An aerial view of cargo ships in Hong Kong harbor.
Nik Wheeler / Corbis / Getty

The World’s Most Important Body of Water

More than most, four men shaped the oft-cited “strategic tensions” over the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is the most important body of water for the world economy—through it passes at least one-third of global trade. It is also the most dangerous body of water in the world, the place where the militaries of the United States and China could most easily collide.

Chinese and American warships have just barely averted several incidents there over the past few years, and the Chinese military has warned off U.S. jets flying above. In July, the two nations carried out competing naval exercises in those waters. Given what is called the growing “strategic rivalry” between Washington and Beijing, the specter of an accident that in turn triggers a larger military confrontation preoccupies strategists in both capitals.

These tensions grow out of a disagreement between the two countries as to whether the South China Sea is Chinese territory, a quarrel that speaks to a deeper dispute about maritime sovereignty, how it is decided upon, and the fundamental rights of movement in those waters.

The standoff over the South China Sea thus has many levels of complexity. It is not simply about one body of water, or a single boundary. As Tommy Koh, a senior Singaporean diplomat who led negotiations to create the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, told me, “the South China Sea is about law, power, and resources, and about history.”

That history is haunted in particular by four ghosts, long-departed men from centuries past whose shadows fall across the South China Sea, their legacies shaping the deepening rivalry in the region; historical figures whose lives and work have framed the disputes about sovereignty and freedom of navigation, the competition of navies, as well as war and its costs.

During the writing of my book, The New Map, I began thinking about these men. When I was speaking on the challenges of globalization and international commerce at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, the commanders of virtually all the world’s navies were there, a galaxy of admirals, all resplendent in their dress uniforms. Among them was Admiral Wu Shengli, the head of China’s navy at the time and the man who was driving its expansion to compete with the American Navy. By then the South China Sea had already become a center of contention. Wu sat in the center of the audience, in the fifth or sixth row, his gaze unwavering throughout.

That was when I started seeing ghosts: that of China’s greatest seafarer, a predecessor to Wu; of the Dutch lawyer who penned the legal brief that now underpins the American argument against China’s claims; of the American admiral whose philosophies offered a foundation for both the U.S. Navy and Chinese maritime expansionism; and of the British writer who argued that the costs of conflict were too high, even for those who would be victorious.

For modern China, claims to the South China Sea center around what is called the “nine-dash line”—literal dashes that, on the Chinese map, hug the coasts of other nations and encompass 90 percent of the waters of the South China Sea. Derived from a map drawn by a Chinese cartographer in 1936 in response to what Beijing calls the “century of humiliation,” the nine-dash line is, according to Shan Zhiqiang, the former editor of China’s National Geography magazine, “now deeply engraved in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.” Chinese schoolchildren have for decades been taught that their country’s border extends more than a thousand miles to the coast of Malaysia. Beijing’s claims are bolstered by military bases that it has built in recent years on tiny islands and on 3,200 acres of reclaimed land scattered in the middle of the sea.

Beijing bases its claim of “indisputable sovereignty” upon history—that, as an official position paper put it, “Chinese activities in the South China Sea date back to over two thousand years ago.” These “historic claims,” in the words of a Chinese government think tank, have “a foundation in international law, including the customary law of discovery, occupation, and historic title.”

The U.S. replies that, under international law, the South China Sea is an open water—what is often called “Asia’s maritime commons”—for all nations, a view shared by the countries that border its waters, as well as by Australia, Britain, and Japan. As such, says the U.S. State Department, China “has no legal grounds” for its South China claims and “no coherent legal basis” for the nine-dash line. “China’s maritime claims,” a U.S. government policy paper argued this year, “pose the greatest threat to the freedom of the seas in modern times.”

And this brings us to the four ghosts.

Zheng He’s sailing charts were published in 1628, depicting India and Africa. (Universal History Archive / Getty)

In 1381, during a battle in southwest China, a Muslim boy was captured by soldiers of the Ming dynasty, castrated, and sent to work in the royal household of Prince Zhu Di. As time went on, the boy—renamed Zheng He—grew up to become a confidant of the prince and, eventually, one of his most able military leaders.

When Zhu became emperor, determined that China must be a great maritime power, he ordered a frenetic shipbuilding campaign that launched huge fleets carrying up to 30,000 personnel. They transported both a wide range of Chinese goods and the most advanced ordnance of the day—guns, cannonballs, and rockets. The biggest boats were treasure ships that were as much as 10 times larger in capacity than those Christopher Columbus would captain to the New World almost a century later. These Chinese voyages would take two or three years, with eunuchs in command of each of the fleets. But the commander in chief, above all others, was Zheng. He eventually became known as the Three-Jewel Eunuch, in honor of the “three jewels” central to the dominant Buddhist faith of Zhu’s reign.

Admiral Zheng’s first voyage, in 1405, was put to sea with an armada of more than 250 ships, of which more than 60 were treasure ships. Altogether Zheng commanded seven voyages, some sailing as far as the east coast of Africa, to modern Kenya. Along the way, his fleet would trade Chinese goods and products with the locals, while projecting the power and majesty of China—in Zheng’s words, “making manifest the transforming power of imperial virtue.” One can imagine the impact on those ashore when they caught sight of the approaching giant fleets, and especially the huge treasure ships, with their tail sails filling the skies, their fierce dragon eyes painted on their prows, bearing down on the shore.

Upon their return to China, Zheng’s fleets brought back not only a wide variety of products and novelties—including precious stones, spices, camels, and ostriches—but also rulers and ambassadors, who would pay homage and tribute before the emperor. Zheng’s armadas, as the historian John Keay has written, also “demonstrated maritime mastery of the entire Indian Ocean.”

An illustration depicting Zheng He. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty)

In 1433, on a final voyage homeward across the Indian Ocean—nine years after the death of his patron, Zhu—Zheng died. The great navy he had built did not long survive him. Eventually, on the orders of the new emperor, China’s fleet, which had numbered as many as 3,500 ships, was burned. Bureaucrats argued that they were wasting money needed to resist encroaching Mongols in the north (though of course, they also saw the navy as the power base for their great rivals, the eunuchs). The legacy of the Three-Jewel Eunuch was to be expunged from history, the memory of his seaborne exploits almost obliterated.

As China once again turned to the sea in the 21st century, though, Zheng has been resuscitated as the symbol of the country’s traditional engagement and trading relationship with Southeast and South Asia—and as “the most towering maritime figure” in the nation’s history. The admiral was celebrated in 2009 with a widely watched series on Chinese television, and in 2005, on the 600th anniversary of his first voyage, a $50 million museum dedicated to him was opened in Nanjing. A 19-year-old girl from an island off Kenya, distinguished by her seemingly Asian features, was invited to the museum’s opening as a putative descendant of Chinese who had sailed with Zheng, ostensibly living proof of how far-reaching and “manifest” was the Three-Jewel Eunuch’s seagoing prowess. Today, Zheng and his voyages are the great embodiment of “Chinese activities in the South China Sea,” and the claims of history based upon it, his legacy enshrined centuries later in the nine-dash line.

If Zheng provided the narrative of China’s historic maritime rights, then the Dutch lawyer and legal theorist Hugo Grotius would provide the opposite, laying the foundations for the concept of free passage through the world’s oceans, and embodying the “rule of law” as opposed to the legacy of history.

Though of worldwide import, Grotius’ arguments arose, ironically, from a specific event at one corner of the South China Sea. In 1603, after the burning of China’s fleet and the erasing of the memory of Zheng, Dutch ships attacked a Portuguese vessel in the South China Sea in revenge for Portuguese attacks on Dutch shipping. This marked the beginning of a global struggle between Portugal and the Dutch for control of colonies and, in Southeast Asia, the spice trade. The Portuguese ship was a tempting prize, laden with silk, gold, porcelain, spices, and many other goods.

But when the booty got back to the Netherlands, the Dutch needed legal ammunition to justify the seizure and secure their profit. They turned to Grotius who, although just 21, was already known as a dazzling prodigy—he had entered Leiden University at 11.

In his legal brief, Grotius pulverized the Portuguese argument that the South China Sea was theirs because they had “discovered” the sailing routes to it, as though Zheng He and all of the other eunuch captains, along with the Arab and Southeast Asian merchants before them, had never existed. Instead, Grotius argued for freedom of the seas and of commerce, and asserted that these rights were universal in their application. Thus, he insisted, the Dutch seizure was wholly justified in retaliation for Portuguese interference with Dutch shipping. Part of the brief was published in what became his great work, Mare Liberum, or The Freedom of the Seas. The water was, like air and the sky, the common property of humanity, Grotius wrote. No nation could own them or prevent another from sailing through them. “Every nation,” he declared, “is free to travel to every other nation, and to trade with it.”

A painting of the Dutch lawyer and legal theorist Hugo Grotius, by Jansz van Mierevelt Michiel. (Imagno / Getty)

Grotius went on to occupy several distinguished legal and civic positions. But then, caught on the wrong side in a religious battle in the Netherlands, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Smuggled out of jail in a book chest, he managed to make his way to Paris, where he wrote another landmark book, On the Law of War and Peace, which outlined both the basis of a “just war” and the rules for the conduct of warfare. The economist Adam Smith later said that “Grotius seems to have been the first who attempted to give the world anything like a regular system of natural jurisprudence.”

Much admired by Sweden’s king, Grotius was appointed Sweden’s ambassador to France. On a trip back from Sweden in 1645, he was tossed for three days in the Baltic Sea by a violent storm, wrecking the ship, and Grotius eventually washed up on a beach in northern Germany. There, “the father of the law of the sea,” as he would later be called, died from a calamity at sea. His legacy lived on, however: The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the defining international document governing maritime rules, can be directly traced back to his work.

In 1897, Theodore Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy, traveled up to the U.S. Naval War College. In his lecture there, Roosevelt propounded the argument for a much stronger U.S. Navy—“a first-class fleet of first-class battleships”—as the best guarantor of peace. The speech brought him national attention.

Roosevelt visited the War College for a second purpose as well: to meet with a faculty member, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who would have more influence on him in regard to naval power than any other single person, and whose spirit pervades today’s disputes over the South China Sea and the collision of U.S. and Chinese naval power.

Despite the objections of his father, a professor at the Army’s West Point military academy, Mahan went to the U.S. Naval Academy. But when he served at sea, his commanders judged him to be deficient in practical command. He did not disagree. “I have known myself too long not to know that I am the man of thought, not the man of action,” Mahan wrote to Roosevelt. But he was determined, as he put it, “to be of some use to a navy, despite adverse reports.” And he would be. Beginning with The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, his many books and articles would make him the world’s most influential theorist of naval strategy.

Sea power, Mahan wrote, was essential to protect a nation’s commerce, its security, and its position, and it rested on “three pillars”—overseas commerce, naval and merchant fleets, and bases along maritime lanes. The great objective was to assure “command of the sea” and “the overbearing power that can only be exercised by great navies,” which meant the ability to dominate naval passages and the “sea lines of communication.”

His influence on the U.S. was clear and direct. Roosevelt went on to become vice president and then, in September 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley, ascended to the presidency. Roosevelt was relentless in his commitment to a modern navy, culminating with his launch of the Great White Fleet on a round-the-world voyage, which announced America’s new role as a global power.

Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, left, was a major influence on President Theodore Roosevelt, right, pictured acknowledging the salute of warships from the deck of the Algonquin in Charleston Harbour, South Carolina, circa 1902. (Underwood & Underwood / Archive Photos / Getty)

Mahan’s impact was also global. The Japanese translation of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History sold several thousand copies in a matter of days, and he was offered a teaching post at Japan’s Naval Staff College. On a visit to Britain, he received honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford and dined with Queen Victoria. Yet no nation took Mahan more to heart than Germany. “I am just now not reading but devouring … Mahan’s book and am trying to learn it by heart,” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany wrote. “It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my captains and officers.”

When Mahan died in 1914, Roosevelt wrote, “There was no one else in his class, or anywhere near it.” Decades later, the strategist Edward Meade Earle noted, “Few persons leave so deep an imprint on world events as that left by Mahan.” That imprint is clear today in China, and particularly as it relates to the South China Sea.

Beijing maintains as a “core interest” that Taiwan is an integral part of China. In 1996, Beijing, fearing that the lead candidate in Taiwan’s presidential election might move toward official independence, launched missile tests and live fire in waters very near the island, effectively blockading its western ports. The U.S. responded by dispatching two aircraft-carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait, ostensibly to avoid “bad weather.” The crisis subsided, but the Mahanian lesson for Beijing was clear: The ability to deploy and demonstrate sea power was of paramount importance.

There are many other strands in Chinese military debates, but Mahan’s focus on maritime power and “command of the seas” provides a framework for understanding Chinese naval strategy. More than a century after his death, he is much quoted and cited by Chinese thinkers and continues to shape their views. As the strategist Robert Kaplan writes: “The Chinese are the Mahanians now.”

On a clear Sunday morning in August 2014, Chinese naval personnel gathered in the northern port of Weihai. They were there not to mark a victory, the usual reason for such a gathering, but to mark a defeat—China’s loss to the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, which had been sealed by the destruction of the Chinese fleet at Weihai. As a result, Japan gained control over Korea and Taiwan, and Weihai passed under British control, altogether a particularly humiliating chapter in China’s “century of humiliation.”

The "Great White Fleet," a collection of American battleships, was sent around the world on goodwill missions. (Bettmann / Getty)

At the 2014 ceremony, white chrysanthemums and red roses were scattered over the waters to mourn the Chinese losses. The most prominent speaker that day was Admiral Wu Shengli. In Wu’s remarks at Weihai, one could hear echoes of Mahan.

“History reminds us that a country will not prosper without maritime power,” Wu said. The century of humiliation, he argued, was the result of insufficient naval strength, which the Weihai defeat had demonstrated. But today, “the sea is no obstacle; the history of national humiliation is gone, never to return.”

Mahan was writing amidst the first age of globalization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the world was being knit together by technology—steamships, railways, the telegraph—and by flows of investment and trade. He provided the intellectual rationale in that age for what became a global race to build up navies.

In looking for analogies for the wider risks that might be unleashed by the U.S.-China naval competition in the South China Sea, analysts are drawn again and again to that vivid example of strategic rivalry from more than a century ago: the Anglo-Germany naval race that helped set the stage for World War I. So worrying is it that in his book On China, Henry Kissinger concludes with an epilogue entitled “Does History Repeat Itself?” entirely devoted to this military buildup. Yet Kissinger goes on to say with some uneasiness, “Historical analogies are by nature inexact.”

The Anglo-German naval race was the defining strategic competition of the time. It was also a significant part of a fever that convinced people that war between Britain and Germany was inevitable. That was the conclusion that Winston Churchill, the first lord of the admiralty, came to in 1911. From then on, as he later wrote, he prepared “for an attack by Germany as if it might come the next day.”

Yet there were some who disagreed with that assessment—and none more vigorously than the fourth ghost who haunts the South China Sea.

Among the voices at the beginning of the 20th century arguing that war between Germany and Britain need not be inevitable, none was more powerful than that of a slight, frail-looking man named Norman Angell. He would have enormous influence in convincing people that war had become irrational. He would even receive the Nobel Peace Prize for making the case that “war is a quite inadequate method for solving international disputes.” (That the award was made in 1934 prompted him to remark, with a certain dryness, “It would have been more logical to have awarded it at the earlier date.”) Angell emphasized the benefits of a connected world economy and the costs of conflict, a particularly relevant message for a U.S. and a China that are so economically interdependent on each other and so embedded in a wider global economy on which their respective prosperities rely.

Angell came to his calling by a rather circuitous and incongruous route. As a teenager, he went to work as a newspaper reporter, first in his native Britain, before moving to the United States. He ended up northeast of Los Angeles, in sparsely populated Bakersfield, where he worked as a ranch and farm hand, and as a mail carrier; homesteaded outside the city; speculated unsuccessfully in land; searched for gold; and tried his hand at oil exploration, all to no avail. Having failed to find his fortune, he left and eventually ended up in Paris, where he worked for English-language newspapers.

By then he had become obsessed with the rise of mass media and alarmed about what he saw as the emergence of mass psychology and the rising temper of virulent nationalism and intolerance in Europe. In 1903, he published his first book, Patriotism Under Three Flags, arguing that “emotionalism,” or extreme jingoism, worked against the interests of the polity.

Norman Angell was a prolific writer and journalist. (Time Life Pictures / Mansell / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty)

Angell then landed a job as the publisher of the European edition of the Daily Mail, at the time the largest-circulation newspaper in the world. Prompted by the Anglo-German naval race, Angell hurriedly wrote a new book, Europe’s Optical Illusion, in which he insisted that he was no pacifist and was not opposed to Britain’s military spending, but that, owing to how much more interconnected the world economy had become and the dense ligaments of trade and investment that by then joined nations, the costs of war would far outweigh the gain—not only for the defeated, but also for the victor. (Angell is often ridiculed for allegedly saying that the powerful economic links of the first modern age of globalization made war impossible. But, although a man of many words, sometimes too many, that actually is not what he said. His thesis was “not that war is impossible, but that it is futile.” Given the grim decades that followed the First World War, who can say that he was wrong?) To Angell’s chagrin, he could not find a publisher, and ended up publishing and distributing the book himself.

Despite its inauspicious start, the book caught on. A top British diplomat said it had “set my brain in a whirl.” One newspaper called it “the most discussed book of recent years.” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Gray publicly commended what he called “a very interesting little book.”

The book became a best seller, and Norman Angell was launched. So, too, was “Norman Angell”: Up to this time, he had written under his real name, Ralph Lane, adopting “Norman Angell” to separate the book from his work for the Daily Mail. In subsequent editions, Angell rechristened the book The Great Illusion.

There were critics, among them Mahan, who dismissed Angell’s argument that growing interdependence made war irrational. “Nationality will not be discarded in face of the remapping of the world,” the admiral wrote in words that have some echo today.

Critics notwithstanding, Angell was only gaining in influence. Even Kaiser Wilhelm was reported to have read the book “with keen interest and discussed it a good deal.” The Anglo-German naval race continued under full steam, yet the two powers had demonstrated restraint during a Balkans crisis in 1912. This Angell took as a sign of rationality over emotion. On a trip to the United States in February 1914, he told a reporter, “There will never be another war between European powers.” In June 1914, the British fleet made a weeklong friendship visit to the German port of Kiel, strengthening his claim. While it was there, 800 miles to the south, in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated. Five weeks later, World War I began.

The war’s aftermath would nevertheless prove Angell right: The lasting costs far outweighed whatever might have been gained. It is a message that haunts today’s rising tensions between the United States and China.

History versus international law, nationalism and military power versus interdependence and common interests—these define the contention over the South China Sea.

And so when you hear historic claims, think Admiral Zheng He. When it’s freedom of the seas, it’s Hugo Grotius. When it’s the U.S.-China arms race, then it’s the other admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan. And with the growing rift between Washington and Beijing, think of Norman Angell and the costs of confrontation between two nations that are so economically interdependent.

These are the four ghosts who haunt those troubled waters.