As China commemorates the 120th birthday of Chairman Mao Zedong, most Western commentaries have dwelt on how he shaped present-day China for good or, mostly, for ill. This is right and fitting. It helps outsiders know the new, old Asian titan rising in the Pacific.
Mao’s impact on Chinese strategic thought has attracted less scrutiny. It’s worth remembering that the communist supremo was a strategist — one who’s still studied in war colleges across the globe, including my own — as well as an ideologue and a tyrant. It’s not so much that strategists quote Mao incessantly. Nowadays he’s far from a staple of Chinese strategic discourses. But his imprint remains visible. He shapes assumptions about China’s geostrategic environment and how China should manage that environment.
In short, Maoist theory is woven into China’s strategic culture. People need not quote Mao all the time to take inspiration from his ideas and example. It’s unwieldy to restate the source of your assumptions every time you make an argument. Heck, you may not even know where they come from. That’s why they’re assumptions. For instance, the ghost of Alfred Thayer Mahan flits about whenever American military folk discuss command of the global commons. Few have made a study of Mahan’s works; some have never heard of him; many who have want to forget his leaden prose. His ideas endure nonetheless.
Strategy comes in threes, it appears. Thucydides explains human conflict in terms of fear, honor and interest, Clausewitz has his “paradoxical trinity,” Mahan has his tridents of sea power, and so forth. In that spirit, here are three Maoist axioms underlying Chinese strategic thought today:
China is the weaker party. The Chinese Communist Party started every campaign of Mao’s lifetime from a lopsided military disadvantage. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists drove the Red Army to the brink of extinction during the encirclement-and-suppression campaigns of the 1920s. Japan likewise proved a deadly adversary during the 1930s and 40s. Such near-death experiences constituted a prism through which Mao surveyed China’s surroundings.
Beijing brings a similar outlook to competition with the United States and its allies today. When you accept hard reality — the reality that you’re the lesser antagonist — you’re apt to think harder than a stronger yet complacent foe. A Maoist People’s Liberation Army will prove a flinty-eyed competitor.
China should fight like a clever boxer. Though weaker by military measures, Mao’s China boasted the advantages that go to the interior power battling an exterior power. Short, direct routes to hotspots, nearby manpower and resources, vast strategic depth — all of these were latent advantages working in China’s favor provided commanders played for time. Mao exhorted his followers to fight like a clever boxer. Rather than rush in when the bell rang, a wily brawler let his big, beefy opponent flail away and waste his energy. Withdrawing into the interior, marshalling resources, and prosecuting select tactical actions were the keys to Maoist strategies of the weak.
Today’s PLA envisions making itself that sort of pugilist. It plans to turn offshore geography to advantage, for example. It will let the U.S. military overextend itself across the Pacific, whittle away at oncoming task groups through missile, air and submarine attacks, and ultimately — if necessary — venture a decisive engagement somewhere in the Western Pacific. This is what the classics of strategy call “active defense,” and it’s ingrained in Chinese thought about war and diplomacy.
That means offshore defense. In operational and hardware terms, this adds up to what U.S. China-watchers call “anti-access” strategy and the Chinese term “counter-intervention.” In naval terms, Beijing is constructing what I call a “fortress fleet,” a fleet that pursues its aims within reach of land-based fire support. A lesser navy can win by harnessing all elements of maritime strength, sea, air and land.
The fortress-fleet theorem, which derives from Mahan’s writings, helps explain Chinese naval development. While blue-water platforms like carriers and destroyers occasion the most buzz in naval circles, the oceangoing PLA Navy cruises mostly within range of the shore-based arm of sea power. Tactical aircraft, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, short-legged submarines and patrol craft deploying from bases ashore can exact a steep price from stronger outsiders wanting to operate in the Western Pacific or China seas. If successful, China’s offshore active-defense strategy will exempt the PLA Navy from a ship-for-ship competition with the U.S. Navy and its partners. Why exhaust yourself running a symmetrical arms race if you possess a massive, unsinkable aircraft carrier — your homeland — bristling with armaments? Better to conserve energy and resources while still accomplishing your goals.
Strategic defense, tactical offense. One imagines the Great Helmsman smiling knowingly at China’s Maoist maritime strategy.