China’s maritime capacity, two associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College argue in an important new work, is close to reaching a point where its theories will be put into practice. What this commanding of the seas “with Chinese characteristics” will look like, and what it will imply for regional stability and the ability of the US to remain involved in the region, is the focus of Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes’ Red Star Over the Pacific.
While there is no dearth of studies on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), efforts to understand it have for the most part been limited to the Order of Battle — that is, tallying up what China currently deploys, plans to deploy and is developing. Much less effort, however, has been put into understanding China’s maritime doctrine, and this is where Yoshihara and Holmes’ book, which assesses a variety of Chinese-language sources and pronouncements on the subject, provides helpful illumination.
As “Western apathy toward traditional sea power” manifests itself, the authors write, “Asians bolt together fleets with gusto.” Spearheading this effort is China, which has already built power-projection capabilities for what they call a “post-Taiwan” environment. Whether this rise will be benign and focused on non-traditional challenges (such as anti-piracy and protecting sea lanes) rather than “pounding away at enemy fleets” is something that can, if only imperfectly, be extracted from trends in Chinese defense circles.
Although the authors do not predict a cataclysmic clash of navies as seen during World War II between the US and Japan, they nevertheless argue that the “material ingredients for competition and rivalry are certainly present in the tight confines of the East Asian littoral.”
Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US maritime strategy
By Toshi Yoshihara and
James R. Holmes
Naval Institute Press
In such a rapidly evolving environment, what Chinese naval experts are reading, saying and writing can provide important clues. And what many Chinese are reading, the authors tell us, is Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century US Navy flag officer and military historian whose concept of sea power had an enormous influence on navies around the world. If Chinese strategists are selective in their usage of Mahan’s theories and accept its martial themes uncritically, it is possible Beijing will follow along the lines of Germany and Japan to sea power, which in the authors’ view would imply dim prospects for the region.
While the Chinese defense community is not monolithic, some Chinese analysts have tended to “gravitate toward the more memorable passages of Mahan’s works for their own narrow purposes, ratifying predetermined conclusions” with Mahan furnishing the “geopolitical logic for an offensive Chinese naval strategy” and Mao Zedong (毛澤東) thought providing the tactics to execute that strategy.
In some quarters, Chinese theorists have argued that China should achieve a national resurgence from “continental civilization” — Mao’s inward-looking strategy — to “maritime civilization” and have made the case for national greatness as an inextricable component of sea power, a position that Yoshihara and Holmes see as “unmistakably Mahanian.”
Based on their reading of the Chinese debate and signaling on its maritime strategy, the authors conclude that China’s march to the sea and efforts to deny access to others will not end with Taiwan (though securing it would provide substantial advantages in power projection within and beyond the first island chain). China, they argue, will “strive to achieve and ensure access for itself — and amass the capacity to deny access to others — in concentric geographic rings ripping out from the Chinese coastline.”