James Holmes

China’s Naval Strategy: Mahanian Ends Through Maoist Means

The Naval Diplomat reviews how his 2010 book on China’s naval rise has stood the test of time.

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.

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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?