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Great Power Clashes Along the Maritime Silk Road: Lessons From History to Shape Current Strategy

12 Dec 23

360 pages

Dr James Bosbotinis

The subject of this book immediately appealed to this reviewer who has a deep interest in the contemporary and prospective geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, one is looking to develop a greater understanding of the long-term historical context informing the contemporary environment. In Great Power Clashes Along the Maritime Silk Road, the author, Grant F. Rhode, a senior lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, adjunct professor at the US Naval War College, and an associate researcher at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, seeks to provide “an analysis of premodern maritime clashes along the Eurasian perimeter that offer examples of local or regional war reflecting the particular circumstances of time and place”. This is in order to “interpret the past with a perspective toward policy implications for the present and future”, and “ask how decision makers can use Eurasian maritime history to shape informed policy toward national strategy”.

Focusing on the premodern period, that is, up to the 18th century, the author provides eight case studies, including ‘Chola Maritime Expansion to the Ganges, Sri Lanka, and Srivijaya’, ‘Limits on Mongol Maritime Expansion to Japan, Vietnam, and Java’, ‘Early Ming Voyages to the Western Ocean’, ‘Kunjali Marakkar Naval Resistance to the Portuguese on the Malabar Coast’, ‘Limits on the Ottoman Navy in the Mediterranean Sea’, ‘Japan’s Thwarted Maritime Invasions of Korea’, ‘Ming Expulsion of the Dutch from Taiwan’, and ‘Maratha Naval Resistance to the British on the Konkan Coast’, thus covering a period from the 11th to 18th centuries. The rationale for the case studies and theoretical foundation for the analysis is provided in the Introduction, with the Conclusion, ‘Lessons from Eurasian Maritime History’, drawing the analysis together and applying it to the contemporary. The latter considers topics such as Turkey’s Blue Homeland policy, India’s Look East/Act East, and China’s policy toward Taiwan and the Maritime Silk Road component of the Belt & Road Initiative. Interestingly, the author positions this book “along the continuum between the policy goals of Xi Jinping and the scholarly conception of Peter Frankopan”.

For the theoretical foundation, Rhodes discusses, and draws on a diverse mix of thinkers, including Pope Alexander VI, Hugo Grotius, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Norman Angell, Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman, Samuel Huntington, Graham Allison, and Jeremy Black. Each case study includes a concluding discussion of ‘Maritime Strategic and Tactical Lessons’, ‘Local Knowledge of Natural Phenomena’, ‘Advantages in Military Technology’, ‘Continental vs. Maritime Identities’, ‘Deeply Felt National Identities’, ‘Military Leadership’, ‘Relative Power Relations’, ‘Alliance Relations’, ‘Relationship of Maritime Economic Success to Maritime Military Success’, and ‘Importance of Historical and Current Knowledge’. This approach neatly and succinctly summarises each chapter, and will be useful for reference purposes. The depth and breadth of the author’s research is evident throughout the book, which provides a fascinating and engaging analysis of the eight case studies and their wider significance. As Rhodes highlights, some of the history detailed in this book may not be so well-known. For example, the attempted Mongol invasions of Japan and what is now Vietnam in the 13th century “compete in scope and scale with the size of the World War II Normandy invasion of 1944”. Whilst the Imjin War of the 1590s – Japan’s attempted invasions of Korea, provides a valuable example of the importance of attaining sea control to support a landward advance as well as the asymmetric edge provided by superior technology, in this case, the Korean turtle ships.

Great Power Clashes Along the Maritime Silk Road provides a highly interesting and informative read. It is well-written, although there are occasional typos and a recurring odd hyphenation of some words. However, those issues do not detract from the quality of the book. It also features useful maps, charts and tables. This book will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of the Indo-Pacific region, its contemporary geopolitics, or the histories of the Ottoman Empire, India, China, Korea, or Japan. Recommended.