Adm. Liu Huaqing passed away late last week, aged 94. Strikingly for a figure obscure to rank-and-file Americans, his death occasioned obituaries in prominent news outlets including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times. The coverage is a fitting tribute to his chief bequest, namely today’s increasingly confident, seafaring China. China vacated the seas 600 years ago—breaking up the world’s most imposing navy, Adm. Zheng He’s ‘treasure fleet,’ by decree of the Ming emperor. Liu Huaqing superintended its return to the seas.
Liu commanded the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA Navy, during the 1980s, when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping broke with the Maoist past. Deng hurled China into the ambitious reform and opening initiative that yielded the economic prosperity now on display. Known in the West as ‘China’s Mahan,’ Liu entertained a parallel vision of China as a vibrant sea power whose maritime ambitions manifested themselves in a navy capable of protecting seagoing trade and staking the nation’s claim to great power. He rose to be China’s most senior military officer. He enjoyed enough bureaucratic clout and skill to see his ideas into practice, overcoming resistance from ardent Maoists and putting a maritime stamp on China’s historically land-centric military strategy. The PLA Navy taking shape today attests to his influence.
Liu sketched a phased strategy by which China would assert dominant influence within the two offshore island chains by the early decades of the twenty-first century. By midcentury, he hoped the PLA Navy would mature into a global fleet on par with the US Navy, then as now the gold standard for naval mastery. He staunchly denied being a follower of American sea captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the second president of the US Naval War College and the intellectual forefather of the modern US Navy. But strategic thought runs in grooves. The maritime strategy Liu drew up was strongly Mahanian in spirit, predicated on commercial, political, and military access to vital regions and on robust industrial production, merchant and naval fleets, and forward bases to support fleet operations. We call these ‘Mahan’s two tridents.’ They are abundantly in evidence in China today, regardless of whether the PLA Navy’s father admitted to the Mahanian lineage of his ideas.
Who comes next? It appears Liu found no single heir to his intellectual stature, force of character, or exalted military rank. For a closed society, China is home to boisterous debates over strategic affairs. Western observers should monitor the commentary over Liu’s life and legacy, monitoring which schools of thought lay claim to his ideas and how they interpret and seek to apply these ideas. This may offer a glimpse through a glass darkly into China’s nautical future. The US Navy found itself intellectually adrift after Mahan’s death in 1914. Indeed, Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, jested that the navy had devolved into a ‘dim religious world’ before World War II.
In other words, Mahanian ideas had become dogma, and the navy was increasingly out of step with advancing realities. Some of these ideas—such as the notion that the armoured battleship would remain central to fleet actions—had been rendered moot by technological progress. Yet the navy didn’t adapt itself to new realities until Japan’s demolition of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor jolted the leadership out of hidebound thinking. Similarly, will the PLA Navy depart from its founder’s vision, reinterpret that vision to suit the preferences of naval advocates, or allow it to ossify into orthodoxy?
In death as in life, Liu Huaqing can help the United States, its allies, and its friends track China’s naval progress and gaze ahead.
James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College, where Yoshihara holds the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies. The views voiced here are theirs alone.