What Makes China “Mahanian”?

The work of Alfred Thayer Mahan offers some useful insights into China. But the PLA will still go its own way.

Yesterday I spoke at the Center for the National Interest, which was hosting its inaugural program under the leadership of the Center's new Senior Director for China and the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Wallace "Chip" Gregson (Ret.). Also there was my Naval War College colleague and co-writer Toshi Yoshihara, and we discussed our recent book, Red Star over the Pacific

I wanted to share my remarks from the event, which examined China's maritime strategy and capabilities, the problems that China is facing in trying to learn how to operate a navy, and the potential consequences for the U.S. and its allies.

“What does it mean to say the Chinese are Mahanian? It clearly doesn’t mean they plan to build a fleet of armored dreadnoughts to fulfil China’s maritime destiny. What it does mean is that China has imported certain Mahanian ideas that fit with China’s unique needs and circumstances, and that it has fused these ideas into its overall strategy. Chinese maritime strategy is an alloy between East and West, and between past and present.

This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Many nations and many strategies have gone by the name Mahanian. Great Britain, Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, and the United States were all Mahanian while doing business in great waters quite differently.

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Central to our analysis is the notion put forward by Carl von Clausewitz that war has its own ‘grammar’ of violent interaction—that it is a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter—but not its own ‘logic’. The logic comes from policy, which in turn flows from larger national purposes.

1) Unlike other strategic theorists, Mahan had a specific agenda. Even Clausewitz, who insisted that policy "pervades" all aspects of military enterprises, remained silent about the content of policy. Mahan was not so reticent. He addressed both the logic and the grammar of maritime endeavours. Or, if you like, he spoke to both purpose and power, telling Americans what they ought to accomplish in the world as well as how to accomplish it.

2) We are not the first to notice this two-tiered dimension of Mahan’s writings. As we observe in the book, Margaret and Harold Sprout pointed out in the 1940s that he offered both a ‘philosophy of sea power’ and a "theory of naval strategy and defines." The former was timeless. Parts of the latter proved perishable at tactics and technology changed.

3) It's important to note that one need not read or quote Mahan to be "Mahanian". Minds run in grooves. Michael Handel notes that one can be ‘Clausewitzian’ without reading Clausewitz. Mahan credits the ancient Syracusan, Hermocrates, for being an intuitive genius of sea power—for fashioning a naval strategy that could have balked the Athenian invasion of Sicily. But reading these classic works does spare us from starting anew every time we examine a vexing strategic questions. Why should we reinvent the wheel? Why should China?

This digression is worthwhile because some of the critics of our book seem to think we claim that Chinese strategists embrace Mahan’s tactical, operational, and force-structure precepts—his grammar of naval warfare. Far from it. Beyond his maxim to seek out “overbearing power” that sweeps an enemy’s flag from vital waters, much of Mahan grammar of naval warfare appears musty if not obsolete. That’s why these aspects of his work seldom appear in Chinese strategic discourses.

Rather, it's the logic, or the philosophy, or the purposes, of maritime endeavours that captivates many Chinese pundits. Mahan’s logic of sea power meant assuring commercial, political, and military access—in that order—to vital regions. Doing so set in motion a virtuous cycle in which commerce generated wealth, wealth provided revenue to fund a navy, and the navy protected trade and commerce.

This logic unfolded within the geography of a particular theater. By depicting China as Mahanian, we don't mean to say China’s navy must be a blue-water force comparable to the U.S. Navy. It may confine its energies to maritime Asia for the foreseeable future. I believe it will.

Indeed, we focus most of our study on the age of Mahan, when naval advocates like Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt wanted to design a policy, a strategy, and a fleet to rule the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. That’s where new sea lanes would come into being once the Panama Canal opened. Mahan cut his teeth writing about the strategic features of this semi-enclosed body of water, and he returned to the subject time and again until his death in 1914.

If China is Mahanian, it would be only natural for it to take a similar approach to sea power, tending to business in waters close to home before—maybe—turning its attention to oceans farther afield. A Mahanian Chinese Navy need not be a world-straddling navy like the one familiar to us.

And finally, a quick word on our use of Mao. If we are right—if China can't look to Mahan for the grammar of naval combat—where should it look? We believe Beijing can adopt Mahanian purposes while sticking to tried and true methods of fighting. Admiral Liu Huaqing, the founding father of China’s navy—an officer known in the West as ‘China’s Mahan’—described the navy’s strategic principle as ‘active defines, offshore  battles’.

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Applying the Maoist tradition of active defines to the sea yields some interesting insights. A hybrid Mahanian-Maoist fleet would let the US Navy overextend itself while whittling away with weaponry like antiship ballistic missiles, diesel subs, fast attack craft, and land-based tactical aircraft. As Mao counselled, Chinese commanders would lure the enemy deep, much as a clever boxer let his adversary flail away and waste his energy at the outset of a match. Only then would the savvy boxer unleash a crushing right hook!

Chinese forces, that is, would cut U.S. Navy forces down to size on their voyage across the Pacific, evening or reversing the odds before a decisive fleet engagement—if one was needed by the time the remnants reached the theater.

In short, Mahan supplies guidance on the purposes of Chinese sea power and shapes Beijing’s outlook on maritime strategy. But Chinese maritime forces look to their own history and traditions for help with the mechanics of how to fulfil their nation’s Mahanian destiny. I hope this quick recap of our approach clarifies the language we speak in the book, and will enrich our discussions for the balance of our time together.

Thank you.”

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.