Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Mahan, Corbett, and China’s Maritime Grand Strategy

The shift from Mahan to Corbett is reflective of a major shift in Chinese grand strategy – one that has implications for the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific at large.

By Andrew Latham for
Mahan, Corbett, and China’s Maritime Grand Strategy

A Great Wall 236 submarine of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong province, Tuesday, April 23, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool

China’s naval establishment has long been enamored of the writings of the U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan. Indeed, it is not overstating the case to argue that since post-revolutionary China first turned its attention seaward in later decades of the 20th century no single thinker has exercised greater influence of Chinese maritime strategy. But that is now changing. Increasingly, Chinese navalists are paying attention to the writings of British naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett. This shift is both reflective of and conducive to a major shift in Chinese grand strategy – one that has implications both for the United States and the countries of the Indo-Pacific region more broadly.

Mahan’s main arguments, though revolutionary at the time he first made them in the 19th century, are relatively straightforward. Great powers, he argued, even instinctively insular ones like the United States, have crucially important maritime interests, ranging from defense of their coastlines to protection of their vital trade routes. Accordingly, every truly great power must take steps to secure these interests against the potential predations of its rivals and adversaries. For Mahan, this implied that a truly great power had to dominate the world’s oceans. And, he concluded, such domination could only be achieved by sweeping the enemy’s main fleet from the seas in a decisive battle. A corollary of this was that mere commerce raiding and other piecemeal naval operations were distractions that could never prove strategically decisive. Concentration of forces, and what Mahan called “offensive defense,” were the keys to “command of the seas,” which in turn was the only proper object of great power naval strategy.

The reasons for Mahan’s attractiveness to both American and Chinese navalists are perhaps obvious. Mahan was writing for and about a rising power, the United States, which was becoming aware that it had vital maritime interests that had to be secured if it was to prosper and realize its destiny as a great power. Initially, he thought that these interests were largely limited to the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the sea lanes that would come into being once the Panama Canal opened. Later, as his thinking matured and as U.S. interests became less focused on the country’s near seas, Mahan turned his attention to the far seas that he came to view as crucial to U.S. security and prosperity. All of this appealed to American leaders like President Theodore Roosevelt who dreamt of an America that was a truly global great power. It also naturally appealed to subsequent generations of American naval and political leaders who realized that, once the United States had become a global power, it needed a navy fit for purpose.

The appeal to contemporary Chinese naval and political leaders is rooted in a similar logic. As market reforms began to generate economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, and as China became increasingly dependent on seaborne trade, Chinese leaders began to recognize that they had vital maritime interests that needed to be secured. Initially, these interests were framed in terms of China’s near seas: dominating the waters of the East and South China Seas following a rough curve from Japan in the north, past Taiwan and the Philippines down to Singapore and Malaysia, and preventing China from being hemmed in by this “First Island Chain.” Later, as China’s maritime trade routes became globalized, Chinese navalists began to turn their attention to the far seas that were increasingly seen as crucial to Chinese security and prosperity.

During both periods, Mahan’s writings provided a conceptual framework for thinking about the kind of naval strategy best suited to a rising China. And if the Chinese naval establishment largely ignored Mahan’s writings on decisive battles and sweeping the enemy (read: U.S.) fleet from the seas, they fully embraced those dealing with the need for a global great power to have a navy fit for purpose. Specifically, Chinese naval strategists adopted (and adapted) Mahan’s view that a great power had to have a navy capable of wresting control of strategic waterways and choke points from powerful rivals, thereby ensuring the security of the global commerce upon which its prosperity depended. They also internalized his belief that a truly great power had to have a truly great navy – one capable not only of securing its maritime interests, but of showing the flag as well.

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Over the past decade or so, however, Chinese navalists have been increasingly drawn to the work of a different sea power theorist, the British naval historian Sir Julian Corbett. Although he agreed with Mahan on a number of points, especially on the need to control vital sea lanes for both military and commercial purposes, Corbett disagreed with Mahan on a number of important issues. Most fundamentally, he disagreed with him regarding the latter’s near-exclusive focus on achieving total command of the seas by shattering the enemy’s naval power in one or two decisive battles.

Mahan’s basic view of what he called “naval strategy” was that total command of the seas was always the best means to a great power’s grand strategic ends, and that this could only be achieved by sweeping the enemy fleet from the seas. Corbett argued instead that great powers could each have their own distinctive grand strategies and that each grand strategy demanded its own distinctive “maritime strategy.” Such a strategy might involve bringing the enemy’s main fleet to battle and destroying it in a decisive engagement, as Mahan advocated. But it might also involve mere temporary and local “control of the sea,” blockade, commerce raiding and defense, or homeland defense. It all depended on the grand strategy being pursued. For Corbett, as for Clausewitz, the most fundamental principle was the primacy of politics in war. Maritime strategy, he believed, should always be derived from the nation’s specific political goals, purposes, and constraints.

There are a number of reasons for Chinese navalists’ increased interest in Corbett’s work. Perhaps the most decisive factor, however, has been a profound shift in China’s grand strategy over the past decade or so. During most of the post-revolutionary era that strategy had been one of geopolitical restraint, even isolationism. China’s military and other strategic focus was on defense of the Chinese mainland, the reintegration of territories lost either before or after the revolution, and pressing a limited number of claims to disputed territories. Over the past decade or so, however, China has effectively adopted a new grand strategy, one that is perhaps best characterized as “offshore balancing.

This strategy has three defining elements. First, it entails a commitment to securing China’s land and littoral frontiers, as Beijing defines them. This includes asserting claims to sovereignty over the waters within the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea, the disputed territories along its border with India, the islands it claims in the East China Sea, and of course Taiwan (collectively, China’s “near seas”). It also includes denying the United States the ability to threaten the Chinese mainland or to intervene in any of the territorial disputes to which China is party.

Second, it commits China to dominating its immediate neighborhood. This includes both those territories with which it is territorially contiguous (Nepal, Bhutan, and Vietnam, for example) and nearly so (Thailand), as well as the maritime region between its home waters and the so-called Second Island Chain.

Finally, China’s offshore balancing strategy entails maintaining a favorable balance of power as far afield as the “Third Island Chain” (encompassing Alaska, Hawaii, and New Zealand), the “Fourth Island Chain” (linking Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the U.S./U.K. military facility at Diego Garcia in the midst of the Indian Ocean), and the “Fifth Chain” extending from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, past Madagascar to South Africa, and encompassing the Persian Gulf region. In the Chinese context, a favorable balance of power is one that is dominated by no one state, but that tilts in favor of China. Among other things, this means a balance that is not favorable to the United States.

From a Corbettian perspective, such a grand strategy requires an appropriate maritime strategy, one that can link the application of naval power to the political purpose of preventing an unfavorable balance of power from developing in any region the balancer deems crucially important. In China’s case, such a strategy would necessarily entail a capacity to achieve the following goals:

  • Deter, delay, and, if necessary, degrade potential U.S. military intervention in maritime sovereignty disputes or clashes with Taiwan. This is as much about defending China’s coastline and ports as it is about asserting and defending sovereignty claims.
  • Deny the United States command of the seas or control of commercially and geopolitically vital waterways and chokepoints. This is not simply a matter of deploying ships. It also requires the capability to sustain a maritime presence in strategic locations, in hostile conditions, and for extended periods.
  • Deny India, the other emerging great power with a growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and adjacent seas, the ability to control or interdict vital sea lanes and choke points out to the Fifth Island Chain.
  • Deter, delay, and, if necessary, degrade potential U.S. military intervention within China’s far seas orbit.

And this is precisely the maritime strategy China has been pursuing. In its near seas backyard, China has for over a decade now been busy developing and deploying air, naval, and missile forces to create an anti-access/area-denial bubble encompassing the East China Sea, Taiwan, and the South China sea – basically, China’s entire coastline plus the disputed islands and seas that it claims as its own. For this mission, China deploys submarines, surface combatants, aircraft, anti-aircraft systems, anti-ship cruise missiles. These forces are supported by major naval bases at Qingdao, Ningbo, Zhanjiang, Hainan Island, as well as facilities in the Paracel and Spratly Island groups.

Beyond this near seas defensive zone, China has developed and deployed naval forces to dominate the seas out to the Second Island Chain. In addition to the A2/AD capabilities just mentioned, these forces include advanced land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles to threaten U.S. military facilities on the islands of Okinawa and Guam. Also employed are anti-ship ballistic missiles, which, using advanced re-entry vehicle technology, have the capability to strike with precision and defeat most sea-based missile defense systems. The purpose of these systems is to deter, delay, and, if necessary, degrade potential U.S. military operations in ways that deny the United States control over the seas within the Second Island Chain.

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Perhaps most ominously, China is well on its way to being able to challenge U.S. and allied naval predominance out to the Fifth Island Chain. It now regularly deploys eight ships, including nuclear-powered submarines, in the Indian Ocean and adjacent waters. It has acquired a naval base in Djibouti, and has built and controls port facilities at Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. China has also reportedly established a military surveillance facility on Myanmar’s Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal, helping to facilitate the entry of Chinese naval ships into the Indian Ocean region. And, most recently, China and Iran have entered into a strategic partnership that commits both parties to joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development, and intelligence sharing. It also proposes Chinese investment in two more port facilities in Iran, which would add to China’s ever-expanding “string of pearls.” Nor is China finished building its offshore balancing infrastructure. When it is, it may become commonplace to see Chinese carrier strike groups regularly patrolling the Indian Ocean.

Given all this, there can be little doubt that China has begun implementing a maritime strategy that would have met with Julian Corbett’s approval. For India, the United States, and other Indo-Pacific powers in the region, however, the question remains: What then is to be done?

Andrew Latham received his Ph.D. in Strategic Studies from York University in Toronto, Canada. He is currently a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.