The Mystery of China’s Naval Strategy

Almost daily, we have news of Chinese military preparations or activities: her new second aircraft carrier, her quantum communications, her ever-increasing power. Serious analysts, however, usually pose a simple question when considering such developments: what is their purpose? What is the geopolitical end-state that the country in question envisions after her operations are completed? After all, no one is going to invade China, so defenses need not be on this scale. Is she seriously thinking of invading someone else? Her most important land neighbors are Russia, Kazakhstan, and India. Most would say that it would not only be pointless for China to attack any of these, but also self-destructive. Consider the bloody defeat inflicted on China in 1979 by little Vietnam (128,000 square miles; Germany is 138,000) in a conflict that still smolders. In the language of strategy: What is China’s policy? Where does she want to get?

Under my maddening, stupid, repetitive questioning, not unlike the below, I finally received the exasperated answer: “No matter what, we will be a great country” (無論如何我們是一個大國家). I had not the energy nor my poor victim any desire to discuss what “great” meant: Coming at the top of Freedom House’s list of countries rated by freedom and democracy? Having the lowest infant death rate? Or the highest literacy and numeracy level? Or most equal Gini coefficient? Cleanest and most beautiful natural environment? Number of Nobel Prizes or Olympic medals per capita? Largest number of people who say they are happy? Largest number of H-Bombs? You can choose lots of metrics, but no matter who you are, you will come out badly on some (e.g. U.S. Gini coefficient, literacy, etc.). To be tops in everything is what the Chinese wish for their country and their children—but it is impossible, and it is childish. 

To the best of my knowledge, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (1840-1914) works were not translated into Chinese the first time around, in the nineteenth century, when they went into Japanese and many other languages, and are thought by many to have influenced national policies. 1954 appears to be the first Chinese edition of The Influence of Sea Power on History which appeared in the West in 1890. Now, in print in China in better annotated editions than we have, clearly Mahan has influenced the Chinese who are now pouring vast sums into something no Chinese state has ever possessed before: namely, a high seas fleet. I suspect they are attracted not so much by the specifics of Mahan’s theory as by certain stirring generalities, for example:

“It was not by attempting great military operations on land, but by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe, that England ensured the triumph of their country.”[1]

A phrase like “by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe” may sound like a policy or desired end-state an ambitious country such as China, that feels status deprived. But it is not.

Mahan is not about how to use sea power to conquer the world, but only in how to use it to conquer a specific adversary. He got the ideas that made him famous during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) when he stayed at the Phoenix Club in Lima (still there) and started reading about how Hannibal attacked Rome—crossing the Alps—and reflected on how easier a time he would have had if, like Scipio, he had been able to use ships to land on the coast and win quickly as Scipio did in 202 BC having crossed the sea easily to Zama near Carthage (and also by buying off Hannibal’s chief ally). This led Mahan to coin the phrase “sea power:” something long extant, but never named and examined before.

In both the Napoleonic War and the Second Punic War, maritime operations were direct contributors to the loss of what were essentially land wars. I believe the Chinese now consider sea control to be an element, if not the key element, in her future ill-defined greatness.

One suspects that some top leaders, having a superficial acquaintance with Mahan, think they can realize what was not even Mahan’s topic: control of much in global affairs with sea power. Such a concept is absent from Mahan. He believed that local sea control was necessary against an adversary in order to enforce a blockade that would bring it down. How exactly this would happen Mahan never says. His argument contains no real “theory of victory,” rather it assumes that most states are vulnerable to blockade (he was on service blockading the Confederacy during the Civil War). That may be true for small states, but it makes no sense for large land powers such as China, Russia, India, the United States, etc.

Not fleets, but alliances backed by military power, allow the extension of influence. Truth be told, China has no allies. How can one exercise unilateral hegemony over Asia from the sea as the Chinese are warning their neighbors? It is impossible. The United States aircraft carrier Reagan will visit Camh Ranh Bay in Vietnam next year not by shooting her way in but because the Vietnamese will welcome her. One can begin the conquest of a country with sea power and air power, but how does one get enough troops there by ship to fight on land? Can one rule from horseback, a Chinese general asked two thousand years ago—or rather, from the fleet? No. According to another story, the Germans were asked before World War I what they would do if the British landed on the Baltic Coast. They answered, “Send the gendarmerie and arrest them.”

More than anything else, Mahan emphasized, “never divide the fleet.” His theory of a “fleet in being,” essentially deterrence in nineteenth century diction, states that if a country maintains a fleet certain of victory, that fact will cause other powers not to attack, even though owing to sailing times, it might be two months before their fleet was destroyed. The Chinese seem not to have read this part. For with her numerous acquisitions of naval bases e.g. in Pakistan and coral atolls in the South China Sea, defense will require dividing the fleet. If submarines menace access to one of China’s “coaling stations” or South Sea rocks, several ships will have to be peeled off to deal with the contingency—which will not be easy to do, given the remoteness of these places from China and their proximity to land that can support, among other things, much more air power than they can bring to the theatre. Think how American submarines paralyzed the Japanese in the South Pacific by simply isolating islands holding immense garrisons, and thus taking them out of the war.

Such islets and harbors, however, are unlikely to be the focus of conflict. Russia, a naval power of some magnitude, will never tolerate Chinese dominance of the seas around Vladivostok and Kamchatka. A war started at sea would become a land war China could not win. The Korean peninsula flanks the Bohai Gulf which is the only sea lane into north China; Shanghai faces Kyushu, so it is strategically untenable; only Hainan island has some open water, but it is all either cupped like the island itself by Vietnam, or flanked by the long Vietnamese coast. Finally, let us not forget India which, one suspects, is capable of closing the Strait of Malacca from the Andaman and Nicobar islands: lining up ships, and pulling out those headed for China.

Is China in fact she neglecting land power? For some time before World War I, the Germans spent more on their failed “risk fleet” designed to keep Britain out by menacing her navy, key to the island’s survival. Had they spent that money on their army, they would probably have won the war.

I would count every one of China’s fourteen land neighbors—Pakistan included—as either potentially hostile or hostile. This number does not include offshore powers like Japan, which has immense resources with which to help. So suppose a war began, and as Chinese General Liu Yazhou (劉亞洲), a fervent anti-Japanese nationalist, who also knows his trade, has predicted, the Japanese stealthy submarines sank the eastern fleet in four hours? China would be humiliated and exposed. We lack the space to consider domestic political consequences.

I know a bit about the excellent Singapore navy which controls the Philip Channel, the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca (1.5 miles). Suppose China, necessarily dividing the fleet, sent a taskforce to subdue Singapore (278 square miles). I have no doubt that Singapore would sink the Chinese. Multiply this scenario by all the contingencies China is creating, and one has an impossible strategic problem.

When it comes to strategic destinations, I use the following image. China is a bus, the biggest in world history. It is carrying more people than any bus has ever before. It is going faster than any bus in history. In what direction? Straight ahead. One steps up and asks the driver, “Where are we going?” The driver responds, “I’m not sure exactly, but as we get closer, I’ll be able to tell you more.” This is a terrible approach to strategy and policy, but it seems to be China’s right now.


[1] Mahan, Alfred T., The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793-1812 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1895). Volume 2, p. 402 quoted in https://severalfourmany.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/mahan-corbett-douhet-and-mitchell.pdf

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