Features | Security | East Asia

Yes, China Could Have a Global Navy

The idea that Chinese strategists are too limited in their thinking to have a world-straddling navy is misplaced, argues James Holmes.

James R. Holmes

My colleague Prof. Bernard ‘Bud’ Cole doubts China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) can transform itself into a global force by mid-century, realizing founding father Adm. Liu Huaqing’s vision of a navy that commands an expanding belt of offshore waters before taking its place alongside the U.S. Navy as a world-straddling fleet. Writing in the Naval Institute Proceedings, Cole—a veteran U.S. Navy surface warfare officer and author of The Great Wall at Sea—deems Chinese maritime strategy “antithetical to historic naval strategic thinking, whether formulated by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, or any other maritime strategist of note.”

I’m not so sure. Importing ideas from abroad is never straightforward, but Chinese strategists read the classic works attentively—more so than their contemporaries in the West. They have fused concepts drawn from the greats of sea power with China’s land-warfare traditions. Chinese maritime strategy is an alloy between East and West, land and sea power. To me it’s almost beside the point whether the PLA Navy grows into a global force. Beijing sees pressing interests at stake in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. So does Washington, judging from its current maritime strategy, which vows to stage “credible combat power” in these two oceans for the foreseeable future. These are the theatres that matter—for both nations.

An Intellectual Shortfall?

As Bud sees it, an intellectual deficit fetters China’s maritime ambitions. It takes two closely related forms. First and foremost, China, a continental power steeped in land warfare, thinks in terms of “defending fixed and limited areas at sea.” As Cole tells it, Liu urged the PLA Navy to construct forces “capable of exerting sea control out to the First Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kurile Islands, through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, then through the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago.” He envisioned consummating this first phase of naval development by 2000—a benchmark the navy conspicuously failed to meet.

“By 2020,” continues Cole, the PLA Navy should be able to “exert sea control out to the Second Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kuriles, through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then through the [Mariana] Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago,” enclosing much of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea within a zone of Chinese maritime supremacy. The fleet would commence global operations by 2050.

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Cole points out that Liu made a career move unthinkable in the U.S. armed forces, ascending the army ranks before assuming command of the navy in the 1980s. According to Cole, the first two phases in the PLA Navy chief’s strategic design “reflect a traditional continentalist view: armies operate in and across solid geography, cued to lines of defense, advance and withdrawal, and logistics lines…There are no lines at sea, however, which calls into question both the maritime applicability of his theory [and] the ultimate goal of his eloquent plan for modernizing the Chinese navy” (my emphasis).

Second, Cole faults the PLA Navy for overreliance on “anti-access” and “area-denial” weaponry to shut adversary forces—chiefly the U.S. Navy—out of East Asian waters during a Taiwan contingency or some other clash along China’s nautical periphery. He suggests this constitutes a static, passive approach inimical to global navies. Under Beijing’s anti-access strategy, diesel submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), stealthy catamarans, and other short-range or shore-based weapons erect a dense, “layered” defense against forces that venture into China’s geographic environs. By pummeling forces steaming westward across the Pacific, PLA defenders could ratchet up the costs of intervention so high that a U.S. president would hesitate long enough for Beijing to accomplish its goals. Better yet, Washington might desist from a rescue effort altogether.

Bud interprets anti-access as proof that “current Chinese naval strategic thinking remains based on defending limited areas at sea…and that the [PLA Navy] is intending to draw lines at sea.” This intellectually barren approach deprives the Chinese fleet of the “core value of naval forces: mobility and flexibility.” This adds up to a damning indictment of China’s navy, and of Chinese thinkers’ strategic fluency. Furthermore, the implications for fellow Asian powers are sweeping. If Liu’s geographically minded program appears predestined to fail, dulling Chinese minds in the process, the United States and its allies have less to worry about than many analysts think. They can take a relatively laid-back approach to China’s maritime rise.

But, as ESPN sportscaster Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend!” There’s more texture to sea-power theory, and more to Chinese strategic thought about the sea, than Cole allows. Beijing can never escape the exigencies of land defense, but it isn’t captive to the nation’s continental past and traditions. Mahan beguiles Chinese strategists in part because he too applied concepts from land warfare to the sea. He had to; the field of maritime history remained a backwater when he got his start in the late 1800s. He was fond of quoting Napoleon’s maxim that “war is a business of positions.” And he called Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, a continental thinker of considerable renown—a commentator with an intensely geospatial view of combat that emphasized topography, positions, and lines—“my best military friend.” Mahan ratifies, complements, and shapes China’s approach to strategy.

Let’s take Cole’s geographic argument first. It’s true in a narrow sense that there are no lines on the high seas. The open sea resembles a featureless plain for mariners plying the oceans far from land—which is why mathematicians such as myself typically enjoy navigation. Seafarers use nautical charts to plot courses from place to place, paying scant heed to underwater topography. They use “maneuvering boards” based on polar co-ordinates and vector mechanics to manage the relative movement of ships within formations. Where else can you put classroom learning to everyday use?

Mahan recognized all of this. Not for nothing did he ascribe the strategic value of the Hawaiian archipelago to its lonely position amid an empty maritime plain. Hawaii represented the only convenient stopping place for ships bound from North America to Asia or the reverse. Sea-power theorists like Mahan and Corbett also observe that the oft-used term “sea lanes” is a misnomer on the high seas. For instance, shipping commonly follows a “great circle” path from seaport to seaport, if possible. Such a course traces the shortest distance between two points on the globe, thereby saving on fuel, steaming time, and wear-and-tear on crews and machinery. But there’s no geographic reason skippers can’t plot more roundabout courses between the same origins and destinations if they accept the extra costs. Mahan and Corbett both point out that all one fleet can know for sure about another is its point of origin. If commanders can learn their adversary’s destination, so much the better. Their other option is to loiter near “focal points” or “chokepoints”—think straits like Malacca or Gibraltar that provide access from one body of water to another—in hopes of picking up the trail.

But this all breaks down when a fleet closes in on land—as it ultimately must to make a difference. Corbett depicts maritime strategy as the art of using seagoing forces in concert with armies to influence events ashore. Since wars are fought on land, that’s where navies must make their presence felt. Mahan pays less attention to “joint” use of land and sea forces, locking his gaze squarely on sea combat. On the other hand, he pays far more attention to geography than do Corbett, Wolfgang Wegener, and other sea-power theorists.

That’s because—contra Cole—Mahan designed his maritime strategy with the goal of empowering the United States to command the confined waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Lines on the map abound in such enclosed “Mediterranean” seas, as well as other coastal zones. Indeed, Mahan got his start appraising the strategic features of the Gulf and Caribbean—the “fixed and limited” sea areas the United States had to dominate to keep European navies from establishing bases menacing the approaches to a Central American canal, America’s “gateway” to the Pacific Ocean. And riverine warfare represented a decisive part of the Union victory in the American Civil War. The Confederates “admitted their enemies to their hearts” by surrendering command of the Mississippi River and other inland waterways.

The United States’ sea-power “evangelist,” then, repeatedly accentuates the strategic worth of shorelines, lines of islands, and other strategic barriers—much as Chinese strategists ponder how to cope with Asia’s offshore island chains. Geographic analysis came first for him. “In considering any theater of actual or possible war,” he wrote in Naval Strategy precisely a century ago, “the first and most essential thing is to determine what position, or chain of positions, by their natural and inherent advantages affect control of the greatest part” of that theater (my emphasis).

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And like Chinese maritime strategists today, Mahan drew explicitly on traditions of land combat to fashion a theory of warfare at sea. “The same processes” used to analyze the value of land positions “are suitable to the study of a maritime strategic field.” He was enamored of the writings of Archduke Charles of Austria, who depicted the stretch of the Danube River between Ulm and Regensburg as “the controlling military feature” of Germany despite the passage of two thousand years and dramatic changes in technology and tactics. Posts along the river controlled the movement of armies—just as navies based on seacoasts or islands could control the movement of fleets. Proclaimed Mahan, “geography underlies strategy.”

Here’s what Mahan had to say about the Gulf and Caribbean. Together these expanses constituted “a kind of inland sea, or Mediterranean” whose boundary lines are traced by the Florida peninsula, Cuba, Haiti, and the Lesser Antilles, or Windward Islands, on the one side’ and by the land masses of North, Central, and South America on the other. He estimated the value of passages that provided access to these bodies of water. “The military importance of such passages or defiles depends not only upon their geographic position” but also upon their width, their length, any underwater topography or hydrographic conditions that complicated transit through them, and the availability of nearby alternatives should they be closed to shipping. The “entire sweep from Haiti to Trinidad” was “traversable at so many points as to be practically a continuous stretch of water,” but a fleet approaching from the Atlantic would have to make a long voyage to pass through this permeable barrier.

Far better to cross into “America’s Mediterranean,” as Nicholas Spykman later dubbed it, through one of the northern entryways. Jamaica, to the north and west, was ideally situated to guard “a frontier line of over nine hundred miles” against invasion from the broad Atlantic. The island “flanks all lines of communication.” It held the key to the Caribbean, although nearby Cuba—overshadowing Jamaica with its strategic position, natural resources, and defensibility—possessed “the grip that can wrest it away.” Cuba and Santo Domingo formed an 1,100-mile land barrier between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It was “broken in this stretch in only one place, by the Windward Passage,” which was just over fifty miles wide. If a strong fleet held the Windward Passage, it could compel an enemy fleet to make a substantial detour, wasting its fuel and supplies and hindering naval detachments from combining for battle.

Chinese thinking about island chains and other offshore topography, then, is entirely consistent with what the most geographically attuned classical maritime strategist had to say about the topic. What Mahan doesn’t say about lines of strategic positions is as important as what he does say. He didn’t counsel “perimeter defense”, or dispersing forces thinly along a vast frontier to deny an enemy freedom of movement. This was folly. Even the strongest navy had to target finite resources on controlling important passages and moving nimbly to meet adversary fleets. Nor did he see lines on the map as impenetrable barriers. He understood that a thinking, reacting opponent possessed of a mobile, flexible fleet would always have options.

Nor did Mahan regard defensive perimeters as passive defenses. They were staging points from which to constrain and assault enemy navies. The United States had wrested island bases—including strategically located Guantanamo Bay—from Spain in 1898. A modest-sized U.S. Navy—he espoused a fleet of twenty armored battleships with an entourage of lesser craft—could make itself supreme in this crucial inland sea provided it possessed adequate forward bases, and provided its commanders grasped the strategic dynamics imposed by islands, seaports, and maritime passages. “Herein—that is, in the present possession of a continuous line of posts—lies the permanent advantage of the United States, in the West Indies, as compared to European states, which must always have the long exposed transatlantic stretch to cover’ before entering the Gulf or Caribbean.” (my emphasis).

…And Liu Wasn’t Inflexible About Them

If Chinese strategists err by thinking in linear terms about semi-enclosed waters, then, they are in good company. Nor did Liu Huaqing, known in the West as China’s Mahan, think in terms of fixed, passive defenses. In his 2004 memoir, Liu recalled giving a lecture that “stressed the Navy’s operational principle and summarized it as ‘active defense and offshore battles.’” How, and where, should this principle be put into effect? He concedes that a very realistic question was how to unify the understanding of the concept of “offshore.”

As he tells it, the PLA Navy never equated China’s defense perimeter strictly to island chains. “In the past,” he writes, “the Navy had described the seas within 200 nautical miles of our coast as ‘offshore.’” A “unified understanding of the concept” that complied with political guidance from paramount leader Deng Xiaoping encompassed “the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea, the seas around the Nasha Islands and Taiwan and inside and outside the Okinawa island chain, as well as the northern part of the Pacific” (my emphasis). For “a relatively long time to come, the main areas for the Navy’s operations would be the First Island Chain and its outside seas as well as the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea” (my emphasis).

Operating zones for the PLA Navy would include “not only the sea areas under China’s jurisdiction as defined by the [UN] Convention on the Law of the Sea, but also the South China Sea islands, which are China’s inherent territories.” Indeed, there’s a striking analogy between U.S. strategy in the Gulf and Caribbean during the age of Mahan and contemporary Chinese strategy in the South China Sea, another Mediterranean sea. “With the continuous growth of our economic strength, the elevation of our science and technology level, and the further boosting of our naval force,” continued the admiral, “our sea-war areas would gradually expand to the northern Pacific and the ‘Second Island Chain.’” Again, the second island chain wasn’t a rigid defense perimeter in Adm. Liu’s vision. “In applying tactics to ‘active defense’ operations, we would act on the guiding principle that we advance if the enemy advances. That is, if the enemy attacked our coastal areas, we would attack the enemy’s rear.” The strategic defensive presented PLA commanders certain operational opportunities.

Active defense was—well, active. Liu recounts addressing a June 1984 forum. He was gratified that the navy had embraced “a unified guiding ideology for its combat operations. It had made clear the combat principle of ‘active defense, offshore battles’ and the combat forms of ‘positional warfare for firm coastal defense, mobile sea warfare, and sabotage guerrilla sea warfare.’” At a gathering to learn the lessons of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, “I particularly stressed the need to adhere to the strategic principle of active defense…Put another way, our strategy was defensive in general…Of course, our defense wasn’t passive defense, but was active defense. Defense, in itself, should be a combination of defense and attack, I stressed.” Now as during Liu’s tenure, operational and tactical offence within the strategic defensive is a mainstay of Chinese maritime strategy.

The PLA Navy Is No Passive Force

And finally, it’s far from clear that geographic thinking shackles Chinese maritime strategy. Mahan paid tribute to the capacity of land-based or short-range weaponry to deny passage through narrow seas. Such waterways “bear an analogy to bridges over a river.” Wide passages “must be held by an active force instead of by permanent works; for they cannot be closed by fortifications.” The navy, that is, must put to sea to fight for control of broad waterways. But if, for example, “the Windward Channel between Cuba and Haiti were two miles wide…it could be made impregnable by forts and torpedoes against all ordinary attack or passage.” Given the rudimentary weapons technology of Mahan’s day, when effective gunnery range was only a few miles, “natural water bridges of such a character” were few and far between. The Bosporus and the Dardanelles, allowing transit between the Mediterranean and Black seas, were a “conspicuous example of such, and in the hands of a strong nation could not be forced.”

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And indeed, scant years later, during World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy tried to force the straits—and suffered an epic defeat at Turkish hands. In this age of land-based anti-ship missiles and tactical aircraft—weapons with range, precision guidance, and hitting power that dwarf the guns of a century ago—far more nautical passages fall within reach of shore-based weaponry. In one sense this helps China. As Mahan observed, narrow seas with difficult hydrographics “correspond precisely to difficult country ashore.” Such districts, he declared, “favor a kind of guerrilla sea warfare.” That’s exactly what access denial—Liu’s offshore active defense—connotes. But in another sense it works against China. Strategic competitors like Japan control passages through which Chinese shipping must pass to reach the Western Pacific and other crucial expanses. They possess anti-ship hardware of their own. Maritime Asia, it seems, is becoming an arena for back-and-forth struggle for strategic advantage. How China, the United States, and other protagonists will fare is anyone’s guess.

Astute PLA Navy commanders backed by shore-based missiles and combat aircraft could give a superior adversary like the U.S. Navy fits. If Beijing can hold U.S. forces off with its “flotilla” of diesel submarines, fast patrol boats, and anti-ship missiles, it can liberate the surface fleet to operate freely under the protective shield provided by access denial. ASBM coverage will extend hundreds of miles seaward if that “bird” lives up to its billing—perhaps even out to the second island chain. A map in the Pentagon’s annual reports on Chinese military power shows the ASBM “threat envelope” covering most of the Western Pacific, the entire South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Bay of Bengal, and parts of the Arabian Sea. That opens up vast maneuvering room for the Chinese fleet, allowing naval commanders to operate with the mobility and flexibility Bud Cole rightly extols, not to mention the confidence that comes with ready fire support from PLA rocketeers based on home soil. A defensive fleet can be a venturesome fleet.

Yogi Berra joked that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Prof. Cole could be correct. Continental thinking could stunt the PLA Navy’s intellectual growth, preventing it from maturing into an oceangoing peer of the U.S. Navy and allied sea services. But even if so, China’s navy could well manage what America’s navy did a century ago. Strategists will study China’s geographic surroundings, fit a strategy to those surroundings, and design a fleet capable of vying for supremacy there. Will the PLA Navy become a global navy? Who knows? But Beijing’s and Washington’s strategic gazes will remain fixed on the same expanses—the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean—for the foreseeable future. China’s navy promises to pose stubborn strategic problems for the U.S. Navy, even if it confines its endeavors to maritime Asia.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic MonthlyBest Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.