China’s Naval Strategy: Mahanian Ends Through Maoist Means
Image Credit: U.S. Naval Institute

China’s Naval Strategy: Mahanian Ends Through Maoist Means


My copies of the paperback edition of Red Star over the Pacific arrived today, still warm from the presses. Now seems like a fitting time to review how well the book has stood up to events, and maybe yield to the temptation to tweak some of Toshi Yoshihara's and my (mercifully few) critics. It has stood up remarkably well considering the velocity of events since 2010, when it first saw print. There's little I would change at this juncture.

But not nothing. One part could stand — nay, cries out for — an overhaul. I refer to our survey of Chinese soft power. Beijing was on a roll when we assembled the book. It had put an appealing visage on its maritime rise, that of Ming Dynasty seafarer Zheng He. Zheng He sojourned in Southeast and South Asia in the 15th century, and he did so without attempting territorial conquest. Chinese officials and pundits cast him as the authentic face of Chinese seafaring.

Though not especially good history — until fairly recent times, the Chinese Communist regime went out of its way to distance itself from if not erase China's dynastic past — it made a beguiling diplomatic narrative. We admired the artistry. Since then, however, Beijing has junked its soft-power offensive, and indeed has gone out of its way to affront the smaller neighbors it once conciliated. "Smile" diplomacy morphed into scowl, Zheng He into General Zod.

Why? 'Tis a mystery. A mystery any second edition (hint, hint, Naval Institute editors) must try to unravel.

The most persistent critique of Red Star over the Pacific vexes me not because some critics unearthed a defect in the book, but because they appeared unable to fathom our rather straightforward organizing concept. We started with Clausewitz's dictum that war has its own grammar — the grammar of violent battlefield interaction — but not its own logic. War is a political act, and thus derives its logic — its overarching purpose — from policy and grand strategy.

Logic is about political and grand-strategic ends, then, while grammar is about the ways and means used to fulfill those ends. Easy-peasy.

Mahan is rare among strategic theorists in that he articulates both the ends–or logic–and the ways and means–or grammar–by which seagoing states try to reach important goals. His discourses on the mechanics of naval warfare feel obsolescent a century hence, but his meditations on the logic of sea power — a logic founded on commerce, bases, and ships, and on commercial, political, and military access to important theaters — appear everlasting.

The one element of Mahanian theory is separable from the other. An aspiring sea power can embrace Mahan's larger philosophy while rejecting his methods, in part or in whole. For a sea power like China, which is concerned mainly with subduing its nautical environs, there is no contradiction between pursuing Mahanian goals and working through other — Maoist, we contend — methods. Mahan and Mao: quite a twosome.

Our Chinese competitors, then, display more strategic fluency than do learned commentators this side of the Pacific. Which is worrisome. Am I missing something? Is this merger of Mahan and Mao more arcane than it seems?

June 24, 2013 at 03:03

The notion that China has junked its soft power initiatives in favor of adopting the persona of a slavering homicidal psychopath assumes China was operating in a vacuum.  We must ask ourselves, however, if it is not posible that China's so-called charm offensive simply made no headway and that they decided that a lack of progress necessitated a change in tactics?

Many experts and observers scratch their heads in bewilderment at China's actions, thus betraying the facile logic and understanding of the situation.  "China was so passive for decades!  What happened?"

What happened was decades of trying to negotiate solutions and settle disputes via soft power alone led to decades of disputes being unsettled.  These territorial disputes China has with her neighbors did not sprout up over night.  "Experts" mention the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, the Paracels, or the South China Sea disputes with this sort of indignant alarm that borders on the hysterical, but ignores the fact that these disputes have been long in the running.  

The only change is China is now willing to back up its soft power with hard power.  It is willing to tell other people that if you will not negotiate in good faith to give them what they want, they will effect change through force of arms.

Sound familiar?

June 23, 2013 at 12:59

The Americans are not pretending that they don't understand the obvious conquence of their 'pivoting'. They choose not to understand the possible blowback of their policy, just they choose to not to understand that there is possible blowback to invade and occupy other countries under false pretexts.

June 23, 2013 at 11:20

Calvin, slight update, the US was in recession and will probably emerge stronger than its ever been.the US was  involved in multiple war fronts but rapidly pulling out of both. The QE programs essentially means the US isjust matching china in its RMB manipulation  which is having the effect of lowering the value of the dollar relative to the Rmb thus changing the dynamics of trade for both countries.the US is simultaniously pressuring china to float its currency .China itself is doing alot of damage to its own economy by bullying its neighboursthen ppl are reluctent to buy made in china products(feeding the dragon) many people I know are actively avoiding china made products when they can.sure this can be a little more expensive but in time other manufacturing countries will begin to notice this trend a fill the void. The US can play the long game just as well as china.

June 23, 2013 at 09:55

' is stuck in' not stucking.

June 23, 2013 at 09:47

@ Bankotsu,

No,  it's not due to the US' rebalancing to Asia.  It's the very Chinese miscalculations, misconception & misperception that after 2008's global financial crisis, Uncle Sam's  over & now it's  prime time for a revisionist China to reclaim its previous glorious position in Asia & in the world as well. There's no need for 'peaceful rise'  or ' smile diplomacy' any more. Now its' right time for ' gunboat diplomacy, bullying, coercing  & intimidating other tiny guys into submission to the 'All-under-Heaven-Middle-Kingdom'. The great Sun Zi had taught you folks, '  Must know yourself & your enemy well to win all battles." But this time around, a hegemonic expansionist China's been so  greedy & excited about its 'golden dream of  great power' that it's forgotten all of  its greatest strategist's important teachings. That's the reason why China is stucking in this inescapable morass. Don't blame others for your own faults or mistakes. Keep in mind the current  capitalism is a globalized one without national borders or limits. Thus, its' hard for China to confront or resist it. And resistance is futile! Better be…. its responsible stakeholder!

June 22, 2013 at 21:20

I think the problem is not the US Pivot. This approach came with Obama Administration and the PRC behaviour’s change is previous to this policy, established at least in the 2008 White Paper. And the issue is also between the PRC and Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Camboya… least.

June 22, 2013 at 15:34

China's strategy is simple, it is not military but economically. 

As US is having a financial crisis, and multiple warfronts. The way to allow the Chinese to catch up faster is for US to continue pumping liquidity, both by QE and also involve in more miltiary expenses. As US is deploying their troops to Asia, they need more resources from the local region, which means more China goods export, and more US bonds to be issued. 

Whereas China continues to play the paper tiger game. Remember the story of Song Dynasty ? Finally, they enslve the entire US government in bonds, literally. 

On the other hands, the state own enterprise will continue to buy listed shares of the military companies, and earn dividends from there. 

Another Sun Zi's thinking, "the best way to defeat your enemy, is never to engage in direct battle, and not lose a single man, and see your enemy crumble before you, as they are being misled."



June 22, 2013 at 14:07

from what I see the US has now a much easier task in its pivot to asia primarily due to China bullying its neighbours and driving them toward the US very open and welcoming arms.This means less diplomatic work for the US and hastens the logistical side of the pivot by way of establishing ports and bases in positions where they may have been  difficult to get.I bet it wont be long til the US is asked to re use Subic bay in Manila.Right now china is doing all the work for the US.china stratagy??? what stratagy??

June 22, 2013 at 13:26

So,Bankotsu, you obviously think china picking on its weaker neighbours makes it look stronger!! Funny how the smaller the neighbour the more aggressively china acts toward it.I dont see china blockading the   the senkakus ,they wouldnt dare cos Japan can and will hit back .traits of the classic WEAK schoolyard bully.China 

and its soft power is gone and china has since been unloading a pair of six shooters into its own feet.

June 21, 2013 at 20:08

"Is this merger of Mahan and Mao more arcane than it seems?"

Mao would call it the sinification of Mahanism, lol.

June 21, 2013 at 20:01

"Beijing has junked its soft-power offensive, and indeed has gone out of its way to affront the smaller neighbors it once conciliated. "Smile" diplomacy morphed into scowl, Zheng He into General Zod. Why? 'Tis a mystery…"

There's no mystery here. The reason is due to the U.S pivot. If China acts weak now, the U.S. will pivot even more forcefully to asia pacific to contain rise of China's power. The conflicts between China and the smaller states is not the main issue. The main issue is between China and the U.S. pivot. But it seems that on the american side, they are not willing to accept this truth. Thus there is a "mystery".  In truth everyone understands it, it's just that they pretend not to understand.


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