Gunboat diplomacy on a rebound?

Russia deploys warships off Syria. China sends threatening vessels to its neighbors over island disputes. The world can't afford a return to 19th-century naval intimidation.

On July 11, a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship (right) sailed around a Chinese patrol ship near disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan or Diaoyu in China.

Just when the world had begun to view aerial drones as the weapon of the 21st century, the 19th-century practice of “gunboat diplomacy” seems on a rebound.

Here are recent examples:

On Monday, Russia began to deploy warships off Syria “for exercises” – or perhaps to influence events there.

For more than a year, China has sent paramilitary vessels or its naval ships to intimidate Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines over island disputes and undersea resources.

Last year, President Obama deployed an aircraft carrier for joint exercises with South Korea to send a message to both North Korea (and its ally China) after a North Korean attack on the South.

Iran has threatened to disrupt oil-tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for sanctions against its nuclear program. Even Turkey has flexed its naval muscle over disputes with Cyprus and Israel.

Then there’s the Arctic. The melting of the icecap has touched off a tense display of naval ships from several nations trying to claim maritime rights to newly opened ocean passages.

Meanwhile, in Britain – the country that defined gunboat diplomacy in the 19th century to maintain its empire – the head of the Royal Navy offered a defense of the practice last February:

“Even a cursory glance at the numerous ‘gunboat diplomacy’ publications penned by diplomats, historians and academics over the years tells us that the supreme advantage of maritime power is that it can leverage ‘effect without regret,’ ” said First Sea Lord Adm. Sir Mark Stanhope.

Is this any way to run the world, especially with so many rules and methods these days that can resolve conflicts?

Not according to Leon Panetta, the US Defense secretary who oversees the world’s most powerful navy.

“If we’re going to engage in gunboat diplomacy everywhere we go in order to assert our rights, then the end result of that is going to be conflict,” he told Congress in May. He was trying to persuade the Senate to pass the Law of the Sea Treaty, one of many diplomatic tools that can help restrain the use of naval threats.

Naval intimidation comes in many forms. The United States has carrier fleets around the world that are usually seen as benign keepers of the peace for the world’s shipping lanes or as forward deployment in case of all-out war. China, on the other hand, has lately used its vessels in threatening ways, scaring many of its neighbors.

The better approach, said Mr. Panetta, is to “make very clear the power we have, but then sit down and engage these other countries in a rules-based format.”

“We are strong because we play by the rules, not because we go against those rules,” he added.

That is in sharp contrast to the approach advocated by China. Last year, the state-run Global Times newspaper stated in an editorial about the maritime disputes with other Asian nations: “If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons.”

Before gunboat diplomacy really catches on again, the world needs to affirm that nongun diplomacy is the preferred method of resolving disputes. Today’s cannons are just too big to do otherwise.

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