The Meaning of Sea Power
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

The Meaning of Sea Power


Give Norman Friedman credit for candor. He confesses his limits. While reviewing our book Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy in the latest issue of the Naval War College Review, Friedman admits that while we “read the Chinese literature” – the primary source material on which we based the book – he “does not.” It shows. He deems one of our chief findings, that China is building an oceangoing navy, “so obvious that it is not really worth arguing.” And he insists that “it is necessary to read other languages…such as those of naval hardware and of naval tactics” to glean insight into the make-up of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) and the strategy governing Chinese naval operations.

Well, sort of. This is more than a quarrel over a nasty book review.Indeed, in the year Red Star over the Pacific has been in print, we have been flattered by mostly favorable reviews while carrying on civil discourse with our critics. Friedman’s review falls into a different category. His mistakes are so many and so flagrant that they demand a response, lest unwary readers think we concede them. But what really worries us is that officials who make and execute policy may heed Friedman’s advice. If they disregard what Chinese strategists say while founding their judgments only on the facts and figures found in, say, Jane’s Fighting Ships, they will take a grub’s-eye perspective on China’s emergence as a great seafaring nation.

Short-sightedness begets faulty strategy. And Red Star over the Pacific is a book about strategy. We investigate tactical and technical matters only insofar as they illuminate it. Ours is a book about “sea power” and “maritime strategy,” concepts that encompass far more than armaments and tactics, the relevant but constricted language Friedman insists on speaking. Like many Chinese commentators, we take our lead from Alfred Thayer Mahan, who defined sea power as a product of (1) international trade and commerce, (2) overseas bases, and (3) merchant and naval shipping. Take note: the navy constitutes only half of one-third of Mahan’s triad of sea power.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Friedman mostly excludes the human factor from naval affairs, further narrowing his vision. A fleet’s technical characteristics on paper – tonnages, fuel capacity, missile ranges, and so forth – say little about how, and how well, seamen and airmen will handle it in battle and other competitive endeavors. Our book concentrates on the human factor, and in particular on how China thinks about the sea. That’s why we draw overwhelmingly on Chinese sources.

As noted up front, Friedman admits this discomfits him because he doesn’t read the literature. We salute him for being frank, but that is a damning confession for any reviewer – a person chosen for his subject-matter expertise – to make. What was missing from the literature, and the void we try to fill, is a volume that applies strategic theory – the writings of great thinkers like Mao Zedong and Alfred Thayer Mahan – to China’s maritime rise while exploring patterns of Chinese strategic thought about the sea. How, we ask, will Beijing interpret these writings and put them into practice – if at all? Friedman is largely silent on these matters, the heart of our analysis. His review misses the point. Unable to comment knowledgeably, he nit-picks, and rather clumsily at that.

Let’s take his comments in turn. He first contends that “the recent appearance of the refitted Chinese aircraft carrier formerly known as Varyag is an indication” of China’s naval ambitions “that should be obvious to all.” Whether reactivating an old carrier really signifies the PLA Navy’s coming-out as a great navy is debatable. But taking Friedman on his terms, we point out that the flattop’s shakedown cruise took place ten months after Red Star over the Pacific appeared, and that Beijing officially announced its carrier program only on the eve of that maiden voyage. So much for being behind the times.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief