A Chinese Turn to Mahan?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 13

Admiral Liu Huaqing

Robert Kaplan proclaims that “the Chinese are the Mahanians now,” enamored with the fin de siècle American sea captain who exhorted seafaring nations to amass international commerce, merchant and naval fleets, and forward bases (The Atlantic, November 2007). By those measures, China is progressing swiftly toward sea power. It depends on a steady flow of seaborne cargoes of oil, natural gas, and other raw materials from Africa and the Persian Gulf region, and it relies on the oceans as a thoroughfare by which Chinese export wares reach foreign consumers. Chinese shipyards are bolting together merchantmen at a helter-skelter pace. In April 2009, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) held a naval review to mark the sixtieth anniversary of its founding and—after years of studied denials—the PLA leadership has more or less openly stated that it wants to acquire aircraft carriers. The PLAN has built a base on Hainan Island capable of berthing nuclear submarines, thereby extending its reach toward the Strait of Malacca, and Chinese diplomats have negotiated basing rights throughout the Indian Ocean.

Does this add up to a Mahanian strategy? Perhaps. A columnist for The Economist recalls that whenever he “prodded a military man from India or China” at the May 2009 meeting of the Shangri-La Dialogue, “out leapt a Mahanite” [1]. Even so, the jury remains out on the nature and scope of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influence in China. Yale professor Paul Kennedy and King’s College London professor Geoffrey Till observe that European sea powers appear to be deserting the oceans while Asians are building up powerful navies. The United States finds itself caught in between. Taken at face value, this notion suggests that Western powers are abandoning their command of the sea even as Asian powers are entering a neo-Mahanian age. Determining what that means for China—and by extension for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole—constitutes a matter of major importance for the United States’ standing as a Pacific power.

What Guidance Do Chinese Thinkers Draw from Mahan?

Long stigmatized in China for advocating imperialism and colonialism, Mahan has inspired a flurry of interest in Chinese scholarly and policy circles. Studies parsing terms like “command of the sea” (zhihaiquan) and “command of communications” (zhijiaotongquan) have proliferated. Some neo-Mahanians appear spellbound by the American theorist’s oft-cited description of command of the sea as “that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive.” Indeed, this bellicose-sounding phrase is by far the most common Mahan quotation to appear in Chinese commentary.

Strikingly, Imperial Japan has emerged as a model for PLAN development. Ni Lexiong, a professor of political science at the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law, faults the Qing Dynasty for being insufficiently Mahanian in its 1894-1895 naval tilt against Japan. China, says Ni, should bear in mind that Mahan “believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement” [2]. That distinguished analysts now pay tribute to Japanese sea power marks a stunning reversal in Chinese strategic thought.

Like Mahan, Chinese thinkers connect thriving commerce with naval primacy. In the respected Zhongguo Junshi Kexue, Major (Ret.) General Jiang Shiliang, then chief of the PLA General Logistics Department, invokes him to justify Chinese control of “strategic passages” traversed by vital goods. For Jiang, the contest for “absolute command” is a fact of life in international politics [3]. In a similar vein, Beijing’s 2004 Defense White Paper instructs the armed forces to “strengthen the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air” [4]. This remains the clearest statement of China’s Mahanian outlook.

Numerous Chinese analysts cite Mahanian-sounding principles when appraising the value of Taiwan, the midpoint of the first island chain, and occasionally Guam, America’s naval stronghold in the second island chain [5]. They view Taiwan as the single geographic asset, once returned to Beijing’s possession, which would grant China direct access to the Pacific. On the other hand, if Taiwan maintained de facto independence, the mainland would remain hemmed behind the inner island chain, which runs southward from the Japanese home islands to the Indonesian archipelago. The authoritative Science of Military Strategy declares, “If Taiwan should be alienated from the mainland … China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific.” If so, “the essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation will be lost” [6].

The Mahanian notion that sea power is inseparable from national greatness, moreover, resonates with many Chinese strategists. None other than Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander of the PLAN, sounds a Mahanian note, proclaiming that China is an “oceanic nation” endowed by nature with a long coastline, many islands, and a massive sea area under its jurisdiction. Wu calls on Chinese citizens to raise their collective consciousness of the seas in order to achieve “the great revitalization of the Chinese nation" (zhonghua minzu weida fuxing) [7]. The interplay he depicts between destiny and choice in China’s maritime future would have been instantly recognizable to Mahan.

How Mahanian Is the PLAN?

Many Chinese experts read Mahan attentively and quote him as an authority for their views. Yet they offer few specifics about the lessons they draw from him. To date, Chinese commentary has seldom gone beyond the claim that Mahan urged nations to build navies able to settle economic disputes through force of arms [8]. This borders on caricature. There are at least two possible explanations for this apparent superficiality. First, PLAN thinkers may still be translating, reading, and digesting his theories and considering how to apply them to Chinese foreign policy goals. If so, they will find there is far more to Mahan than combat between symmetrical battle fleets. The sea power evangelist insisted that commerce came first. Since “commerce thrives by peace and suffers by war,” he maintained, “it follows that peace is the superior interest” of seagoing nations.

If this hypothesis is correct, mentions of Mahan will appear more and more frequently in Chinese discourses. They will become more varied, expanding beyond Mahan’s most influential work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, to encompass more geopolitically minded books like The Problem of Asia and The Interest of America in Sea Power. As Chinese thinkers enrich their understanding of Mahanian theory—integrating not only the operational, tactical, and force-structure dimensions but also his views of international relations—they may well modulate their attitudes toward the proper uses of sea power. The primacy of peaceful commercial competition would be a welcome addition to China’s Mahanian discourses. Western analysts should monitor for signs of a deeper, richer grasp of sea-power theory.

Close study will reveal that Mahan never counseled naval war for its own sake. Far from espousing an open-ended American naval buildup, he urged the U.S. Navy to assume the strategic defensive in vital waters—chiefly the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico—expanses that would provide America its “gateway to the Pacific” once the Panama Canal opened. The United States had little need for a battle fleet able to outgun entire European navies; it merely needed enough to defeat the largest contingent likely to venture into the Americas. In Mahan’s estimate, a modest twenty battleships would allow for offensive operations within the strategic defensive. American strategy might—but need not—culminate in a latter-day Trafalgar or Tsushima.

If prosecuted in Mahan’s spirit, China’s “offshore defense” strategy, which traces its lineage to former PLAN commander Admiral Liu Huaqing (commonly dubbed “China’s Mahan”), would assert sea control for a finite time up to several hundred miles off the mainland’s coast. Indeed, some Chinese neo-Mahanians urge Beijing to exercise a version of “limited sea power" (youxian haiquan) that remains geographically circumscribed within the first island chain [9]. A Mahanian PLAN would concentrate its efforts on seaways critical to trade and on defending China’s maritime sovereignty. Beijing would content itself with an adequate—but not overbearing—fleet.

Encouraging analytical trends, then, are starting to emerge among Chinese thinkers. China’s University of Maritime Sciences Professor Liu Zhongmin’s three-part series on sea power theory, for instance, demonstrates a far more comprehensive reading of Mahan’s voluminous writings, representing a discernible advance in scholarship. Beijing has also been analyzing the rise and fall of past great powers, sorting through history for guidance on how to manage its own ascent. Some Chinese scholars are beginning to acknowledge the singular importance that Mahan attached to peacetime commerce [10]. How much momentum this more nuanced, more accurate interpretation of sea power theory will gain in Beijing remains to be seen.

Second, Chinese navalists may simply be using Mahan to lobby for a big navy composed of expensive, high-tech platforms. They do not need to read Mahan’s works widely or deeply to hype the threat to Chinese maritime interests, building the case for a strong fleet. By no means would the PLAN be the first navy to use Mahan as a rallying cry. Mahan himself recalled that the Imperial Japanese were his most ardent admirers. No one showed “closer or more interested attention to the general subject,” he wrote; “how fruitfully, has been demonstrated both by their preparation and their accomplishments in the recent war,” namely the Russo-Japanese War, which culminated in a decisive fleet clash at Tsushima Strait. It remains a standard quip that U.S. Navy leaders use Mahan to justify building a big fleet, but otherwise leave his books on the shelf.

The notion that there is a sloganeering aspect to the PLAN’s use of Mahan remains doubtless. Like other works of strategic theory—Sun Tzu’s Art of War comes to mind—Mahan’s writings are malleable. They can be put to a variety of uses, from stoking Chinese nationalism to carving out bigger navy budgets. If Chinese Mahanians cherry-pick the parts of his theory that prescribe apocalyptic fleet encounters, China’s maritime rise may tend toward confrontation with fellow sea powers. That is, if the same drumbeat of Mahanian commentary persists, it will furnish a leading indicator of trouble for the U.S. Navy and its Asian partners.

An Asymmetric Yet Mahanian PLAN

Even if China does interpret Mahan in warlike fashion, it need not construct a navy symmetrical to the U.S. Navy to achieve its maritime goals, such as upholding territorial claims around the Chinese nautical periphery, commanding East Asian seas and skies, and safeguarding distant sea lines of communication. Beijing could accept Mahan’s general logic of naval strategy while seeking to command vital sea areas with weaponry and methods quite different from anything Mahan foresaw. If the much-discussed anti-ship ballistic missile pans out, for instance, the PLA could hold U.S. Navy carrier strike groups at a distance. Medium-sized Chinese aircraft carriers could operate freely behind that defensive shield, sparing the PLAN the technical and doctrinal headaches associated with constructing big-deck carriers comparable to the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz or Ford classes. Beijing would fulfill its Mahanian goal of local sea control at a modest cost—an eminently sensible approach, and one that Mahan would have applauded. Thus, Western observers should avoid projecting their own assumptions onto Chinese strategic thinkers.

Strategic theory, then, gives Westerners an instrument to track China’s maritime rise, complementing more traditional techniques of net assessment. If Chinese scholars and seafarers continue ignoring the cooperative strands of Mahanian thought, mistaking his writings for (or misrepresenting them as) bloody-minded advocacy of naval battle, Chinese strategy will incline toward naval competition and conflict. On the other hand, a China whose leadership fully grasps the logic governing Mahanian theory may prove less contentious. Western observers should keep sifting through Chinese strategic discourses and official statements in an effort to ascertain where China’s Mahanian turn may lead. America’s strategic longevity in Asia could depend on it.

1. “Chasing Ghosts,” Economist, June 11, 2009, https://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13825154.
2. Ni Lexiong, “Sea Power and China’s Development,” Liberation Daily, April 17, 2005, p. 5, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, https://www.uscc.gov/researchpapers/translated_articles/2005/ 05_07_18_Sea_Power_and_Chinas_Development.pdf.
3. Jiang Shiliang, “The Command of Communications,” Zhongguo Junshi Kexue, October 2, 2002, pp. 106-14, FBIS-CPP20030107000189.
4. State Council, China’s National Defense in 2004, December 2004, p. 8.
5. See Zhan Huayun, Oceanic Exits: Strategic Passageways to the World, Modern Navy, April 2007, p. 28, Li Yuping, Interpreting Sea Power through Taiwan’s Strategic Geography, Modern Ships, April 2004, p. 5, and Bai Yanlin, Island Chains and the Chinese Navy, Modern Navy, October 2007, p. 18, and Lu Baosheng and Guo Hongjun, “Guam: A Strategic Stronghold on the West Pacific,” Jiefangjun Bao, June 19, 2003, FBIS-CPP20030619000057.
6. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005), p. 443.
7. Wu Shengli and Hu Yanlin, “Building a Powerful People’s Navy That Meets the Requirements of the Historical Mission for Our Army,” Qiushi 14 (July 16, 2007).
8. For a sample of an excessive focus on the more bellicose dimensions of Mahan’s writings see, Liu Xinhua and Qin Yi, Modern Sea Power and National Maritime Strategy, Journal of Social Sciences, March 2004, p. 73.
9. Wang Sujuan,  Globalization Era and Chinese Sea Power, Journal of Chifeng College, February 2007, p. 87, and Zhang Wenmu, Survival, Development, Sea Power,  Contemporary Military Digest, July 2006, p. 30.
10. See Liu Zhongmin, The Question of Sea Power in Geopolitical Theory, Parts 1-3, Ocean World, May-July 2008. Also see Pu Yao, The History, Current State, and Development Trends of Geopolitical Theory, Social Scientist, June 2008, p. 144.