIMSEC with the following articles: “Counter Influence Activities to U.S. posture in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf,” “India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order,” and “Bear, Dragon & Eagle: Russian, Chinese & U.S. Military Strategies.” He holds a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies (SAIS).

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government agency.

Featured Image: NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly captured this nighttime image of the Persian Gulf and Nile River, which empties into the Mediterranean amid the bright lights of Cairo and the Nile Delta. (Credit: NASA)

The Royal Navy and Freedom of Navigation Operations

By Pete Barker

In July, two major announcements were made renewing the Royal Navy’s commitment to the principle of freedom of navigation in the coming years. Firstly, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Right Honourable Michael Fallon, told Reuters that Britain was intending to send a warship to the South China Sea in 2018. The Defence Secretary explicitly stated that, “we have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it.” In a direct reference to China, he added, “we won’t be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea.” Shortly afterward, the Foreign Secretary, the Right Honourable Boris Johnson, announced that the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers (the first of which is currently undergoing sea trials in UK waters) would deploy to the Pacific region to conduct freedom of navigation operations “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigations through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.” This statement develops remarks made by Sir Kim Darroch, the UK Ambassador in Washington DC, at the end of last year.

The significance of these declarations by senior government ministers and diplomats should not be underestimated. Indeed, they have provoked a swift reaction from Chinese officials who have warned countries from outside the region from stirring up trouble. In a barely-veiled reference to recent UK military operations, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated pointedly, “Whoever they are, under whatever pretexts and whatever they say, their precedents of interfering in other regions on high-sounding reasons but only leaving behind chaos and humanitarian disaster warrant sharp alert of regional countries and people.” 

Freedom of navigation is not a recently discovered concept for the British. When a Spanish ambassador had the temerity to complain to Queen Elizabeth I about the voyages of Sir Francis Drake in the Pacific Ocean in the sixteenth century, she replied with one of the clearest early statements on the freedom of the seas: “The use of the sea and air is common to all; neither can any title to the ocean belong to any people or private man, for as much as neither nature nor regard of the public use permitteth any possession thereof.”1 Although her successor to the throne, King James I, flirted with the idea of nations having dominion over the oceans (mainly to protect Scottish fishing rights), it was still accepted that prohibiting innocent passage would be contrary to the dictates of humanity.2 By the early seventeenth century, Britain, by then a major maritime power, had recognized the benefits of oceans being open to all and has been a loyal adherent to this policy for the past 350 years. In the twentieth century, this commitment manifested itself during the negotiations which produced the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UK diplomats made significant contributions to the development of some key concepts relating to freedom of navigation, such as the right of transit passage through international straits, later adopted by all the signatory nations.3

Although the UK has supported freedom of navigation as a matter of principle for centuries, its economic and practical impact for a leading world economy should not be ignored. The two are inextricably linked. In a recent address to a multi-national workshop on freedom of navigation and the law of the sea at the U.S. Naval War College, noted University of Virginia professor Ambassador John Norton Moore (ret.), a member of the U.S. 1982 UNCLOS negotiating team, stated that the provisions of the treaty “for freedom of navigation are of the utmost importance in protecting global trade, one of the core mechanisms for global economic growth.” The United Nations estimated that in 2011, nearly half of the world’s annual trade by sea passed through the Malacca Straits and the adjacent South China Sea. The economic arguments for maintaining navigational rights in this region are unassailable, especially as the UK develops new trading relationships with Asian partners following its planned withdrawal from the European Union.

Historically, the UK has not conducted a formal program of freedom of navigation operations in the manner that the U.S. has. Of course, ships of the Royal Navy exercise their legal rights through the waters of the world on a daily basis, whether transiting through key straits or conducting innocent passage through territorial waters of coastal states. Their presence provides security for commercial shipping of all nations that are exercising similar rights. The exercise of these rights is no different to the navy of any other country in the world (Chinese ships recently transited through the Dover Straits on their way to conduct exercises in the Baltic, a practice also seen from Russian ships). However, by highlighting these operations years in advance, the UK has given them added strategic significance. This approach does not form part of the U.S. program. Current U.S. policy seems to be that such operations are only confirmed retrospectively in the annual Department of Defense report. On the basis of announcements to date, the UK seems to be taking a more overt and open approach to the conduct of freedom of navigation tasking. As noted by Dr. Euan Graham, the use of an aircraft carrier would also be a significant change from current U.S. tactics.

The actual operations are unlikely to appear dramatic and will probably be similar to those conducted by U.S. ships under Presidents Obama and Trump. One of the key considerations for the UK will be to clearly articulate what is being challenged by any particular operation to avoid inadvertently strengthening illegitimate claims (as discussed by Professor James Kraska in relation to U.S. operations here). In all likelihood, these operations will consist of straightforward passages possibly coupled with routine exercises such as a man overboard drill although such operational decisions are clearly speculative at this stage. But these actions speak louder than words. They demonstrate the resolve of the UK to maintain the rule of law at sea throughout the world, to support partner nations in the region which are committed to this concept (including countries such as Japan and India), and to continue a historic association with one of the oldest norms of international law. The UK has designated 2017 as the “Year of the Navy” and this commitment to conducting freedom of navigation operations halfway around the world shows both the value that is placed on this right and the resurgent capability of the Royal Navy to take action to preserve these freedoms.

Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker is a serving Royal Navy officer and barrister. He is currently the Associate Director for the Law of Coalition Warfare at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law (@StocktonCenter), part of the U.S. Naval War College.  He can be contacted at

This post is written in a personal capacity and the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Ministry of Defence or the UK government.


1. Camden, Annales, 225 (ed. 1635) quoted on page 107 of Thomas Wemyss Fulton, The Sovereignty of the Sea, William Blackwood and Sons, 1911

2. Ruth Lapidoff, Freedom of Navigation – Its Legal History and Its Normative Basis, 6 J.Mar. L. & Com. 1975, p.268

3. Clyde Sanger, “Ordering the Oceans: The making of the law of the sea”, University of Toronto Press, 1987, page 95

Featured Image: Prime Minister Theresa May visits HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Queen Elizabeth made her first entry into her home port of Portsmouth. The Prime Minister went on board and met with members of the crew and addressed the ship’s company
(Jay Allen)

Announcing the DC Lightning Rounds Lineup

By Scott Cheney-Peters

The last gasps of DC’s humid summer means it’s time for CIMSEC’s Summer Lightning Rounds: 5 minute presentations by CIMSEC members on their current work in the maritime security world or maritime security challenges they’re grappling with. Join us in the back of the Barracks Row staple The Ugly Mug to mingle, hear the following fine folks sharing a bit of their interests or work from across the maritime spectrum, or consider discussing a bit of your own:

Timothy Walton
Heather Havens
B. A. Friedman
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez
Elizabeth Mitchell
Katie Burkhart
Mike McEleney
Elsa Kania
James Hasik
Sam Bendett
Harry Krejsa
John “Patsy” Klein
Justin Goldman
Gina Fiore
Joe McReynolds
And more!

If you’re interested in participating as a presenter or would like to RSVP, please contact All are welcome.

Time: Thursday, 28 Sep, 6:00-8:00pm; presentations will begin approximately 6:30.

Place: The Ugly Mug 723 8th St SE (Eastern Market Metro stop on the Blue/Orange/Silver Line)

The Ugly Mug First Look 09.20.16. Photo Credit: Nicholas Karlin








Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation

Andreas Rupprecht and Tom Cooper. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2012. 256pp. $64.95

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN

Over the past two decades, the term “modernization” has been widely used by foreign affairs experts, military and political leaders, and intelligence analysts to describe the startling rapidity of the Chinese military’s rise from an arguably primitive force to one of the most technologically-advanced militaries in the world. In his article, “China: A Threat or a Challenge: Its Air Power Potential”, Indian Air Marshall RS Bedi describes modernization as “a dynamic process to keep abreast with the latest” (Bedi, p3). By applying lessons learned from its military actions against U.S. forces during the Korean War and observations made during later conflicts such as Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, NATO operations in the Balkans, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the PLA have kept abreast of the significant role of airpower in modern warfare. Accordingly, both the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) have quickly progressed through this “dynamic process” and have emerged as a force capable of countering American and regional neighbor land- and sea-based airpower, including aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, and long-range bombers. Via informative writing and a litany of glorious, colored and black & white photographs, Modern Chinese Warplanes leads readers along the PLA air forces’ progressive path toward today’s modernized force. Chock full of vivid and informative photographs, readers are immediately transfixed. To invoke a classic adage, if a picture speaks a thousand words, then even a cursory flip through the pages reveals a stunning, photographic summary and leaves the reader eager to investigate the accompanying text.

The first chapter of Modern Chinese Warplanes is dedicated to describing the origins, progressions, and even setbacks of both the PLAAF and the PLANAF, thus providing succinct yet informative context toward understanding how remarkable the modernization of China’s air forces has been. Although the PLAAF and PLANAF were established in 1949 and 1952 respectively, it could be argued that the modernization of today’s force was born from the compelling wake-up call presented to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership during the 1991 U.S.-led military operations in Iraq. Using Rupprecht and Cooper’s description, U.S. operations in Iraq “shocked the PLA into the realization that it had to become capable of engaging in high-tech warfare or otherwise face the certainty of falling ever further behind other modern militaries.” This marked a momentous shift in Chinese national military strategy and the subsequent 1993 issuance of the “The Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” by the CCP and PLA. Thus, if 1993 can be considered the start of China’s current military modernization period, the mere 24-year rise in military capabilities of the PLA, arguably now on par with the world’s leading military forces, is even more remarkable.

After Chapter 1’s useful historical context, Rupprecht and Cooper use Chapters 2 through 6 to succinctly present the book’s stated objective: to provide “a summary of the Chinese air arms as they are today, what equipment they operate, and how this equipment is organized.” Chapters two and three both describe and illustrate China’s modern combat aircraft, combat support aircraft, and associated armament. Chapter two’s introductory pages aptly describe Chinese aviation nomenclature and unique designations but then seemingly gloss over China’s numerous aircraft manufacturing companies. Admittedly this area is outside the scope of Modern Chinese Warplanes; however, readers seeking additional information regarding Chinese aircraft manufacturing companies would benefit by combining this book with The Chinese Air Force; Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities by National Defense University Press (Hallion). The remainder of Chapters two and three however, present information that is well-researched and effectively organized into an almost encyclopedic presentation of each aircraft’s unique characteristics, performance parameters, and weaponry. The vibrant pictures and charts are wonderfully placed and provide ample relevance. An especially intriguing inclusion within Chapter 2, especially to military analysts and aircraft enthusiasts, is the sections entitled “Future” at the conclusion of each aircraft’s narrative. These paragraphs provide the reader with tantalizing hints regarding future aircraft developments, variants, and designations – details that would need to be expounded upon in a possible update. Additionally, Chapter four provides a highly-informative explanation of PLA aircraft markings and serial number systems – information neither readily available nor widely understood.

The only thing going against Modern Chinese Warplanes is time, for today the term “modern,” as the book’s title implies, is especially fleeting regarding the modernization of the Chinese military and its air forces. Since the book’s 2012 publication date, further reflected in the 2012 Order of Battle in chapters five and six, numerous changes have occurred within China’s political and military structures that, if the authors and publisher do not address, will quickly render this book irrelevant: In November 2012, Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency and chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), quickly embarking on a campaign to reorganize the PLA, including restructuring the existing military regions. This effort was realized in February 2016 as the seven military regions described in Modern Chinese Warplanes were reorganized into five theater commands – a reorganization which also affected the subordinate command structures (Wuthnow). Additionally, in 2013–2014, China initiated substantial dredging and land reclamation projects in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

These efforts continued, despite international backlash and in the face of a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague in July 2016 which officially stated that China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters of the South China Sea (SCS) had no legal basis. Today, these projects have resulted in three highly-functional artificial islands which are strategically located in the southern portion of the SCS and are fully capable of hosting Chinese military aircraft (Kyodo). Furthermore and more specifically, the PLA has accelerated its 4th and 5th-generation aircraft and armament development programs; therefore, many of the programs or technologies only hinted at within the pages of Modern Chinese Warplanes such as the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, Shenyang J-15 aircraft carrier-based fighter, and the Xian Y-20 heavy transport aircraft have rapidly progressed to the point of entering service in the PLAAF and/or PLANAF (Adams).

Finally, the PLA continues to initiate or expand military aviation and armament developmental programs. Modern Chinese Warplanes needs to be updated to further reflect the ongoing advances in PLAAF and PLANAF aviation platforms and technologies such as the Shenyang J-31 “Gyrfalcon”/”Falcon Hawk” stealth fighter (Fisher), the CJ-20 long-range land-attack cruise missile (LACM), and the YJ-12 long-range anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) (Roblin).

In Modern Chinese Warplanes, the authors do not dive deep into foreign affairs or military strategy, nor do they embark on theorizing on how the aircraft are or will be operationally integrated into the PLA – foreign affairs experts, military analysts, and political strategists will find little usefulness here. Readers seeking to expand into air power operational integration would benefit by also reading Chapter five of China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities by Peter Dutton, Andrew Erickson, and Ryan Martinson (Dutton). However, military analysts, history buffs, and even aircraft model aficionados will discover a wonderful and colorful addition to their collection – as a quick reference or an immersive interlude – likely resulting in many dog-eared pages. For any military enthusiast looking to expand his or her knowledge of modern Chinese aviation, this book is certainly a handy reference; however, it should not stand on its own but rather serve as a springboard toward additional research. If not already in the works, this reader personally hopes the authors and publisher collaborate and embark on revised editions that includes updated information and equally stunning photographs so that the 2012 version of Modern Chinese Warplanes will not be lost to the annals of time but rather, much like the PLA itself, will continue “in a process of sustained reform and modernization.”  

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently within the Directorate for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet. His opinions do not represent those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy.


Adams, Eric. “China’s New Fighter Jet Can’t Touch the US Planes It Rips Off”; Wired; 07 NOV 2016.

Bedi, R.S. “China: A Threat or a Challenge:  Its Air Power Potential”; Indian Defense Review; 08 March 2017.

Dutton, Peter, Andrew S. Erickson, and Ryan Martinson. China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities. Newport: U.S. Naval War College; China Maritime Studies, 2014.

Fisher, Richard D Jr. “New details emerge on Shenyang FC-31 fifth-generation export fighter”; IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly; 09 NOV 2016.

Hallion, Richard, P., Roger Cliff, and Phillip C. Saunders. The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2012.

Kyodo News. “China tests 2 more airfields in South China Sea”; posted 14 July 2016.

Roblin, Sebastien. “China’s H-6 Bomber: Everything You Want to Know about Beijing’s ‘B-52’ Circling Taiwan”; The National Interest; 18 DEC 2016.

Rupprecht, Andreas, and Tom Cooper. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2012.

Wuthnow, Joel and Phillip C. Saunders. “Chinese Military Reform in the Age of Xi Jinping: Drivers, Challenges, and Implications”; National Defense University Press; March 2017.

Featured Image: A J-31 stealth fighter (background) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force lands on a runway after a flying performance at the 10th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, in this November 11, 2014 file photo. (Reuters/Alex Lee)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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