Peering through a glass darkly into the future.
China is busily accumulating sea power to make President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream come true. The dream is about making China great again after it suffered a long “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors punctuated by dynastic collapse and civil war. Greatness in the abstract need not alarm fellow Asian powers. It is the type of greatness Xi has in mind that vexes outsiders. Parts of China’s dream are innocuous or even mutually beneficial for Eurasia; these are welcome. Other parts, however, raise the possibility that a great China will be a domineering China.
It is the job of U.S. maritime strategy to temper the sinister aspects of China’s bid for greatness without quashing its benign aspects. To channel China’s dream toward temperance, U.S. leaders must understand and adapt. They must understand China’s maritime strategy, that is, while adapting to the new circumstances to which it has given rise. What should scholars and practitioners of American sea power take away from studying maritime China? First of all, the Chinese are industrious folk and tough competitors. Xi’s vision of the Chinese Dream amounts to a statement of political purpose along with an effort to summon political resolve. To all appearances it resonates with the audiences to which Xi means to appeal, namely the CCP and rank-and-file citizens.
A polity intent on fulfilling a common dream invests generously in policies, strategies, and implements of power designed to make it a reality. And it sustains that investment for a long time, if not forever. As Carl von Clausewitz counsels, a competitor that yearns ardently for its “political object” undertakes an effort of commensurate “magnitude,” as measured in lives, treasure, and resources. It presses the effort for an open-ended “duration.” The magnitude of an endeavor corresponds to the rate at which a competitor expends resources; duration means how long it keeps up the expenditure. Doing the arithmetic—multiplying rate by time—reveals that China is pursuing an enterprise of startling proportions.
And it could make good on its oceangoing project. Americans, accordingly, must resist the urge to deprecate China’s ingenuity, competitive fire, and steadfastness; far safer to regard challengers as peer competitors or spoilers until events prove otherwise. Past seafaring hegemons have yielded to the temptation to discount challengers. The allure of complacency is doubly strong if the hegemon has reigned supreme for decades while challengers boast meager records for nautical enterprise. In this sense a false reading of history breeds smugness. Russian admirals sneered at the IJN a century ago. The wages of condescension? Wreckage from two fleets strewn across Asian seafloors and the destruction of Russian sea power in the Far East for generations to come.
Nor are Russians the only offenders. U.S. Navy leaders love to tout the foresight of interwar strategists toiling at the Naval War College and other precincts. Yet American naval officers were slow to grasp that the IJN was a deadly foe in the making. They waved aside its capacity to develop the weaponry that Japanese aviators deployed to stunning effect in 1941–42. And not until Soviet task forces started voyaging throughout the seven seas, including historic American preserves, did the U.S. Navy start taking the Soviet Navy seriously during the Cold War. Hubris toward challengers such as China’s PLA Navy is a vice U.S. Navy leaders must rebuke without mercy. Hubris begets blind spots—and blind spots misshape strategy, operations, and tactics.
Affording this prospective antagonist respect and grappling with how its leadership makes and executes strategy will help the United States avoid intellectual failings of this sort. Westerners, including Americans, have made much of China’s anti-access strategy, for example. Some reduce anti-access to a family of weapons that China has deployed to make things tough on U.S. or allied forces. Anti-access is a material thing for analysts of such leanings. The engineering side of the problem is nettlesome, to be sure, but there is more to it than that. Beijing wants to make the rules regulating access to waters and skies it cares about. It would permit mercantile shipping to cruise the sea-lanes unmolested while proscribing military activities—surveillance flights, underwater surveys, and the like—that the leadership deems objectionable.
Resourceful regulators use whatever tools are at hand. Military force is only one such tool. Properly understood, then, anti-access is a grand strategy. Its practitioners harness diplomacy. Chinese emissaries impress upon potential opponents that the costs of forcible access to the western Pacific or China seas will prove unbearable and the return on the investment meager. If they do their job convincingly, they will skew American or allied cost-benefit calculations against bucking Beijing’s will. Economics is another tool at China’s disposal. Offering or withholding economic cooperation plays a part in its cost-imposing strategy. Economics could let Beijing play the alliance-breaker, moreover, peeling away U.S. allies that see an enormous stake in trading with China.
Moreover, the Chinese have shrewdly interpreted international law in ways that aim to restrict U.S. military use of the seas and airspace enshrouding China. They have also enshrined their legal positions across maritime Asia in domestic legislation in an attempt to confer sovereign authority on their excessive jurisdictional claims. And of course there is the obvious martial component. The PLA has devised hardware and tactics to persuade adversaries that they cannot win a trial of arms—or at any rate cannot win at a cost acceptable to them. China thus counts on foes to be rational and to abjure costly entanglements that promise scant gain.
Chinese anti-access efforts in the diplomatic, economic, legal, normative, and military realms thus constitute a strategic danger of the first order to the United States and its allies. After all, access to the western Pacific has been an essential pillar of America’s regional strategy for well over a century. Ever since Secretary of State John Hay issued his “Open Door” circular note in 1899, beseeching European powers to respect one another’s equal privileges to the Chinese market, Washington has designated comprehensive and unfettered access to Asia a vital regional objective. It was Tokyo’s progressive menace to U.S. access in Asia in the 1930s that drew the two sides into confrontation and eventually war. After Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War the United States drew up a blueprint for a system of mutual access to underwrite Asian peace, security, and prosperity. It then strove to put that blueprint into practice for decades afterward.
And sea power continued to act as the final arbiter of mutual access. The U.S. Navy’s postwar dominance facilitated the uninterrupted flow of seaborne commerce, promoting transpacific access to markets while offering a chance at prosperity for those who participated in the network of maritime trade. The naval service’s forward presence in Asia and its ability to respond rapidly to crises also deterred aggression while reassuring allies, and thereby preserved a favorable balance of power. For the United States, access begat wealth, wealth begat power, power begat stability, and stability begat access—a positive-sum cycle.
This is the grand-strategic “logic” of sea power. And it is China’s mounting resistance to the U.S.-led system of trade and commerce, which has nourished the regional order for more than seven decades, that makes the rise of Chinese sea power so worrisome. Policy makers, then, must resist the temptation to focus narrowly on the material or operational dimensions of Chinese anti-access. These are important beyond a doubt. But statesmen must recognize that China’s ascent and its accompanying dream pose an all-encompassing challenge to the United States and the long peace over which it has presided in Asia.
Second, geography is important to China, but its dreams are not bounded by geography. This volume has demonstrated that bursting the “first island chain” is integral to Chinese maritime strategy on economic, diplomatic, and military grounds. As Mahan teaches, maritime strategy is about prying open commercial, political, and military access to trading regions. But access starts at home for a power like China, encumbered as it is by offshore terrain. Occupying Taiwan, for instance, would break the island chain while guaranteeing the PLA Navy access to the western Pacific. It would also drive a salient into the offshore theater, granting Beijing new influence over the southern approaches to Japan and Korea. U.S. alliances might well suffer for it.
Would China content itself with such a geopolitical coup? Perhaps, but color us skeptical. It is very doubtful that China would terminate its seaward quest after a successful opening gambit. Rupturing the island-chain barrier constitutes Beijing’s immediate goal, not its ultimate goal. Mahan’s logic of maritime strategy directs Beijing to court access to suppliers of raw materials and consumers of Chinese products—and most regions critical to Chinese economic health and vitality lie beyond the first island chain. Access to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in particular constitutes a fulcrum for China’s foreign policy and strategy. It demands a regular if not standing PLAN presence in these waterways. Regaining Taiwan would administer a palliative for the “Malacca dilemma” that vexes China’s leadership, but it would not cure it.
In short, no one should expect China to stand down once ensconced on Taiwan. Nor will even an ascendant China abandon its martial playbook. As strategic documents and commentary indicate, China has fashioned a way of maritime operations and tactics that owes something to Mahan’s operational “grammar” of marine command but derives primarily from Mao Zedong’s grammar of “active defense,” as interpreted and reinterpreted by generations of CCP leaders and PLA commanders. This elastic mode of strategy envisions luring foes deep into Chinese defenses while exacting a heavy toll from them as they come. Only after enfeebling stronger enemy forces will PLA defenders hazard decisive combat. If anti-access measures work as designed, China might not even need to risk the PLAN surface fleet in action. Better yet, the defense might deter American intervention altogether.
Third, while martial greatness constitutes part of the Chinese Dream, it is not the whole of it. As we have noted time and again in this volume, Chinese strategists conceive of maritime strategy in holistic terms. The pursuit of access drives them. Strategy manifests itself concretely as Beijing nurtures commerce, builds ships, and negotiates access to foreign harbors. In practical terms, then, any implement that can mold events in waters China cares about represents an implement of sea power. That could be a PLA Navy ship, a PLA Air Force jet, a PLA Rocket Force antiship missile, or a China Coast Guard cutter. It could even be a fishing trawler crewed by militia. For China, maritime strategy is not solely a navy-against-navy affair. U.S. diplomats and military folk must prepare themselves for Beijing’s hyper-Mahanian approach to sea power.
Fourth, ideas from the strategic canon can help Americans fathom the workings of China’s maritime strategy. Mahan’s works are helpful both because they exert direct influence in China and because they help scholars and practitioners analyze and explain the actions of any sea power—whether or not it pays homage to Mahan. But Mahanian operational grammar furnishes China with only partial guidance at best. Chinese strategists have merged ideas from Mao, Corbett, and other eminent thinkers into a synthetic grammar of sea combat. American mariners must read these classics as well, not only for their intrinsic worth but also because together they afford a glimpse at the red team’s playbook.
Fifth, if it is critical not to denigrate China’s capacity to compete, it is just as critical not to overrate China as a high-seas competitor. Its maritime services and naval-industrial complex have performed impressively to date, but they are neither infallible nor superhuman nor unstoppable. Nor are they exempt from human frailty or material shortcomings. Nor are China’s national resources inexhaustible. It is far from predestined, consequently, that Chinese sea power will continue along its upward trajectory into the distant future. Demographic travails, economic woes, and diplomatic overreach could burden China’s seaward ambitions and impose a ceiling on them over the long term.
Parlous times may await the region as China nears that ceiling. Autocratic societies such as China presumably know more than any external observer about their domestic circumstances. If China’s campaign for sea power starts butting up against its limits—and if Chinese maritime strategists believe the U.S. military has begun to compete in earnest at last—the leadership may conclude it must act now or never. In fact, such a mindset may have already taken hold. A sense of urgency may help explain the haste impelling China’s efforts to consolidate territorial gains in the South China Sea. Beijing is running the risk of uniting a hostile Southeast Asian coalition because the risks of leisurely strategy appear far worse.
Turning more narrowly to naval matters, the costs of operating and maintaining China’s ever-growing fleet will mount. For now China benefits on the cheap from the surge in newly commissioned vessels whose keels it laid under the modernization programs of the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, the PLAN has been putting to sea ships of all types at breakneck speed over the past decade. Like new cars, new ships demand little maintenance in their youth. As they age, however, the cost of keeping them seaworthy and fit to fight will escalate. Shipboard components, parts, machinery, and complex weapons systems will need replacement owing to routine wear and tear, not to mention upgrades as technology advances. Older equipment is also prone to malfunction and failure under unforgiving conditions at sea. If the PLAN suffers from slack maintenance practices, structural damage—frequently unnoticed until it is prohibitively expensive to repair—could accrue. Such oversights compound the costs of fleet maintenance.
Consequently, the price of managing an aging fleet’s operational readiness will rise sharply even as Chinese planners look ahead to designing and procuring new generations of warships. The cost curve could prove especially steep because entire classes of ships that joined the fleet in quick succession could reach obsolescence en masse a decade or two hence. Gleaming new hulls splashed on TV or the Internet surround the PLAN with an aura of power and majesty today, but the bill will eventually come due. When it does, programs for everyday operations and upkeep will compete with recapitalization and modernization for scarce—and perhaps diminishing—resources. Maintaining an aging fleet entails opportunity costs for the future fleet.
In the not-so-distant future, then, Beijing will face budgetary choices from which years of abundance have exempted it. How much will it cost China to maintain a larger and older fleet while keeping it sufficiently modern and ready for combat in 2025 or 2030? This question hangs over decision makers in Beijing. Washington should anticipate the day when China begins to labor under such financial burdens and should hunt for ways to impose painful trade-offs on China while magnifying the opportunity costs inherent to any seagoing navy. Making things pricey for China represents another mode of peacetime maritime competition.
Sixth, China is neither unreasonable nor impervious to deterrence. It responds to costs, benefits, and hazards just as any rational competitor does. Steadfast, firm, patient pushback thus could induce Beijing to postpone its ambitions. And if it postpones them long enough, internal change could engender more healthful attitudes toward regional politics. Are we prescribing a containment strategy? Strictly speaking, no. China is not the Soviet Union in 1950, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson inscribed his “American defense perimeter” on the map of Asia.
Nor does twenty-first-century China exhibit the kinds of ideological hostility that plunged U.S.-China relations into a deep freeze—including a comprehensive diplomatic and economic embargo that would be unthinkable today—during the first two decades of the Maoist era. While Beijing has not hesitated to influence foreign governments subtly through economic inducements, public-relations campaigns, and soft power, including proliferating pro-China “Confucius Institutes” to Western universities, it evinces little desire to export a malign ideology or overthrow the West.
And while containment sought to constrict Soviet expansionism through political, economic, and military measures, it is far from obvious that every element of China’s maritime strategy warrants containing. Some of Beijing’s initiatives—its One Belt, One Road enterprise, to name one—appear innocuous if not downright beneficial to Eurasia as a whole. America and its allies must distinguish between public goods of this sort and efforts to abridge freedom of the sea or wrest territory or resources from neighbors. The former should be welcomed, the latter opposed without remorse.
In fact, standing aside could constitute savvy strategy. It is plausible that China is guilty of self-defeating behavior as it plans to invest across Eurasia by land and by sea. Beijing intends to plunge infrastructure investments into some of the least stable and productive regions in the world. The prospective returns on those investments seem dubious at best. One Belt, One Road thus may represent a formula for self-inflicted Chinese financial and diplomatic overextension. In that case the United States and its allies should get out of China’s way and let it fritter away its capital—a finite resource—and even goad Beijing into overreach if possible.