Alfred Thayer Mahan With Chinese Characteristics

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Alfred Thayer Mahan With Chinese Characteristics

In pledging to make China a maritime power, Xi Jinping channeled his inner-Mahanism.

In a speech to a study session of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee on Tuesday, Xi Jinping called for turning China into a maritime power, state media reported on Wednesday.

While saying Beijing would adhere to the path of peaceful development, Xi also promised that “in no way will the country abandon its legitimate rights and interests, nor will it give up its core national interests.”

In a possible olive branch to Japan, Xi added that China would adhere to a policy of “shelving disputes and carrying out joint development” in areas where it maintains sovereignty over. Other parts of the speech emphasized the importance of cooperating with other powers that have “converging interests” in maritime development.

The call for transforming China into a maritime power came as part of a broader speech on the importance of the maritime arena for all aspects of Chinese society. State media summarized one part of Xi’s speech as saying, “The oceans and seas have an increasingly important strategic status concerning global competition in the spheres of politics, economic development, military, and technology.”

The Chinese president apparently placed particular emphasis on the importance of the seas in spurring economic development, stating (as summarized by state media), “In the 21st century, oceans and seas have an increasingly important role to play in a country's economic development and opening up to the outside world.”

Xi then promised to enhance efforts to make marine industries a pillar of China's national economy, and called on “relevant parties” to help “cultivate the marine economy into a new growth point of the country.”

Astute readers of the Naval Diplomat are no doubt thinking, the broad importance Xi attributes to the seas has striking parallels to America’s most famous naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan.

As Jim Holmes recently noted on his blog, while Mahan’s writings on “the mechanics of naval warfare” may read their age, 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 truth in this statement was on full display when Xi gave his speech this week.

Although the long-term implications of Xi’s speech seem clear, its short term message is harder to discern. On the one hand, the speech coincides with the PLA’s birthday, which might explain why Xi decided to reaffirm China’s intention to become a formidable maritime power. At the same time, he also pledged that China will pursue a more conciliatory policy. Thus, this speech may be partly aimed at preparing the Chinese public for greater diplomacy with countries like the Philippines and Japan.

In any case, the speech leaves little doubt that over the longer-term China seeks to develop a powerful maritime force that it will use actively in pursuit of all sorts of political and economic ends. The reason it is able to do so was alluded to in the speech, when Xi said “China's maritime cause has generally entered the best period of development after years of efforts.”

This is almost certainly a reference to both the growing capabilities of the PLA Navy, as well as the fact that China has essentially secured its borders, especially in light of its increasingly strong ties to Russia. As anyone with even a cursory understanding of Chinese history knows, this is no easy feat.

It’s finally worth pointing out that Mahan was writing his famous treatise on sea power right around the time that America was securing its regional hegemony after struggling at its inception with extremely insecure borders. This once again reaffirms the wisdom in Mark Twain’s observation: “History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme.”