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Who Will Rule the Waves?

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After centuries of British and American dominance on the seas, new powers are emerging. As the People's Republic of China flexes its growing military muscle, what does this portend for the future of America?


In 1405, Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He set sail with 27,800 sailors under his command, manning 62 large Chinese ships for a voyage that took him throughout most of South Asia. "Over the next 28 years, Zheng He's flotilla embarked on six other grand voyages. It was an unprecedented massing of naval power. The ships, described collectively as 'swimming dragons,' boasted as many as nine masts apiece; and the largest could hold 1,000 people. Dotted with dragons' eyes to help them 'see,' they carried soldiers, doctors, cooks, interpreters, astrologers, traders and holy men. The senior captains were eunuchs. The expeditions covered a total of nearly 300,000 km, roughly equivalent to 7 1/2 circumnavigations of the world" ("In the Wake of the Admiral," TIME Magazine, August 20–27, 2001). Zheng He's voyages opened trade and diplomatic ties for China with 35 countries, and led the way for Chinese emigration throughout Southeast Asia. But after he died (sometime between 1433 and 1436), China abruptly reverted back to its isolationist past and lost its naval preeminence.

Six hundred years later, China is now poised to become a leading naval power in the Pacific. A reinvigorated People's Liberation Navy has its eyes on becoming a true "deep-water" navy—an oceangoing force capable of projecting its power far beyond its shores. What does this portend for the future of U.S.-China relations? Should the United States see China as a welcome partner in the global economic community, or as a potentially deadly rival? Will the U.S. continue to enjoy unmatched military supremacy in the Pacific into the next few decades? And can your Bible shed light on all this?

Vying for Control of the Waves

As China's current military ambitions change the status quo of the East Asian military balance, how will other South Asian nations respond? Many of China's neighbors do not view its growing influence favorably. Authors Andrew Nathan and Robert Ross observe, "Located in the center of its region, China is a giant country surrounded by independent and assertive smaller countries, most of them different from it both ethnically and ideologically. Its regional relationships have been marked by mutual suspicion. China has historically exerted influence in many nearby countries, making them wary of its rising power today" (Great Wall and Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security, p. 8). Will regional Asian rivalries turn into all-out competition for control of sea lanes? Could jealousy and suspicion spark war between rival Pacific nations seeking to defend their own interests?

It is already happening! Parts of the potentially oil-rich Spratly and Paracel Islands are claimed by six different South Asian countries—including China—and conflicts there are not infrequent. Twenty years ago, more than 70 Vietnamese sailors died in the Spratly Islands, in a gun battle with Chinese ships. In 1999, China warned the Philippine Navy it would use force if the Filipinos did not recover a vessel that had run aground in territory claimed by China ("RP Navy blinks, sends tugboats to tow 'Benguet'," Today, November 16, 1999). Filipino Representative Roilo Golez lambasted the Chinese threat of force: "[China] is now using its military muscle to elbow out tiny, helpless nations to make the entire South China Sea its own lake. The tiger is always on the lookout for little Tibets to devour" (ibid.).

China's relationship with Japan is also filled with tension. In China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk writes: "Relations between China and America's close ally, Japan, have grown dangerously acrimonious over the past several years. Chinese People's Liberation Navy vessels have begun patrolling in waters in the East China Sea near the Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan" (p. 4). Dozens of Korean sailors also died in gun battles over another disputed sea border in 1999 and 2002.

From Rivalry to Arms Race?

But it is not only the occasional disputes that worry some American policy-makers. More troubling is the escalating arms buildup—and not only by China—in an already volatile region. While China continues to pursue military expansion at an alarming rate, Jane's Fighting Ships has noted that other "navies of Southeast Asia were all 'on the move'" as well. "Indonesia intended to expand its navy by 20,000 sailors and 10,000 marines within five years, while Singapore's first submarine had just been transported to its home base in April and a second would follow in 2001… Taiwan and Korea were spending more on ships and technology equipment, while Japan had changed its defense posture to allow pre-emptive action against enemy missile bases after two North Korean spy ships penetrated its waters last year" ("'Sudden' East Asia violence feared," Today, May 10, 2000). By 1997, Thailand had even acquired an aircraft carrier, called the Chakri Narvebet. ("Force Modernisation Trends In Southeast Asia," Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies working paper, January 2004).

India, China's neighbor to the south, is also expanding its naval capabilities. "The Indians are afraid that China's reason for building ports in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and conducting naval exercises with Pakistan, is to extend its dominance into the Indian Ocean… India, in turn, is pushing into the South China Sea, and seeking port facilities in Vietnam" ("Into the wide blue yonder," The Economist, June 5, 2008).

Vital, Vulnerable Sea Lanes

What is causing this naval buildup across South Asia? Why the growing interest in better naval military assets and capabilities? One reason is simply the economic growth of the countries involved. Economic booms have provided the finances countries need to upgrade and develop their militaries. As nations see China and other neighbors acquire better military capabilities, they are motivated to keep pace as well.

Another reason for naval buildup is the withdrawal of U.S. forces from bases in the region. In 1992, the U.S. pulled out of Clarke Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. In 2004, a plan was put in motion for the U.S. to pull a third of its forces out of South Korea. "The scaling down of U.S. forces should accelerate a trend that has been underway for a number of years, with the South Koreans taking more responsibility for their own defenses" ("Analysis: US troops on the move," BBC News, June 7, 2004). As the U.S. encourages regional powers to take more responsibility for their defense, those nations have been forced to develop a stronger naval presence.

Another reason for the naval buildup is the growing appreciation for vital sea lanes, especially crucial "choke points" such as the Malacca Straits. Southeast Asian countries have long had to deal with piracy, but the specter of global terrorism adds urgency to protect vulnerable commercial sea traffic. As its economy has grown—along with the thirst for oil to fuel it—China has developed keener interest in protecting commercial interests through a true ocean-going navy. Around 30 percent of all international trade passes through the narrow, 550-mile Malacca Straits. Tankers coming through the Straits bring 80 percent of the oil needed by both Japan and China. While China's navy "currently lacks the ability to defend sea lanes that carry oil to China from the Middle East… it is discussing ways of doing so in the future" ("China speeds pace of military buildup," Washington Times, March 3, 2008).

The U.S. also has an interest in ensuring that the Straits remain free from pirates or terrorists. In fact, in September 2007, the U.S. Navy announced a shift in its maritime strategy, putting hot-spots such as the Malacca Straits at the core of the new strategy. Author Richard Halloran points out that the new naval doctrine depends on the ability to move ships rapidly, according to need, between the western Pacific and Indian Oceans ("Pacific Choke Point," Air Force Magazine, July 2008). The Malacca Straits are the natural "choke-point" between the two and must remain unhindered for strategic reasons.

A Hundred Years in the Pacific

But what does this all mean, and where is it going? Will China and other South Asian nations work together with the U.S. to forge lasting peace and regional security? Or will conflicting national interests and tangled alliances lead inevitably to war in the Pacific—again? And what role will the U.S. play?

The U.S. has had a naval presence in the Pacific for more than 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt set out to achieve global superiority for the U.S. through a strong and aggressive naval fighting force. In his first annual address to Congress, he forcefully asserted that no part of his policy was more important than naval expansion.

It was under President Roosevelt's direction that on December 16, 1907, 16 American battleships—dubbed "The Great White Fleet" for the color of their hulls—embarked on a round-the-world tour. Roosevelt's purpose was to show friend and foe alike that the U.S. had the ability to project its military power far beyond its borders.

Four decades later, America's naval capabilities and perseverance were tested to the limit. The Imperial Japanese Navy, striving to become masters of the Asia-Pacific region, attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunging the U.S. into World War II. After three-and-a-half years of bloody air, land and sea battles, Japan surrendered after U.S. atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. emerged from the war as the dominant naval power in the Pacific.

To this day, America remains the preeminent naval power in the Pacific. The United States Pacific Fleet—the world's largest naval command—is headquartered at Makalapa Crater, near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With approximately 190 ships, 1,400 aircraft, and more than 213,000 civilian and military personnel serving on the ships and more than 35 shore installations, the fleet patrols an ocean ringed by 39 independent nations home to the world's six largest armies (People's Republic of China, U.S., Russia, India, North Korea and Republic of Korea). Its area of responsibility covers approximately 50 percent of the earth's surface: 105 million square miles and 16 time zones.

But where did the U.S. obtain this impressive naval prowess? What caused America's stunning rise to naval power in the Pacific? The answer to that question contains the vital answer to what the future holds for America as well!

Tomorrow's World subscribers understand that when the northern ten tribes of ancient Israel were captured and deported by the ancient kingdom of Assyria, they did not really "disappear." Jesus Christ and the Apostles knew where the displaced Israelites were; Christ called them the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6). They migrated beyond the Euphrates River (see "Finding the 'Lost' Tribes of Israel" on page 14 of this issue). Two of those tribes—Ephraim and Manasseh—received special blessings (see "Who Are You, Really?" on page 4 of this issue).

Where did America's military strength in the Pacific come from? From President Theodore Roosevelt's aggressive policies? From winning World War II in the Pacific? Or because the U.S. is part of modern-day Joseph, prophesied to be blessed and strengthened by the hand of God?

Americans must not be deceived into pridefully thinking that their military and economic success comes from themselves—when God specifically said these blessings came from Him. As the ancient Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them to remember the Source of their blessings: "For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers" (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).

If God—through His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—is the Source of America's national blessings, what will happen to America's strength as the nation turns its back on God? What happens to a people who have rejected His commandments, openly committed immorality, profaned His Sabbaths and even denied His existence? Will He protect the nation through future wars if it has shunned Him and cursed His name? Notice what Moses told America's forefathers: "The Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them" (Deuteronomy 7:8–11).

So, what is the future of America's dominance in the Pacific? Will the U.S. be blessed in its attempt to keep its alliances intact and its commercial sea lanes open, if Americans insist on blaspheming God in their personal and national lives?

Will America Control the Gates?

Author Richard Halloran notes that the Malacca Straits "form a choke point extraordinaire that exists in the shadow of armed pirates, stateless terrorists, and national armed forces. If the world were to lose access for an extended period, the consequences for the industrialized world, including the United States, would be grave [emphasis ours]" ("Pacific Choke Point," Air Force Magazine, July 2008). As navies in the Pacific region vie for control of precious, vulnerable sea lanes—the lifeblood of the world's economy—what will happen if the U.S. loses control of this vital choke point?

Your Bible contains a very intriguing prophecy concerning Rebekah, who was preparing to marry Abraham's son, the patriarch Isaac. God promised to make of Abraham a great nation, with descendants "as the sand of the sea" (Genesis 32:12). To Rebekah was given this blessing: "And they blessed Rebekah and said to her: 'Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them'" (Genesis 24:60).

"Gates" represent "choke points" which control the flow of traffic—economic and military—through land or sea. Without controlling the "gates" of commercial and military traffic, a nation has little control over its own destiny. Bible prophecy shows that God gave modern-day Israel control of the "gates" of their enemies—including the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Malacca Straits. Will America continue to take a commanding role in defending the Malacca Straits in future years? It all depends on the nation's faithfulness and obedience to the God who gave the nation the gates to begin with. Will God continue to bless America with the strategic "choke points" of the world's sea lanes, if its peoples commit adultery, murder, steal and cheat with impunity?

Richmond Pearson Hobson, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy who went on to serve five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was a strong ally of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in the push to make America's navy not only the best in the world, but one far superior to any other on earth. In 1902, he wrote: "The finger of fate is pointing forward. America will be the controlling World power, holding the sceptre of the sea, reigning in mighty beneficence with the guiding principle of a maximum of world service. She will help all the nations of the earth" (Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, James Reckner, p. 4).

Congressman Hobson's vision of a mighty American navy has been realized for the better part of a century. But not because of fate, destiny, hard work or altruistic principles of well-meaning human beings—America's power came about because of the spiritual obedience of the patriarch Abraham, and God's faithful promise to bless his descendants. His blessing will soon be lost—and America will lose much more than just control of the Pacific—if its people fail to take control of their spiritual condition individually and nationally, at home.

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