Harbin Z-20 Helicopter

The Z-20 made its public debut during 1 October 2019 military parade in Beijing.

The naval variant of China’s Z-20 helicopter aboard a destroyer during the summer. A modified Z-20 with a foldaway tail rotor was first seen aboard the Type 055 guided-missile destroyer Nanchang in July. These are likely to become the navy’s Z-20F and carry out anti-submarine duties.

The 10t-class Harbin Z-20 medium helicopter achieved its maiden flight on 23 December 2013. The type was approaching low-rate initial production. Clearly mimicking the Black Hawk in appearance thanks to reverse engineering, the Z-20 is powered by twin WZ-10 turboshafts.

China would argue the helicopter is not a copy, since it has a five-bladed main rotor, fly- by-wire controls and a glass cockpit. The PLA needs the Z-20 for high-altitude operations in western China, plus the platform will likely enjoy multiple applications such as air mobility for army troops, SAR missions and multirole tasks for the PLA Navy.

China’s domestically made utility helicopter, the Z-20, made its debut at the National Day parade on Tuesday, a move that confirmed its active service status within the Chinese military.

All equipment on display in the parade is domestically made and in service, Major General Cai Zhijun, deputy head of the office of the leading group for the military parade, said at a press conference in August.

This means that the Z-20 has already entered active service with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) following a lengthy trial phase.

China’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed the development of the Z-20 in December 2013 after the chopper’s alleged first test flight was spotted in northeastern China. Many pictures of the Z-20 have surfaced on the internet and Chinese aerospace magazines since then.

The Z-20 is a medium-lift utility helicopter that can adapt to different terrains and weather, and is expected to be used by the army and navy, military experts told the Global Times previously, noting that it can also operate on plateau areas like in Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, where high elevations could cause problems, including a lack of oxygen.

As a utility helicopter it can be used in many types of missions, including personnel and cargo transport, search and rescue, reconnaissance and anti-submarine, experts said, noting that no other Chinese helicopter is as versatile as the Z-20.

Chinese navy tests new Z-20 helicopter for use on its warships

Harbin Z-20


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.


China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during military drills in the Pacific.

Type 075 class of amphibious assault ship.

Every yuan China devotes to projects of questionable worth in South and Central Asia is one less yuan Beijing has to spend on threatening implements of maritime and aerospace power for the western Pacific. The diversionary effects of China’s ambitious and potentially quixotic Eurasian quest could benefit the United States and its allies along the first island chain over the long run. In the meantime Washington and Asian capitals must deter and shape the worst elements of Chinese behavior in maritime Asia.

In practical terms, a U.S. strategy aimed at curbing China’s worst excesses would display an outward semblance of containment—and China’s leadership would doubtless interpret it as such. For decades Beijing has accused the United States of harboring a “Cold War mentality” and of conniving with Asian allies to stunt China’s rise. For instance, arming the Ryukyu Islands with antiship and antiair missiles to constrain Chinese sea and air access to the western Pacific would dredge up bad memories in Beijing.

That being the case, diplomatic dexterity is at a premium in Washington and friendly capitals. Political and military leaders must explain how they intend to marshal power to advance clearly stated political purposes while at the same time reassuring their Chinese counterparts that America has no desire to thwart the beneficent rise to economic and diplomatic eminence that China claims to be pursuing. Plainspoken diplomacy is best. American emissaries must neither bluster nor dissemble.

Yet policy makers must also be ready to accept that their reassurances, no matter how sincere, may never convince Beijing that the United States neither bears ill will toward China nor seeks to thwart its rise. As preceding chapters have demonstrated, unpleasant historical memories predispose Beijing to view the world as a dark place where only the fittest survive. At the same time, China’s elemental sense of its place and purpose in Asia may render unacceptable to the Chinese state and society any Asian future except their own dominance. Unshakable beliefs could convince Chinese leaders that a struggle for mastery over Asia is probable if not inevitable.

Washington must do what it can to avoid a showdown, but it must do so without abdicating its leadership and the military predominance that has underwritten American primacy. It must also prepare itself to wage a new Cold War in Asia should one come. Given that the central theater for such a rivalry would be a nautical theater, framing a coherent maritime strategy now is indispensable to strategic success.

Some may blanch at the prospect of another Cold War. Few savor the idea. But the alternative—if China displaced the United States as the regional hegemon—would prove far worse. Imagine a future Asia where a domineering China dictated events while demanding deference from its neighbors and where the principle that might makes right ruled. China’s track record in word and deed over the past decade suggests that this imagined future is no stretch.

Others may protest, reprising the familiar rejoinder noted in the previous chapter that we are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat China like an enemy, they say, it will surely become one. But China is a strategic actor in its own right, not some passive mass that merely responds to stimuli from outside. China sees its destiny and is determined to fulfill it. It has acted on its ambitions for at least a decade, long before anyone opposed it. If a prophecy impels China, it is the prophecy conveyed by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream—not one imposed from outside.

Policy makers, then, must reject straw-man arguments that reduce China to an inert object and see it for what it is: a living force with an iron will to power. And we must see that America and China have embarked on an inherently interactive, reciprocal competition. Only by discerning the true nature of the relationship can Washington act expediently to mold China’s behavior, impose costs on it where necessary, and coerce or fight it if we must. If we falsely assume the relationship is a one-way affair in which China perpetually defends itself against U.S. actions, then we risk talking ourselves into inaction. Doing nothing is always an option in strategic competition. It would be an unworkable one after years of Chinese strategic advances at sea.

This brings us back to U.S. maritime strategy. Apart from urging naval officialdom to study the facets of Chinese strategy set forth in this volume, we offer four parting recommendations.

First, U.S. strategists and practitioners should be more Chinese in some respects. Or rather, they should emulate China’s approach to reading, filtering, and applying Mahan’s writings and amalgamating them with other fonts of strategic wisdom. In effect China takes a joint, interagency, and public-private outlook on maritime strategy, conscripting any ship, aircraft, or weapon able to shape events at sea. Such an outlook would benefit U.S. strategists as well. Sea power is not—or should not be—solely the province of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

Americans too must think jointly and inventively. U.S. Army forces, for example, could play a pivotal part in U.S. maritime strategy. They have done it before, staging amphibious operations in the South Pacific on an epic scale to beat Imperial Japan. Soldiers could mount an anti-access strategy in miniature if ground units were emplaced along the first island chain. China can exact a heavy price for steaming into its environs. Missile-armed U.S. ground forces can reciprocate by taking their own toll on PLA Navy or Air Force units trying to exit or reenter the China seas. Furthermore, U.S. troops can supply fire support for allied naval and air forces. Like the PLA, they could stage a “fortress-fleet” strategy, sweeping hostile units from nearby waters and skies while hoisting an aegis under which fleet operations can proceed. Turnabout is fair play in strategy.

More important, such implements of anti-access possess intrinsic political value. Ground-based missile units would express America’s commitment to its allies in physical form. When deployed to friendly soil, U.S. forces become concrete tokens of America’s resolve. An attack on them would invite a powerful riposte. That very prospect might deter China from making a move in the first place.

Consider a hair-raising scenario in which the PLA is readying itself to unleash a massive missile campaign against the Ryukyu Islands during an escalating crisis with Japan. Deploying a U.S. rapid-response battalion armed with truck-mounted antiship and air-defense missiles to the southwest islands could alter the Chinese strategic calculus while disrupting the associated military plans. While a powerful Chinese first strike might wipe out both Japanese and American island defenders, PLA commanders and their political masters would be compelled to weigh the operational benefit of doing so against the certainty that the United States would now enter the fray in force on its ally’s behalf. In all likelihood Beijing would think twice before pulling the trigger. If the Chinese did back away from their military option, the allies would have successfully upheld deterrence—winning a strategic victory by any measure.

This hypothetical scenario suggests that policy makers must reacquaint themselves with the idea of “tripwire” forces, token military units planted in an opponent’s way to provide a first line of defense. An attack on these frontline defenders triggers intervention by larger forces. Recall that U.S. Army tripwire forces were stationed in West Berlin—a city that was never defensible in any meaningful way—throughout the Cold War. No one meant them to stop, much less defeat, the Warsaw Pact onslaught if deterrence failed. NATO fully accepted that they would be destroyed should World War III break out. Yet their destruction would guarantee U.S. involvement in any East-West conflagration—automatically shoring up deterrence. U.S. ground forces along and near the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula likewise perform a tripwire function to deter Pyongyang.

It may be time for Washington to strew tripwires in Beijing’s path. China’s surging might has emboldened Beijing to advance its regional designs, confident that its smaller neighbors are too intimidated to resist. China’s strategic importance to Asia and beyond also affords Chinese leaders ample margin of error to absorb blowback from their adventurism. Witness Beijing’s dismissive attitude toward the PCA at The Hague in 2016 after jurors rendered a stinging legal judgment against China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. In that instance Chinese leaders calculated correctly that they could withstand the damage to China’s reputation from defying international law.

Emboldened by such precedents, Beijing may one day conclude that it is time to roll the iron dice. If the Chinese believe their moves will encounter negligible or nonexistent resistance, they will continue to seek incremental gains or may even make a sudden move that presents the region with a fait accompli. The notion of a “short, sharp war” against Japan—an option the PLA reportedly entertained in 2014—represents one variant of a fait accompli strategy.

To discourage such moves policy makers should introduce tripwire forces to the western Pacific theater, some deployed along the front lines and some held in reserve, to prompt Chinese leaders to rethink plans for aggression. As the scenario postulated above suggests, such forces would (1) awaken Chinese decision makers to the risks and costs of actions they may be contemplating and thus induce them to pause and reflect before they pass the point of no return; (2) slow the momentum toward conflict, allowing all sides the time to cool down and seek an exit from the confrontation before it is too late; (3) reassure allies that the United States remains steadfastly committed to their cause in times of crisis or hostilities, and thereby discourage allies from reactions or overreactions that could worsen tensions; (4) impose operational costs, however minor they may be, should deterrence fail; (5) buy time for reinforcements to arrive in the theater should a shooting war break out; and, above all, (6) fundamentally change the political dynamics of the crisis by showing that America has a vital stake in the western Pacific and will act accordingly.

Consequently, it behooves U.S. policy makers to relearn elements of the Cold War playbook. Accepting and taking risks will likely become a routine part of the great-power competition between the United States and China. This is no less true at sea. The politics of anti-access reinforces our argument that executors of U.S. maritime strategy must view the instruments of sea power entrusted to them in holistic, grand-strategic terms. These are elements that senior commanders and civilian policy makers must forge into a weapon of national policy in order to discourage misbehavior.

Strategists must think in interagency terms, especially as they strive to counteract China’s “gray-zone” offensive. As we observed before, Beijing deploys China Coast Guard cutters in tandem with the fishing fleet. These two elements constitute China’s “small stick,” the vanguard of its gray-zone strategy in the East and South China Seas. Washington might follow suit, dispatching U.S. Coast Guard cutters and sailors to help Asian allies guard their EEZs. It could form combined coast guard units with regional partners; it could buy small craft in large numbers, paint them white, relabel them cutters, let fly the Stars and Stripes, and station them in the region. This represents one option among many. Contemplating such offbeat courses of action is a must.

And what about public-private ventures in maritime strategy? Pressing merchantmen into service as strategic implements is a lost art among American mariners. They should cultivate it afresh. Commercial vessels could supplement the efforts of military and law enforcement forces. For instance, freighters converted for military use could serve as logistics assets helping refuel, restock, and rearm U.S. expeditionary forces on station in the western Pacific. Using them in this way would help offset the extreme leanness of the U.S. combat-logistics fleet. Such vessels could act as mother ships for U.S. Coast Guard small craft or for special-operations units. It behooves strategists to think ahead about such options. Imagination is a virtue—orthodoxy, not so much.

Second, we beseech the sea services not to neglect the human dimension of strategy while tending to the material dimension. Colonel John Boyd maintains that people, ideas, and hardware—in that order—represent the crucial determinants of human competition and strife. Naval leaders must be prepared to entertain once-unthinkable ideas about strategy and operations rather than dismissing them reflexively. To name one: if China is building toward a five-hundred-ship PLA Navy by 2030, as reputable analysts foretell, how big a U.S. Navy will it take to answer that challenge? Naval leaders must agitate for a fleet larger than any under consideration today if that is the tool they need to accomplish the job.

The leadership, moreover, may need to reconsider habitual deployment patterns. Under the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the sea services reapportioned forces from the traditional fifty-fifty split between Pacific and Atlantic to a sixty-forty split in favor of the Pacific theater. The Trump administration has evidently made the pivot its own while dispensing with the metaphor. But if the U.S. Navy still has its hands full with the PLA Navy, it must reallocate assets more lopsidedly to the Pacific Ocean. It could transfer a bigger share of the fleet as measured by raw numbers of hulls. Or it could shift high-end platforms to the Pacific while reserving light forces for the relatively sedate Atlantic and prevailing on NATO for help policing that expanse against the Russian Navy and other menaces. Naval leaders should reject no idea out of hand—no matter how outlandish it may seem.

Third, sea-service leaders must renovate American naval culture. To start, they must resolve never again to declare an end to naval history. Even smashing triumphs—a World War II or a Cold War—do not repeal such basic naval functions as fighting for maritime command. Nor does victory obviate others’ capacity to contest U.S. marine supremacy. In short, there will always be a next contender, just as there always has been. Service chieftains should encode that axiom in the sea services’ institutional DNA, making it the starting point for debates about strategy, operations, and fleet design. Never again should naval leaders declare never again.

Even should the sea services surmount China’s maritime challenge, the leadership must instill an inquisitive spirit within naval culture. If the next challenger awaits somewhere over the horizon—and it does—mariners and defense manufacturers cannot rest. They must apply themselves constantly to devise new hardware and methods for sea combat. Numbers of fighting ships and aircraft might contract if U.S.-China strategic competition goes America’s way. They probably will. But if high-end armaments already exist in modest numbers when the next challenge takes shape, it will be easier to scale up the force structure than to compel the naval-industrial complex to improvise new systems under the duress of strategic competition or armed strife. Hence the need to innovate before the reason why becomes plain.

And last, the naval leadership should make American naval culture a restless culture like the one Wolfgang Wegener saw impelling the Royal Navy during the epoch when Britannia ruled the waves. Longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer observes that creative ages are buoyant ages. They are ages when whimsy prevails—when any crank can formulate a zany idea, put it to the test, discard it if it fails, and move on to the next oddball hypothesis. Some experiments will pay off even though most do not. A playful organizational culture is apt to be a culture favoring enterprise and derring-do—in other words, a culture able to handle all tests and come out stronger for it. Meeting the seaborne challenge manifest in China’s dream, it seems, demands far more than upgrading weapons or sensors. It demands wholesale material and cultural reform. Let’s take inspiration from a longshoreman and a German admiral and make it so.

German Advisors at Shanghai 1937

Seeckt served as a member of parliament from 1930 to 1932. From 1933 to 1935 he was repeatedly in China as a military consultant to Chiang Kai-shek in his war against the Chinese Communists and was directly responsible for devising the Encirclement Campaigns, that resulted in a string of victories against the Chinese Red Army and forced Mao Zedong into a 9,000 km retreat, also known as the Long March.

Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

Alexander Ernst Alfred Hermann Freiherr von Falkenhausen (29 October 1878 – 31 July 1966) was a German General and military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. Some 80,000 Chinese troops, in eight divisions, were trained and formed the elite of Chiang’s army. However, China was not ready to face Japan on equal terms, and Chiang’s decision to pit all of his new divisions in the Battle of Shanghai, despite objections from his both staff officers and von Falkenhausen, would cost him one-third of his best troops. Chiang switched his strategy to preserve strength for the eventual civil war.

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”


Baba Toraji, a 21-year-old employee of the exclusive department store Mag-asin Franco-Japonais, was growing more nervous for every minute that passed on the morning of August 18. A younger colleague of his, fellow Japanese Sakanichi Takaichi, had left earlier to buy bread for his colleagues, and he had not returned. In the end, Baba decided to go looking himself. It did not take long before he found Sakanichi, caught up in a Chinese crowd that had identified him as Japanese. Both men were mauled severely and left on the street. Baba was pronounced dead by the time medical personnel arrived. His younger colleague was sent to hospital with serious injuries.

Earlier in the month, a group of eight Japanese had unwisely shown up on the Bund, trying to push their way through a dense crowd. Jeers started. Someone picked up a discarded shoe and threw it at them. The Japanese broke into a run, and seven managed to escape. A huge brick went sailing through the air and hit the eighth in the back. He fell to the ground, and the mob was upon him. “Men could be seen jumping in the air to land with both feet on the unfortunate man’s body,” the North China Daily News reported. “Others, with stick and bricks that seemed to come from nowhere, belabored him from head to foot.” He was eventually rescued and hospitalized in a critical condition.

Being Japanese in Shanghai in August 1937 was dangerous. By contrast, Shanghai’s western residents only came into contact with the horrors around them in an indirect fashion. They watched the dense black smoke rising over Hongkou, and they saw the flotsam drifting down Suzhou Creek—cows, buffaloes, and a steady stream of uniformed corpses. The debris of war served as a warning that the battle was escalating and could soon engulf the foreign enclaves. It was time for the women and children to leave. A total of 1,300 British and American evacuees departed from Shanghai on August 17. The British left for Hong Kong on the Rajputana, while the Americans boarded the President Jefferson for Manila. On August 19, 1,400 more British citizens, mostly women and children, sailed on destroyers to board the Empress of Asia at Wusong.50 This was part of a scheme to evacuate a total of 3,000 British nationals, including 85 percent of the women and children in the city.

Staying on the fringe of a great battle, as the foreigners did, made life more dangerous. Even so, they were not deliberately targeted, and that made them the envy of the Chinese population. Shanghai shops saw brisk sales of the national flags of major non-belligerent nations, as Chinese residents hung them at their doorways in the hope that the sight of a Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes would ward off enemy fire, very much in the fashion that the images of guardian deities kept traditional Chinese homes safe from evil spirits. However, few had faith that anything they could do would make a difference, except running away. Desperate crowds, many uprooted from their homes in the north of the city, gathered in the International Settlement, clamoring for food. Looting soon became widespread. Crowds attacked trucks transporting rice, or smashed their way to shop supplies. The authorities were merciless in tackling the problem. On at least one occasion, French police opened fire on a crowd that had attacked a food hawker. Law enforcers in the International Settlement handed over dozens of looters to the Chinese police, knowing perfectly well they would be shot within hours.

Violence in many forms, often lethal, was meted out in liberal doses among the Chinese. An atmosphere of intense suspicion permeated the city, and everyone was a potential traitor. On the first day of fighting, six Chinese nationals were executed. All were sentenced to death for spying on behalf of the Japanese or for carrying out acts of sabotage in Zhabei and other areas under the control of the Shanghai municipal government. On another occasion, two women and seven men were decapitated for working for the Japanese. Their heads were placed on top of poles and put on display in the market square, as thousands of men, women and children watched with glee.

Following rumors published in the local press that the Japanese had bribed collaborators to poison the water supply, gangs armed with clubs and other primitive weapons raged through the streets, stopping suspicious-looking individuals. Anyone caught with a powdery substance, even medicine, was severely beaten. Fifteen innocent Chinese were killed and 40 injured that way, according to police. Even having the wrong appearance could be deadly. On the morning of August 17, an unregistered Portuguese man was beaten to death by a mob because he was thought to look Japanese. A Sikh police officer who came to his rescue was in turn badly mangled by the crowd.

One group of Shanghai residents was particularly unfortunate and unable to go anywhere, despite being directly in the middle of some of the worst fighting. They were the inmates of Ward Road Jail, Shanghai’s largest prison, located in Yangshupu. Thousands of them, along with their wardens, were trapped when the battle started. On the morning of August 17, a shell struck the prison, killing ten people and causing extensive damage to both the cells and the prison staff’s quarters. In the days that followed, the prison suffered several direct hits when Chinese artillery in Pudong or at the North Railway Station misfired.

By August 20, the penal authorities began evacuating the prisoners, starting with the criminally insane, who would pose the greatest danger if a chance grenade were to make escape possible. On August 22, a more comprehensive evacuation was planned to take place, but buses meant to bring 150 juvenile criminals to the Chinese district via the International Settlement were stopped by Japanese guards at the Garden Bridge. The juveniles were young and could be recruited for the Chinese war effort and they were returned to their prison. From then on, the evacuation drive nearly stopped, and weeks later, the Ward Road facility was still brimming with inmates, exposed to the deadly fire from both sides.


The Japanese marine units dispatched from Manchuria on August 16, the day of crisis for their compatriots in Shanghai, arrived in the city during the morning of August 18 and were immediately thrown into the battle. A few hours later, the Japanese Cabinet announced the formal end of a policy of non-expansion in China, which by that time had been a hollow shell for several weeks anyway. “The empire, having reached the limit of its patience, has been forced to take resolute measures,” it said. “Henceforth it will punish the outrages of the Chinese Army, and thus spur the (Chinese) government to self-reflect.”

On the same day, the British charge d’affaires in Tokyo, James Dodds, suggested a peace proposal to Japanese Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Horinouchi Kensuke. The proposal, drafted two days earlier by the British, American and French ambassadors to Nanjing, called for the transformation of Shanghai into a neutral zone based on a commitment by both China and Japan to withdraw their forces from the city. Japan was not excited about the idea, and on August 19, Horinouchi presented the British diplomat with his government’s official refusal, stating that China would have to retreat to the boundaries outlined in the truce that ended hostilities in 1932. Japan was gaining confidence.

Meanwhile, there was a growing feeling on the Chinese side that important opportunities had been missed. On August 18, Chiang Kai-shek dispatched Deputy War Minister Chen Cheng, one of his main military aides, to the Shanghai front in order to confer with Zhang Zhizhong about how to carry the battle forward. The two generals reached the conclusion that rather than focusing the attacks on the heavily fortified Hongkou area, they should turn their attention to the Yangshupu district, seeking to push through to the Huangpu River and cut the Japanese forces in two. This was the decision the German advisers and the frontline commanders had been waiting for. The gloves had come off, and the self-defeating reluctance to attack Japanese troops inside the settlement borders was gone.

As the forces that had been in Shanghai since the start of hostilities were beginning to show signs of attrition, the generals decided to place the main responsibility for the attack with the 36th Infantry Division, which had only just arrived, and was being moved to the eastern side of the Hongkou salient. It was an obvious choice, as its soldiers were from the same German-trained elite as those of the 87th and 88th Divisions. Two of the division’s four regiments were ordered to attack straight south in the direction of the Huangpu, down streets running perpendicular to the river. In order to reach the wharf area, the soldiers would have to pass five heavily defended intersections. Severe casualties were expected.

The two regiments launched the attack almost immediately, moving out in the early hours of August 19. Sabotage and incendiary bombs resulted in a number of large fires that helped improve visibility during the night fighting. However, the intersections proved a problem. The Chinese soldiers, most of whom were seeing battle for the first time, became defenseless prey to Japanese infantry posted on the rooftops or in windows on the upper floors of buildings along their route. In the absence of any other cover, they often had to duck behind the bodies of those already killed. Even so, for a brief period of time, the Chinese believed they had finally managed to break the back of the hated Japanese. “I thought we could push the enemy into the river and chase them out of Shanghai,” said Zhang Fakui, watching the battle from the other side of the Huangpu.

Once they had reached Broadway, the last street running parallel with the Huangpu River, they faced the most formidable obstacle of them all. The Japanese defenders had taken up positions on top of high walls protecting the wharfs. Dislodging them was akin to storming a medieval castle. A large steel gate formed an entrance into the wharves, but it yielded to no weapon that the Chinese had brought; even the 150mm howitzers could not destroy it. Officers and soldiers tried to scale the gate, but were mowed down by enfilading Japanese machine gun fire. Also located near the river were Japanese-owned factories, many of which had been turned into veritable fortresses. One example was the Gong Da Cotton Mill at the eastern edge of the International Settlement. Again, the Chinese attackers did not possess weaponry powerful enough to penetrate the Japanese defenses there.

While the Chinese were short of large-caliber guns, the Japanese had plenty aboard the Third Fleet anchored in the Huangpu. The 36th Infantry Division was subjected to merciless bombardment, which threw several of its units into disarray. The following night, between August 19 and 20, the 88th Infantry Division for the first time showed that its ability to wage war had been so severely compromised it was, temporarily at least, unable to carry out meaningful offensive action. When ordered to attack, it moved in a belated and reluctant fashion, and got nowhere. While the Chinese were getting weaker, the Japanese were growing stronger. The marines dispatched from Sasebo arrived in Shanghai on that same night, boosting the number of marines inside the garrison to 6,300 well-armed men.

Despite a propensity to husband expensive equipment, the Chinese decided at this point to throw major parts of their new tank force into the battle. As was the case with the German-trained divisions and the air force, this was another key asset that had taken years to build up. Following the 1932 incident, when Japan had used its armor to some effect, the Nationalist government had decided to acquire its own tank arm, purchasing tanks from a variety of European nations, including Germany, Britain and Italy. As a result of these efforts, by the outbreak of hostilities in 1937, China was able to deploy the British-built, 6-ton, single-turret Vickers model in Shanghai.

The 87th Infantry Division was given disposal of two armored companies, and it lost everything. Some of the tanks had just arrived from Nanjing, and their crews had not had any time to undertake training in coordinated attacks, or even simply to establish rapport with the local troops. As a result, the tank companies were mostly left to their own devices without infantry support. The Chinese also often neglected to seal off adjacent streets when deploying their tanks, allowing Japanese armor to outflank them and knock them out. To be sure, the Japanese, too, lacked experience in coordination between armor and infantry and frequently saw their tanks annihilated by Chinese anti-tank weapons.

On August 20, Zhang Zhizhong was inspecting the Yangshupu front when he met one of his former students from the Central Military Academy, who was in charge of a tank company that was about to attack the wharves. Some of the tanks under his command had been under repair and hastily pulled out of the workshop. “The vehicles are no good,” the young officer complained. “The enemy fire is fierce, and our infantry will have trouble keeping up.” Zhang was relentless, telling the young officer that the attack had to be carried through to the end nonetheless. A few moments later the tank company started its assault. The young officer and his entire unit were wiped out in a hail of shells, many of them fired from vessels anchored in the Huangpu River. “It saddens me even today when I think about it,” Zhang wrote many years later in his memoirs.

In this battle, modern tank warfare mixed with scenes more reminiscent of earlier centuries. Wu Yujun, an officer of the Peace Preservation Corps, was manning a position in the streets of Yangshupu on the morning of August 18 when a detachment of Japanese cavalry attacked. The raid was over almost instantly, and left numerous dead and injured Chinese in its wake. The Japanese repeated the assault two more times. The third time, Wu Yujun prepared an elaborate ambush, posting machine guns on both sides of the street. As the riders galloped past, they and their horses were chopped to pieces. Apart from four prisoners, all Japanese lost their lives. The 20th century had met the 19th century on the battlefield, and won. It was a typical incident, and yet in one respect also very atypical. In the streets of Shanghai in August 1937, Chinese soldiers were far likelier to confront a technologically superior enemy than the other way around.

Many of the Chinese units arriving in Shanghai had never tasted battle before, and in the first crucial days of fighting, their lack of experience proved costly. Fang Jing, a brigade commander of the 98th Division, one of the units to arrive early in Shanghai, noticed how his soldiers often set up inadequate fortifications that were no match for the artillery rolled out by the Japanese. “Often, the positions they built were too weak and couldn’t withstand the enemy’s 150mm howitzers,” he said. “The upshot was that men and materiel were buried inside the positions they had built for themselves.”


No one was surprised that the Japanese soldiers put up a determined fight in Shanghai. Since their 1904–1905 triumph over the Russian Empire, the legend of the “brave little Jap” had become firmly established in the mind of the global public. So widespread was this view that if Japanese soldiers did not fight to the death, it was a source of genuine surprise. However, at moments of absolute frankness, the Japanese themselves could feel a need to add nuance to foreign stereotypes about their countrymen’s behavior in battle. “Our soldiers would prefer death to surrender,” a Japanese diplomat was quoted as saying, “but the majority secretly hope that they will return honorably to their own country, either wounded or unscathed.”

Foreign journalists noticed to their astonishment that there seemed to be little in the Japanese code of honor that prevented them from fleeing from a hopeless situation. One of them remembered seeing a number of Japanese soldiers run back from a failed attack during the battle of Shanghai, with the Chinese in hot pursuit. There were even rare instances of Japanese soldiers raising the white flag. The same correspondent witnessed a party of about 50 Japanese motorcyclists who had become bogged down in a rice paddy near the city and were surrounded by Chinese. They surrendered immediately without making any effort to resist.

These were minority cases. Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”


On August 20, five Chinese aircraft were returning after another fruitless attack on the Izumo, which was still moored in the middle of the Huangpu, when they encountered two Japanese seaplanes over western Zhabei. A Chinese plane broke formation, went into a steep dive and fired a short machine gun salvo at one of the Japanese. It did not have a chance. It burst into flames and plunged to the ground. The other Japanese plane disappeared in the clouds. The entire encounter had only taken a few seconds. It was one of a series of hits that the Chinese Air Force scored during a brief period in August before it was completely subdued by its Japanese adversary.

Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber

In particular, it posed a threat to Japanese bombers, such as the highly flammable Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber aircraft assigned to striking targets in Shanghai and other cities in central China. Japan’s First Combined Air Group lost half of its medium attack planes in the first three days of the battle for Shanghai, some missing, some confirmed shot down and others heavily damaged. Their crews were particularly vulnerable, since they did not bring parachutes on their missions. From late August, the air group’s bombers were escorted by Type 95 Nakajima A4N fighter biplanes. This action amounted to a humiliating admission that China’s nascent air force was a force to be reckoned with.

Nakajima A4N

“In view of the pressing situation in the Shanghai area,” said the First Combined Air Group’s commander, “our air raids reminded me of that famous, costly assault against the 203-Meter Hill.” The battle for 203-Meter Hill had been one of the bloodiest episodes of the entire Russo-Japanese War, claiming thousands of casualties on both sides. The Chinese performance was significant enough that even foreign military observers paid attention. British intelligence, in a report summarizing military events in the middle of August, noted Chinese claims of having downed 32 Japanese aircraft. “This statement appears well-founded,” the report’s writer added.

Even so, the Chinese airmen had been mostly untested and only partly trained when the war started. Their inferiority, especially against Japanese fighters, began to tell, and they gradually disappeared from the skies over Shanghai. Their compatriots on the ground expressed frustration over the lack of air cover. “We occasionally spotted two or three of our own airplanes, but the moment they encountered enemy anti-aircraft fire, they disappeared,” said Fang Jing, a regimental commander of the 98th Infantry Division. “They were no use at all. After August 20, I never saw our planes again.”

That may have been hyperbole, but it was undeniable that the evolving Japanese air superiority proved a major handicap for the Chinese. The Chinese commanders soon realized that they had to carry out major troop movements under the cover of darkness. Japan’s domination of the skies affected everything the Chinese soldiers did and even determined when they could get food. “We didn’t eat until at night,” said Fang Zhendong, a soldier of the 36th Infantry Division. “That was the only time we could get anything. In the daytime, it was impossible to transport provisions to the frontline.”

Without fighter protection the troops on the ground were dangerously exposed. They had very little in the way of anti-aircraft weaponry, mostly 20mm Solothurn guns produced in Switzerland. However, even these weapons made next to no difference as they were primarily deployed against enemy infantry. Also, the Chinese officers were reluctant to use their anti-aircraft guns lest they reveal their positions to the Japanese aircraft. In late August when Japanese Admiral Hasegawa was asked by a Reuters journalist visiting his flagship if he was in control of the air, his reply was prompt: “Yes,” he said. “I believe so.”

Perspectives on Early Ming Military History I

In recent years, scholars have developed a new appreciation for Ming warfare. The early Ming state was, they have shown, the world’s most powerful gunpowder empire, possessing gun-bearing infantry that were more numerous and effective than those of any other state in the world. Nor did the Ming lose its military mojo over the following centuries. Whereas previously the mid- and late-Ming Dynasty military was seen as backwards, conservative, and ineffective, recent work has established that throughout the 1500s and early 1600s the Ming undertook a series of strikingly innovative reforms and adaptations, which kept it a major military power until its sudden military collapse in the late 1630s.

Scholars have drawn attention to many different aspects of Ming military history – the wide and deep use of firearms in its armed forces (the proportion of firearm-toting units was higher than in Europe from the 1300s through the mid-1500s); the rapid and effective adoption of gunpowder technology from other peoples (from Vietnam, from the Portuguese, from the Japanese, from the Ottoman Empire, from northern Europe); the effective use of advanced (by the standards of Europe) infantry tactics such as the volley technique; advanced hybrid metallurgical cannon casting techniques; experiments with broadside ships and Renaissance artillery fortresses; and so on. Yet there is much work yet to be done, and this is particularly true of the early Ming period.

This article focuses on the two-decade reign of the third Ming emperor, the bellicose and ambitious usurper Yongle (r. 1402–1424). Most work on early Ming military history has focused on his father, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. This makes sense, because, as historians have noted, Zhu Yuanzhang invested heavily in firearm manufacture, working to increase the proportions of gunners within his infantry, gunners who helped him overcome his powerful Han Chinese rivals, run the Mongols out of China, and expand China’s borders, laying the groundwork for the long and successful Ming Dynasty.

Yet his son Yongle carried forth his father’s firearms innovations, systematizing and expanding them. It was under his rule that the central administrative structure of Ming firearms use, the Firearms Commandery, was established, and Yongle increased the proportion of gunners beyond the levels in his father’s armies. He also focused on the deployment of guns in his massive wars northwards against the Mongols and southwards against Vietnam (Đại Việt), and those wars helped stimulate firearms innovation, particularly the Đại Việt conflict.

Intriguingly, Yongle didn’t start out as a partisan of the gun. Sources suggest that his attitude toward firearms changed as he made a transition from prince of the northern reaches to usurper fighting in the central plain. His embrace of the gun may thus shed light on a central problematic of Chinese military history: the question of whether guns evolved more slowly in China because the Chinese faced primarily mounted nomads as enemies, rather than infantry armies. As we’ll see, it was during his war for succession in more southerly parts of China, to wit the central plains, that he came to appreciate the gun, and he did so, it seems, because guns were used successfully against him, leading to a significant defeat from which he barely escaped. After this episode, he rapidly increased his use of guns, and we can see further stages in his use of guns occurring during the huge military expeditions he undertook after he finally defeated his rival and came to the throne. In his use of guns against the Đại Việt state (itself a powerful gunpowder empire) and the Mongols, we see the development and systematization of the Ming gunpowder empire, a coming into being of institutions and practices that would in some cases remain extant for the rest of the Ming Dynasty.


The Yongle emperor had grown up in a martial world. At the age of nine, his father named him the Prince of Yan and gave him a fiefdom based in the city of Beiping (current-day Beijing), admonishing him to “diligently drill the troops and defend the domain.” In the golden book he was given that day, his father noted that rulership was difficult and recalled his own rise: “I came from the peasantry, battled with so many warlords, and endured all kinds of hardships.” These battles and hardships were fresh in mind. The Ming Dynasty had been declared just two years previously, in 1368, and throughout the previous decade his father had fought one rival after another. Guns and other gunpowder weapons were significant factors in his eventual victory.

Sitting now upon the dragon throne, he encouraged his sons to undertake military training, and the future Yongle, i.e., the Prince of Yan, proved an eager pupil. The boy enjoyed riding and practicing and parading, and he trained hard, living in the rain and snow, learning the use of gunpowder, firearms, and traditional weapons. He grew into an impressive man: tall, athletic, and better looking than his father. At the age of seventeen he married the daughter of China’s top military man, Xu Da, who had helped bring his father victory on many occasions, as in 1367, when he captured the city of Suzhou, seat of the powerful King of Wu, Zhang Shicheng. The prince learned the art of war from his father-in-law and from another top general, Fu Youde, to whom the young prince served as aide-de-camp, helping in routine training, fortification, and patrols. He also accompanied his mentors northward on expeditions, including a famous 1381 campaign that his father launched against the Mongols, which gave a hint of his abilities as a field commander. When Xu Da died, the prince inherited the loyalty of the old general’s men, the best army in China. This loyalty would come in handy starting in 1398, when his father died and the throne passed to his nephew rather than to him.

The new emperor, who took the reign title Jianwen, was young – not quite twenty-one – but he understood that his uncle was a threat to his authority. The Prince of Yan, for his part, felt with some justification that he was more capable than his nephew. The young emperor had more troops, more resources, and the legitimacy of the throne, but the prince was a canny leader and knew how to use deception. When imperial forces surrounded his palace in Beiping in 1399, he sent out word that he would surrender. His men waited for the two imperial officials charged with arresting him to enter the palace. Then the Prince of Yan had them seized and killed. The prince’s small force of loyal guards quickly took control of Beiping and its military forces and then prepared to seize the imperial throne.

The ensuing war of succession was hard fought. The Prince of Yan was outnumbered, and the new emperor had the advantage of legitimacy, but the prince was a superior commander. For example, in one of the first major episodes, an imperial army said to be 300,000-strong was sent against him (the actual numbers were lower – perhaps 130,000). It might have seemed prudent to wait and let the army attack, relying on Beiping’s stout walls, but instead the prince moved his army southward and attacked first. It was a bold wager, based on the calculation that the imperial army was still forming and might be broken if struck hard. He attacked the army’s garrisons and encampments, using ruses and stratagems. On one occasion, he hid soldiers in the water under a bridge and hid scouts along the road to watch. When the scouts saw the enemy approach, they fired a signal cannon, at which the ambush was sprung. The imperials were trapped on the bridge and two top imperial commanders were captured. From these commanders he learned which imperial garrisons were weak. He moved against them, and soon he had routed the main imperial force.

At this point it might have seemed best to press the advantage and continue the attack, but he had a masterly sense of timing, so instead took his spoils northward – including more than 20,000 horses – and consolidated his control there. The imperials attacked Beiping but were ill-prepared for the northern winter, wearing thin clothes and poor shoes. When they gave up the siege and returned to the south, they were weak and sickly. The Prince of Yan decided to keep them tired. He made a feint to draw their attention, and, indeed, the imperials duly marched north again, and then, when the danger had lifted, turned back toward the south. Many died on the way back, leaving armor and equipment on the road.

In these early battles of the war of succession, the Prince of Yan used guns only peripherally. We see plenty of evidence of signal guns and occasionally guns used offensively or defensively, but never in core functions. This may seem odd. After all, we know that under the Prince of Yan’s father, the Hongwu Emperor, some 10 percent of infantry were already armed with firearms, which indicates that there were on the order of 150,000 gun units in Ming infantry forces. Why might the Prince of Yan have used fewer guns?

The Prince of Yan was used to warfare in northern China, and particularly to conditions in Mongolia. Kenneth Chase has argued in his influential book, Firearms: A Global History to 1700, that guns are far less useful against mounted nomads than against standard infantry armies, because early guns were slow and clumsy and ineffective on horseback. According to Chase, the fact that China faced primarily mounted nomads as enemies helps explain why it did not “perfect” guns whereas Europe did. The Chase thesis has some problems with it – most notably, the fact that it neglects the many other types of warfare that occurred in China. Southern Chinese warfare, for example, was quite a bit more like European warfare than was northern Chinese warfare. Yet if Chase’s conclusions are too sweeping, he is nonetheless onto something. Northern warfare was different from southern warfare; guns were used differently against mounted nomads.

Until the war of succession, the Prince of Yan’s experiences were primarily based on northern warfare. His father had deliberately situated his princedom in Beiping, knowing that his primary foes would be mounted nomads, primarily Mongols. The Prince of Yan was the second-highest ranking son but he was also the most able, and he ended up playing a major role in northern defenses, commanding various expeditions against “wild men” and frontier raiders. He was particularly successful against the Mongols. In early 1396, for example, he led troops to defeat a major Mongol force east of the bend of the Yellow River and then chased them to Uriyangqad, taking prisoner top Mongol commanders. This type of warfare against Mongols frequently focused less on infantry – who were, after all, the primary types of troops armed with guns – and more on cavalry, who were generally armed with traditional weapons.

But when he fought against the forces of his nephew in the central plains of China, an area suited to infantry warfare, he experienced firsthand the devastating effect of guns. The most frightening battle of his life occurred in January of 1401. The prince, feeling confident, had moved against the commander-in-chief of the imperials, a general named Sheng Yong, who had garrisoned his troops in Dongchang City, in Shandong Province (present day Liaocheng City). Although the sources differ on some particulars, the main contours of the battle seem clear. Sheng Yong had prepared carefully, feeding his troops, readying the walls, inspecting and reviewing battle formations, and, most importantly, “preparing and laying out firearms and poison crossbows to await [the Prince of Yan].” The prince’s troops were confident, having won so many engagements, and they advanced at once upon Sheng Yong’s troops. But when Sheng Yong’s guns opened fire, the results were disastrous. The troops of the Prince of Yan “were all entirely wounded by the firearms.”

Sheng Yong, spirits buoyed by the arrival of reinforcements, pressed his advantage, and the prince found himself and his cavalry troops completely surrounded. As one source notes, “the Prince of Yan tried to attack and charge, but he couldn’t escape.” The enemy pressed in, and “the prince was in grave danger several times.”

Fortunately for the Prince of Yan, his nephew, the young emperor, had issued a filial order: no one was to harm the Prince of Yan, who, after all, had imperial blood. So although swords slashed close, the enemy soldiers never dared to cut him. The prince was saved by the arrival of some “barbarian cavalry troops,” most likely Mongols who had joined the Ming. The mounted warriors charged the imperials’ lines from the outside, extracted the prince, and galloped off. The prince survived, but the troops he left behind were less lucky. In the melee and under the fire of Sheng Yong’s guns, perhaps ten thousand of the prince’s troops expired.

All accounts of this key defeat focus on the devastating role of guns. The Ming History says that Sheng Yong “used firearms and powerful crossbows to annihilate the prince’s troops.” A history written by Ming scholar Tan Xisi noted that “Yan’s troops suffered a great defeat from the firearms.” The biography of Sheng Yong in the Ming History notes that “multitudes of Yan troops were wounded by the firearms.”

The battle seems to have traumatized the prince. He was particularly preoccupied by the loss of one of his top generals, his friend and mentor Zhang Yu, who died trying to save him from encirclement. “Victory and defeat are part of life,” he is said to have exclaimed, “but at a time like this to have also lost such a teacher [as Zhang Yu] is deeply lamentable.” It seems that whenever the Battle of Dongchang was discussed, the prince became disturbed, having trouble eating and finding it impossible to rest. It is of course impossible to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder from across a chasm of six centuries, but his symptoms certainly seem commensurate with such a diagnosis. And a traumatic battle experience like this – in which fear, responsibility, and near capture is combined with guilt at being saved while leaving comrades behind to die – is just the sort of thing to elicit such symptoms.

What is particularly intriguing, however, is that his military leadership seems to have changed. In subsequent battles in the war of succession, he was much more diffident – less bold, less decisive. As the Ming History notes, at the beginning of his revolt “the prince’s troops had been victorious and able, and there was nothing like Dongchang, but from that point forward, the Prince of Yan’s troops went southward only to Xu and Jin. They didn’t dare again go to Shandong.”

There was an even more important change to the prince’s warcraft after Dongchang: he began to integrate guns more firmly into his warcraft. After Dongchang, guns are mentioned more frequently in descriptions of battles. His gun victories weren’t always glorious. On one occasion, for example, he launched a dawn gun attack on an imperial encampment, and the imperials mistook the gunfire for signal cannon on their own side. They rushed out the gate and, panicking under fire, fell into the deep trenches that they themselves had dug. But there were also great gun victories, as when the prince’s gunmen terrified Sheng Yong himself. The prince had dispatched a small force of gunmen to creep close to the great general’s encampment. Once within range, they opened fire. The imperials threw down their weapons and ran. Sheng Yong was supposedly frozen with fear, unable to climb on his horse, and had to be carried to a waiting boat.

After the gunmen’s victory over Sheng Yong, the prince’s momentum increased. He moved closer and closer to Nanjing. The fall of the imperial city, however, was achieved not by arms but by intrigue. The prince had collaborators within the administration of the young emperor, whose policies had alienated key blocs of power, including the once-powerful eunuchs. When the prince entered Nanjing in the summer of 1402, he did so by the most traditional means in China’s military history: through a gate opened by conspirators.

The prince ascended the dragon throne and took as his reign title the term Yongle, “eternal happiness,” but his reign is remembered less for happiness than for outlandish ambition and profligate spending. Much of this spending went to a huge military buildup, in which firearms played a key role.

Historians have shown that the Yongle period (1402–1424) saw the highest sustained gun production levels of the entire early Ming period (1368–1521, i.e, Hongwu through Zhengde reigns). This production – which sometimes reached around ten thousand guns per month – was overseen by new centralized facilities, most notably the famous Firearms Commandery, a bureau tasked with overseeing firearms production and training. The protocols and structures he established continued in use throughout the dynasty. Those protocols and structures emerged, however, in a somewhat ad hoc fashion, as part of a series of massive expeditions Yongle undertook, southward against the Đại Việt state, and northward against the Mongols.

Yongle’s Vietnamese War

Although it is barely mentioned in our history textbooks, the Ming Vietnamese War was one of the most important wars of the late medieval period. Whereas armies in contemporary European conflicts numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands, Yongle sent more than two-hundred thousand troops to Vietnam. It was also a war in which both sides – but especially the Ming – employed the most advanced weapons in the world. Indeed, according to historian Sun Laichen, whose wonderful work has explored this war in detail, the spectacular victory of the Ming invasion force was due mainly to “Ming China’s military superiority, including firearms.”

To be sure, there is a tendency among some scholars to overrate Ming technological superiority. Wang Zhaochun has written, for example, that the first time the Ming invaded Vietnam, the Vietnamese had no firearms. This was clearly not the case. As Sun Laichen points out, Vietnamese annals make clear that the Vietnamese state – known as Đại Việt – deployed guns against its long-term enemy to the south, the Cham state, against whom it had been fighting a series of increasingly desperate wars. The Chams were led by a warlike king, who invaded Đại Việt over and over again in the 1360s, 1370s, and 1380s. By 1390, the Đại Việt state was on the brink of collapse. Guns saved it. Đại Việt forces shot and killed the Cham king with a Ming-style gun [huochong].

The Vietnamese adoption of Chinese guns saved their state, and after 1390 Đại Việt began to enjoy the upper hand in its battles with Champa, as noted by John Whitmore in the present volume. Indeed, by 1471 the expansive Vietnamese state had defeated and annexed its longtime rival, relegating Champa to the status of a historical footnote, one that is largely ignored in the West, thereby obscuring the Vietnamese accomplishment and glossing over the crucial role of firearms in the process. Many Western authors still ignore the widespread presence of firearms in Southeast Asia prior to the large-scale arrival of Europeans and completely discount the role of the Ming in disseminating these firearms as chronicled ably by Sun Laichen in his many publications.

It’s rarely a good idea for a great power to get involved in Vietnam, so what made Yongle decide to invade? In 1404, a man appeared in Yongle’s court and said he was the legitimate heir to the throne of Annam (i.e., Đại Việt) and that his family – the Tran – had been usurped by the Ho clan. After considerable diplomatic wrangling with the actual occupants of the Vietnamese throne, Yongle decided to try to reinstate the man. In early 1406, he sent five thousand soldiers to escort him to the Đại Việt capital. The expedition never made it. The Ho army ambushed them, killing most of the Chinese troops as well as Tran himself. When Yongle learned about the ambush he supposedly flew into a rage. “If we don’t destroy them,” he said, “then what are our armies for?”

Was he really so furious? Had he really expected that five thousand Chinese troops would be able to impose his will on a state as powerful as Đại Việt? Or did he perhaps deliberately send a vulnerable force of escorts so that, once it was attacked, he would have a pretext for war? We’ll never know, but we do know that Yongle began preparing his campaign immediately after this outburst, and he put considerable care into it.

What is intriguing is that in making his preparations he recognized the fact that the Đại Việt troops were armed with powerful guns. He ordered his commanders to follow ten elements of his strategic plan, and among them was the following point:

[I have heard] that the enemy has prepared many firearms to resist the enemy. If our troops, when on the march, should encounter a mountain that is narrow and dangerous, they should rather avoid it than to waste our troops’ strength. Moreover, [I] have heard that the enemy has prepared its equipment not thinking that there is anything to stand up against it . . . [I] order that the Board of Works discuss the development and production of a thicker armor in order to withstand their firearms.

Following this exhortation are stipulations about how workers should weave the armor out of bamboo and strengthen it with leather, with clear benchmarks for testing its resistance to projectiles at various ranges. Yongle, like his father, paid close attention to the role of guns.

He also took measures to prevent his advanced gun designs from being leaked to the enemy. “It is most important,” he commanded, that the miraculous weapon guns that are employed and all types of gunpowder weapons (huoqi) be kept in the strictest secrecy. It is not permitted to leak [them] to foreigners so that they can learn the techniques. When encountering the enemy, be certain to carefully and secretly gather them together [afterward].

Perspectives on Early Ming Military History II

Ming artillerymen.

How many gunners did Yongle send to Đại Việt? There are no detailed records, but we can make an estimate, based on the fact that a decree of Hongwu stipulated that ten percent of Ming infantry units be gun units. Given that the Ming invasion force numbered 215,000, most of which were infantry, we can guess that there were on the order of twenty thousand or so gunners. The importance of guns is also suggested by the fact that among the top officers sent were at least four generals specifically in charge of firearms, referred to by the title “Miraculous Weapon General.”

Guns certainly appear in battle accounts. When the Ming troops moved southward, Đại Việt troops defended the passes into Vietnam with guns. Ming forces easily defeated them and moved southward, stopping at the Red River to construct ships, which they armed with guns, quite possibly the bowl-mouth guns that were standard equipment on most Ming vessels by this point. The Vietnamese attacked across the river with guns, but were routed, and the Ming were able to deploy their guns against a key point in the Đại Việt defense: the City of Do-bang, which guarded the entrance to the Red River plain, the heart of Vietnam.

Do-bang was amply armed with guns, but according to the Ming Veritable Records, the Vietnamese barely got a chance to fire them: Do-bang’s impressive walls were simply climbed in a brilliantly conceived and daringly executed night move. The Veritable Records says that Ming troops, holding bits in their mouth to enforce silence, snuck through the darkness to the walls, placed their ladders against them, and then climbed and began slashing at the defenders with swords. The latter were so surprised they didn’t even have time to shoot. Vietnamese records, however, suggest that the Veritable Records may not have been so veritable: “The dead bodies [of the Ming soldiers] piled up as high as the city wall, but [the Ming troops] still kept climbing and fighting; nobody dared to stop.” Both sources, however, indicate that Ming guns were not used to batter walls or gates or structures of any kind. They were aimed at people. And at elephants.

Tượng binh – lit. “War Elephant”. War elephants have always been symbol of wealth and power in Southeast Asia. Captured from the wild jungle, savage male elephants are tamed and trained for years to become ferocious weapons in themselves. Despite their inferior quality in comparison with elephantry of the Cham or Khmers, these beasts could carry Viet nobles and their retainers into the thickest of battles. From a secured howdah, troops on its back can fire crossbows with greater accuracy and line of sight that infantry.

Once inside the walls, the Ming faced Đại Việt’s elephant troops. The beasts were huge, towering over cavalry, with frightening tusks. They broke formations, trampling soldiers and smashing everything in their path. They could grab enemy soldiers and hurl them into the air, or smash them with the forehead, or gore and gouge with tusks, or crush beneath knees. To counter the elephants, Ming firearm generals arrayed gunners to the sides of a Ming cavalry corps, whose horses had been given lion masks to scare the elephants. “The firearms general Luo Wen and others deployed guns in front at the flanks. The elephants all trembled with fear and were wounded by the gun arrows, and they all withdrew and ran away, at which the enemy troops scattered in panic. “Other sources suggest that the Ming also shot rocket arrows at the elephants. Ming soldiers pursued and continued picking off enemy soldiers with arrows, handguns, and heavier guns (pao), killing many. Elephant troops had long been a challenge to Chinese armies, and this wasn’t the first time guns evened the balance. A famous battle in 1388 saw Ming gunners triumph against an enemy elephant corps in Yunnan.

In any case, with Do-bang defeated, Ming forces could move into the Red River Delta, and in these various battles of early 1407, firearms proved vital, as when on 21 February soldiers wielding firearms, including “bowl-mouth guns,” attacked a huge Đại Việt fleet, the “firearms like flying stars and lightning.” As many as ten thousand Đại Việt troops were killed. On 18 March, Ming troops used “great general guns” to destroy more enemy ships. In early May, Ming forces, including four firearms generals, fought against a 70,000-strong Đại Việt force and hundreds of vessels. The Đại Việt were equipped with guns, but the Ming won decisively, killing as many as ten thousand and capturing hundreds of warships. By summertime, Ming firearms generals and others were chasing the Ho king of Đại Việt southward. They caught him in mid-June, bringing the invasion to a successful close.

In the fall, six senior officers of the expedition returned to Nanjing to report the victory, including firearms general Zhang Sheng. Yongle himself went to a city gate to welcome them home, and it was a major event, with all the civil and military officials in attendance. Doubtless there were crowds of onlookers as well, eager to catch a glimpse of the Đại Việt prisoners in their cages, among whom were the former king and his sons.

One son was Ho Nguyen Trung (Li Cheng, in Chinese), an expert in firearms who had been in charge of making guns for his father’s armies.48 Whereas other members of his family were imprisoned, he was put in charge of manufacturing guns and gunpowder in the Ming Military Armory Department. Eventually he rose to be the chief of the Ministry of Works, one of the top posts in the Chinese bureaucracy. He was so revered for his work that he was even offered a ritual sacrifice when the Ming court held a memorial ceremony for the “God of Firearms.” As a late Ming scholar wrote, circa 1606,

Our dynasty employed firearms to combat the northern barbarians, [which] are number-one weapons from ancient times to the present. However, the ingenious (qing miao, meaning literally “light” and “wonderful”) techniques of these firearms were not obtained until Emperor Wen (Yongle) pacified Jiaozhi. Hence, [our dynasty] hired its false Grand Councillor . . . to work in the Ministry of Works, [to be] solely in charge of manufacturing [Vietnamese-style firearms], and all the techniques were truly grasped.

Nguyen Trung wasn’t the only firearms expert the Chinese brought from Vietnam. In one cage was a Vietnamese firearms commander named Chen Tangmeng, and over the following months, thousands more prisoners arrived in the Ming capital, some of whom were artisans skilled at making gunpowder, guns (huo chong), and fire lances. Indeed, historian Sun Laichen believes – with good reason – that the techniques and methods introduced by the Vietnamese helped transform Ming firearms technology. Perhaps the most notable improvement was a wooden chip that was rammed into place after the powder had been inserted, after which the projectile was placed on top. This created a complete occlusion of the barrel, so that the full force created by the gunpowder reaction was imparted to the missile.

Some historians even credit the Vietnamese with the creation of one of the most important military institutions of Ming China: the Firearms Commandery [shen ji ying]. The Firearms Commandery was one of the Three Great Commanderies of the Ming, central military structures based in the Ming capital. The other two great commanderies were devoted to infantry and cavalry. The Firearms Commandery was an elite fighting force in itself, but it was also responsible for training other divisions in firearms use. It became a key part of Yongle’s armed forces, but there are many mysteries about it.

We don’t know, for example, when precisely it was founded. According to the official Ming History, “When Chengzu [i.e., Yongle] pacified Vietnam [Jiaozhi], the art of magical lances and guns was obtained, and a special Firearms Commandery was established to expand and practice it.” But of course, the Ming knew of gunpowder weapons well before the invasion of Đại Việt, and there are various other bits of evidence to suggest other dates for the founding of the commandery. We can say that it was probably founded sometime around 1409. That is in any case well before any remotely similar institution was established in Europe. Western historians have argued that the world’s first “full-fledged” administrative organ pertaining to firearms was the artillery corps of the Frenchmen Jean and Gaspard Bureau, which appears to have been founded sometime around the year 1435. But of course the Ming Firearms Commandery existed before that, and it was much larger. Whereas the Bureau brothers seem to have had thirty cannoneers and a small group of other technicians under their command, the Ming Firearms Commandery had at least five-thousand men under it.

They practiced and drilled carefully. The loading and firing of a gun was not as simple as we might imagine it to be and required considerable practice to train soldiers to do it smoothly, something that had to be second nature to them, because they might have to do it when confronted by Vietnamese elephants or Mongol cavalry. The powder had to be added in precise amounts, and the measurements required were inscribed on the powder scoops that seem to have been standard issue with guns starting in the early Ming. The powder was tamped down with a tamping rod. Examples of tamping rods have been excavated, although they are rare, because they were made of wood, which decomposes rapidly. On top of the powder was placed the “wooden horse chip” to contain the gunpowder explosion and increase the amount of energy imparted to the projectile. That was rammed down and then the projectile itself was added. Often the projectile was a hewn stone or cast iron ball, but there is evidence to suggest that many fire lances also shot arrows. Projectiles didn’t fit perfectly snugly against the side of the cannon, which is why you needed the plug. Then you’d hold the gun out, apply fire to the “fire-gate,” a bored hole in the body of the gun that led to the powder chamber, and the gun would go off. Ming guns were short, and the possibilities for misfires and backfire were legion, making training all the more important. Since most soldiers were illiterate, there were songs and chants to help them remember the stages.

All of this training was required just to learn to load and shoot the guns effectively, but gunners also had to learn to work in close coordination with each other and with other types of units. Drill and regimen were vital to the success of the endeavor, a fact which Yongle himself pointed out. He admonished his top military commander Liu Sheng to pay careful attention to training firearms units:

Magical-instrument chongs and paos are effective weapons for attacking in warfare, but in order not to make mistakes in using them, it is necessary to practice carefully and become proficient and skilled, and then one can use them when the occasion calls for it. You . . . must not be lax in this.

All this training paid off for Yongle when, accompanied by the Liu Sheng whom he admonished to pay attention to careful training, he personally marched northward against China’s greatest foes, the Mongols.


Although his father had driven the Mongols out of China, they were still considered a mortal threat. A new Genghis Khan might emerge and unify the clans. So Yongle was determined to take the fight to them personally and led five expeditions against them. Guns played a key role.

Consider, for example, the first campaign, a massive expedition that departed Beijing in the spring of 1410. Western language treatments of it omit mention of firearms – including Kenneth Chase’s short discussion, but it’s clear that guns were present and played a significant role. When, for example, Yongle’s forces engaged Mongol leader Arughtai near the Great Khingan Mountains, General Liu Sheng “used firearms, serving as the advanced guard, and badly defeated Arughtai.” We find a slightly more detailed account in the Ming Veritable Records:

The emperor chased the enemy to Huiqujin and ordered the Anyuan Marquis Liu Sheng to take the magical-device guns and serve as the vanguard. The guns fired and their sound thundered forth for ten li, and each arrow penetrated two men, and [the projectiles] also struck the horses, and all immediately died. The enemy, frightened, spurred their horses and departed. Our troops advanced bravely and defeated them, beheading their famous generals and hundreds of men.

Four years later, Yongle led a second campaign against the Mongols, and records of it have left even clearer evidence for the effectiveness of guns. It was a huge expedition, containing around a half a million men.68 A civil official named Jin Youzi described the cold rain and the emperor’s mood as they moved northward. “Look,” Yongle said to Jin, “at this expanse, empty in all four directions! It’s not something you see everyday. When you’re tired, sleep a bit, and then stand up and look out in all directions, and you’ll feel joy in your breast!” He liked teaching him how to look for signs of wild game, like the paths through the grass made by antelopes and wild horses. And he enjoyed instructing his soldiers how to search for traces of the enemy: hoofprints, horse dung along trails, dust swirling in the distance. He also liked teasing Jin and the other civil officials from the south, who weren’t used to the weather. On one occasion, for example, when Jin rode with one hand on his hat, to keep it from blowing away in the cold wind, Yongle had laughed and said, “The esteemed scholar isn’t having a good day today!”

Finally Yongle’s troops met the enemy. Thirty thousand or so mounted Mongols occupied hills, each of them having three or four extra mounts. Yongle ordered his troops to array themselves on the steppe below. A few skirmishes occurred, but it was in the early evening that Yongle made his move. In the gathering darkness, Yongle led a vanguard of elite cavalry units forward, followed closely by General Liu Sheng’s gun units. The Mongols came down, but Yongle didn’t charge at first. Instead, he waited while Liu Sheng’s guns opened fire. Several hundred Mongols fell, causing confusion and disarray in the Mongol ranks. At this point, Yongle and his cavalry – the elite iron horsemen – charged, driving the enemy back into the hills and capturing many horses. As Jin Youzi described the episode, when the Mongols came down the hills, finding the emperor too tempting of a target to resist they didn’t even get a chance to strike before the guns fired in secret and the [emperor’s] crack troops then again moved forward and attacked with great force, and each could stand against a hundred. The enemy was badly defeated, and the number of men and horses killed and hurt was uncountable, and they all screamed out in pain and left . . . Henceforth that place was called ‘Barbarian Slaughtering Hold’.

Another account – in the Veritable Records – adds an intriguing detail: Liu Sheng’s guns “fired in continuous succession.” Historians in China have interpreted this passage – rightly I believe – as indicating the use of volley fire. Given that western historians have hailed the later emergence of the volley fire technique in Europe as a hallmark of the military revolution, it is intriguing to find it here in Yongle’s armed forces, but it is not surprising. Historians of China have argued that the technique was used with firearms in China as early as 1388. This makes sense, because the Chinese had used the volley technique for crossbows continuously since at the latest the Tang Dynasty, and probably earlier.

In any case, Yongle’s gunners won a victory that day. Top Mongol commanders were killed and several thousand heads were captured, after which Yongle went after the survivors. In these subsequent battles, guns were similarly in evidence. When Mongol forces tried occupying highlands and small lakes, Ming troops “again used guns to first pound those occupying the two ponds, and these enemy, knowing they could not resist, withdrew. The remaining bandits, those who were on the peaks of the gorge, feared the guns would come again, and also withdrew and left.” Kenneth Chase does note the presence of guns on this expedition but downplays their importance, saying merely that guns frightened the Mongols. Sinophone historians, on the other hand, believe – as I do – that guns played a dramatic role, causing significant casualties.

During the 1420s, Yongle led other expeditions against the Mongols, and then, too, he paid close attention to his gun units, focusing in particular on their drill and training. In the campaign of 1422, for example, he gave his generals precise and detailed instructions about drilling gunners so that they could coordinate effectively with cavalry:

The emperor ordered that all the generals train their troops outside each encampment by arraying the gunnery units [shen ji chong] in the front and the cavalry in the back, ordering the officers to practice and train in the free time. He admonished them as follows: “A formation that is dense is solid, while an advance force is sparse, and when they arrive at the gates of war and it’s time to fight, then first use the guns to destroy their advance guard and then use cavalry to rush their solidity. In this way there is nothing to fear.”

Wang Zhaochun believes that Yongle was here discussing volley fire:

The meaning of this [passage] is that when fighting, the gun troops line up in front of the entire formation, and between them there must be a certain amount of space, so that they can load bullets and powder and employ shooting by turns and in concert to destroy the enemy advance guard. Once the enemy has been thrown into chaos, the rear densely arrayed cavalry troops together come forth in great vigor, striking forth with irresistible force.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Yongle’s willingness to place thin rows of gunnery units in the front lines of a battle against Mongol cavalry shows that he believed those gunners would offer enough fire to keep the cavalry at bay, which suggests volley fire, but the passage in the Veritable Records doesn’t in itself make a clear case for it.

Whatever the drilling regime the troops practiced, they didn’t get much of an opportunity to test it against the enemy, because this campaign didn’t manage to find the enemy. Yongle led subsequent expeditions northward against the Mongols, in 1423 and 1424, but those, too, were futile. The Mongols had learned to avoid Ming guns and instead simply slip into the steppes, to reemerge later at a time and a place of their choosing.

On the last Mongolian campaign, in 1424, Yongle became depressed and died of illness in Chahar, Mongolia. The expedition returned to Beijing, bringing his body in a sealed tin coffin. His funeral was as ambitious as his military exploits, and thirty palace woman committed suicide to accompany him in death. His successors stopped making incursions into Mongolia and pulled out of Vietnam, which had adopted Ming weapons and ended up defeating Ming armies badly. They halted the great maritime voyages Yongle had undertaken. As the Ming History noted, “During the Hong[xi] (1425) and Xuan[de] (1426–1435) reigns, [the Ming court] became accustomed to a routine and peaceful life.” The peace was interrupted in 1449, when Yongle’s great grandson, Zhu Qizhen, the Zhengtong Emperor, tried reviving the practice of grand Mongolian expeditions but was captured by the Mongols, who then marched on Beijing. Thanks to many guns and good leadership, the Mongols were driven off, with heavy casualties; sources suggest that the guns and other Ming weapons killed ten thousand Mongols. By the mid 1450s, the Mongol threat had receded again, not to reappear in a serious way for another century.

China’s powerful guns had helped the Ming to create the world’s most powerful empire, unparalleled in military power, but it seems that the death of Yongle in 1424 also corresponded with the end of the period of rapid experimentation with guns and their administration. Indeed, Sinophone historians argue that China’s indigenous gun technology reached its apogee under Yongle. A set of regulations for firearm production and design that Yongle’s administration issued in 1414 formed the basic blueprint for Ming firearms production for the next century, “becoming the Ming Military production method for guns.” In 1419, Yongle’s court issued a new regulation according to which “all military weapons, aside from those that are kept for exercise or in deployment must be placed in the [central] armories . . . and there is not allowed any kind of private manufacture.” These two decrees can be taken to mark the end of China’s period as the global leader of firearms technology. In the mid-1400s, just as Ming innovation was slowing, Europeans entered a period of rapid gun development, and when in the early 1500s Portuguese arrived on the Chinese coast, Ming officials were fascinated by their guns and began adopting them rapidly, effectively, and creatively. As Kenneth Swope and others have argued, the structures that Yongle had set up – particularly the Firearms Commandery – played an important role in the rapid adoption of European guns during the 1500s.


Type 001A aircraft carrier

Having reviewed more intangible aspects of Chinese maritime strategy such as geopolitics, historical precedent, and strategic thought, we now turn to more prosaic matters. How will China put its strategy into practice using the implements it has assembled through fleet building? China’s navy is maturing and developing the arsenal to carry out a forceful maritime strategy. In the interim, however, “sea denial” is still the best concept for managing the nation’s nautical surroundings. Such an approach will suffice until Beijing has rounded out a fleet on par with the finest rival fleets likely to appear in Asian seaways.

Sea denial aligns with long-standing Chinese traditions. A successful sea-denial navy is at once humble and enterprising: it frankly admits its inferiority to prospective antagonists while refusing to admit defeat. It neither flees vital waterways nor resigns itself to passive defense. That the weaker contender can win—or accomplish its goals by keeping its foe from winning—sometimes escapes China watchers. In the late 1990s, for instance, two prominent Sinologists declared that China’s innate feebleness at sea forced it to shelter passively within the first island chain, where it would wage a strategy of “protracted defensive resistance.” U.S. naval supremacy, they maintained, was too stifling to permit anything more ambitious.

We dissent. A sea-denial force works around its weaknesses while exploiting the advantages it does enjoy. It need not vanquish hostile forces outright. Its function is to clear foes from designated waters for a finite interval or, better yet, to deter them from entering in the first place. A sea-denial strategy succeeds if it wards off stronger foes long enough for the nation to fulfill its larger strategic objectives. Sea denial thus constitutes a strategically defensive strategy that inferior powers prosecute through offensive tactical and operational methods. Even if the PLA Navy remains weaker than its likely opponents, it will stay on the operational and tactical offensive. The U.S. Navy and its allies must anticipate that.

The hybrid offensive/defensive style of combat conforms philosophically to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dictum that even lesser navies can impose local command on important waters—as indeed Mahan beseeched the U.S. Navy to do in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, even though it remained weaker on the whole than Great Britain’s Royal Navy. At the same time it conforms to Mao Zedong’s concept of “active defense,” which yokes offensive tactical means to defensive strategic ends. Today as in the age of Mao, the PLA portrays active defense as the core of Chinese military strategy. China’s first formal military strategy white paper, released in 2015, declares:

The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense.… Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Central Military Commission established the military strategic guideline of active defense, and later, in line with the developments and changes in the national security situation, had made a number of major revisions of it.

Intriguingly, China’s Maoist approach likewise conforms to precepts set forth in Sir Julian Corbett’s writings about maritime strategy—writings Chinese strategists have investigated in recent years. “True defense,” proclaims Corbett—a contemporary of both Mao and Alfred Thayer Mahan—means balking a stronger opponent’s strategy while awaiting the chance to administer a counterpunch. The British theorist even hit on the same term—“active defense”—to show how a weaker navy can dispute a stronger navy’s maritime command until it makes itself stronger and wrests away command for itself. Active defense, clearly, is a concept with heft and longevity in China’s way of sea warfare.

And China has structured forces around that method of defense. The Chinese military possesses, is procuring, or plans to acquire systems designed to make the seas and skies adjoining the Asian mainland no-go territory for any opponent. Beijing has purchased arms from Russia lavishly since the early 1990s. At the same time it has bolstered its domestic defense industry, allowing the PLA to field a variety of indigenous weaponry. Infusing new platforms and systems into the force alongside a more professional, more battleworthy corps of mariners has produced a leap in offensive PLA combat power.

Over the past two decades, modern diesel submarines—difficult to detect, track, and target in shallow offshore waters—have slid down the ways at Chinese shipyards or been purchased in significant numbers from Russian suppliers. One aircraft carrier is in service, another is nearing operational status, and future carriers are reportedly under design or construction. Destroyers equipped with sophisticated radar suites (touted as equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Aegis combat system), antiship missiles, and air-defense missiles increasingly form the backbone of the Chinese surface fleet. PLA Navy surface groups’ chances of withstanding long-range missile or air bombardment are brightening commensurately. This is doubly true so long as the fleet operates within range of shore-based fire support that augments the fleet’s firepower with missiles and aircraft dispatched from Fortress China itself. Shore fire support constitutes the PLAN’s great equalizer.

Accordingly, surface forces typically cruise underneath that protective umbrella. And the range and accuracy of shore-based assets are growing. This allows the PLAN to extend its combat radius while still tapping that great equalizer. Indeed, China may stand at the brink of rendering a strategic concept condemned by Mahan—the “fortress-fleet” tethered to shore fire support—viable for the first time. Mahan was writing in the context of the Russian Navy’s dismal performance during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. He upbraided the Russian naval command for resorting to this “radically erroneous” way of combat, which fettered Russian commanders’ freedom of maneuver—ships had to remain within reach of the fort’s guns—while sapping their fighting spirit.

Mahan’s was a telling critique for an age of rudimentary naval technology, when the effective firing range for artillery was a few miles. It has lost cogency now that precision fire can reach scores if not hundreds of miles offshore. One imagines the Russian Navy would have fared far better against the IJN had shore gunfire boasted modern China’s range and precision to pummel Japanese fleets throughout the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Strait—the battlegrounds for climactic sea engagements in 1904–5. Russian gunnery could have cut the Japanese down to size from afar while affording Russian warships maneuver space aplenty.

In short, the day of the fortress fleet may have come. If so, footloose PLAN units will be able to roam waters Beijing deems important without leaving the protective cover of shore defenses. Defense will increasingly blur into offense under this aegis, even eastward of the first island chain. Advanced ground-based air-defense systems, capable naval fighter/attack aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and even ASBMs reputedly able to find and attack vessels on the high seas are pivotal to China’s military modernization effort. If the Chinese package these assets wisely while developing the tactical proficiency to use them, they will gain confidence in their ability to deter, delay, or defeat any foreign force bold enough to attempt hostile entry into nearby seas or airspace.

China’s continent-spanning geography is invaluable to the PLAN’s sea-denial strategy because it furnishes plentiful sites for coastal bases and mobile missile batteries. Indeed, emerging military capabilities are explicitly designed to assail targets in offshore expanses from bases on the mainland. Furthermore, as weapons range improves, shore defenses can be positioned farther inland. Technology will make China’s deep continental interior a safe haven from which to punish intruding forces along the coastline.

This sanctuary will serve the purely military purpose of buffering PLA assets against attack. A PLA that turns strategic depth to advantage can compel enemy forces to enter the combat range of its weaponry, accepting battle on China’s political, geographic, and military terms. Such a strategy would have found favor with Mao Zedong, who famously urged his followers to lure enemies deep into Chinese territory. The Red Army would enfeeble its antagonists in the process, setting conditions for a devastating counterblow, and the weaker Chinese Communist legions would score a conventional battlefield victory in the end.

Just as important, defending from deep inland dares an opponent to escalate the fighting. Suppose U.S. forces struck at Chinese antiship missile sites located well inland. They would risk inflicting collateral damage under such circumstances, especially if targets adjoined populated areas. Duly broadcast by Chinese media outlets, images of civilian death or suffering could swing political sentiment behind Beijing—not just in China but among influential audiences elsewhere in Asia and in the international community. A backlash against a hardhearted or feckless America could result, no matter how just the cause that prompted the United States to take up arms.

Moreover, the United States would risk escalating a limited naval conflict to full-blown war against China, its leading trading partner and a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council. China is a nuclear-armed power that brandishes mobile, increasingly effective, land-based and undersea strategic deterrent forces. The survivable retaliatory arsenal operated by the PLA Rocket Force would remain in reserve should conventional deterrence fail. No U.S. president would lightly make the decision to employ force under the nuclear shadow.

The historical record supports that contention. Americans showed restraint vis-à-vis the Chinese in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, declining to escalate “vertically” up the scale of violence. History also suggests that policy makers exercise caution before undertaking military actions likely to prompt “horizontal” escalation to new places on the map. In particular, the prospect of expanding the geographic scope of military operations deep into China’s interior would be daunting if not unthinkable to an American president. The repercussions from such a fight could well outweigh the presumably modest strategic goals at stake for Washington.

The odds of U.S. leaders climbing down from a dispute would improve under those circumstances, boosting the likelihood that China would prevail without an actual exchange of fire. Small wonder that Chinese fleet tactics fuse offense with defense; they come naturally to PLA Navy commanders while promising handsome dividends.

Massed, Dispersed, or Sequential Tactics?

The PLA’s increasing ability to integrate surface, subsurface, and aerial warfare into a defensive thicket against seaborne threats to China is remaking the strategic environment in maritime Asia, and the U.S. armed forces must keep pace. They must adapt their own methods and weaponry if they hope to preserve the maritime supremacy that has served U.S. interests—not to mention the interests of the region as a whole—so well since 1945.

Captain Wayne Hughes has supplied U.S. Navy mariners with a primer for sea combat in Asia. Hughes’ classic Fleet Tactics (1986) and its successors, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000) and Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (2018), constitute a baseline for analyzing the challenges Chinese antiship tactics pose. However useful his treatises, though, they cannot stand alone. We mean no slight. Fleet Tactics aspires to school tacticians in a variety of settings and against a variety of potential antagonists. Indeed, Hughes describes his purpose as “to illustrate the processes—the dynamics—of naval combat” rather than to prophesy how particular contingencies might turn out. Thus, Fleet Tactics is largely silent on operational and strategic matters, and it is entirely devoid of political, cultural, and strategic context. As is the case with any good theory, its users can tailor it to varying circumstances.

This flexibility is a strength, but it could become a weakness if readers misuse Fleet Tactics. There is a decidedly technical feel to such accounts on naval tactics, which are de rigueur in U.S. Navy training institutions where warfighters learn their craft. The downside of the abstract approach to naval warfare is that, taken in isolation, Hughes’ works strongly imply that technology decides the outcomes of martial encounters. On the high seas, enemy fleets slug it out with volleys of precision-guided arms. When fighting close to enemy shores, defenders may fire antiship missiles at U.S. task forces, land-based aircraft may disgorge missiles from aloft, or diesel submarines may lurk below preparing to launch torpedoes or missiles. In both modes of fighting, the combatants hammer away with everything in their magazines, and the side that lands the first blow is the likely victor.

For Hughes, the arbiters of high-tech naval combat are (a) “scouting effectiveness,” meaning the proficient use of shipboard and offboard sensors, combat systems, and computer data links to find enemy units; (b) “weapon range,” the ability to inflict damage at a distance; and (c) tactics, which are determined by scouting effectiveness and the range of a fleet’s weaponry. Hughes’ text conveys the dynamics of sea combat, but its scope is limited. Seeker effectiveness or detect-to-engage algorithms will do much to shape the results of any U.S.-China clash at sea, as will missile ranges. But people, not machines, compete for naval mastery. Not for nothing did U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd, one of the leading strategic minds of the Cold War, proclaim that people, ideas, and hardware—“in that order”—represent the prime determinants of competitive endeavors, warfare in particular. More to the point, Mao lambasted “the so-called theory that ‘weapons decide everything,’ which constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war.… [I]t is people, not things, that are decisive.”

Outdistancing an opponent’s sensors and weaponry is far from the only challenge any U.S. naval offensive will face. Fleet Tactics shares this deficit of vision with standard net assessments that tally up numbers of platforms and their technical characteristics, often scanting the human element of war and politics. A larger view is in order. Consider one data point from Asian maritime history: Imperial Japan, which has emerged as a model for PLAN development. Ni Lexiong, a leading Chinese proponent of sea power, faults China’s Qing Dynasty for being insufficiently Mahanian in its 1894–95 tilt against Japan. China, Ni says, should bear in mind that Mahan “believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.”

That distinguished analysts such as Ni now pay tribute to Japanese sea power despite the bitter history of Sino-Japanese relations during the twentieth century marks a striking turnabout in Chinese strategic thought. Beijing’s willingness to consider the Japanese paradigm bespeaks increasing openness to non-Chinese, noncommunist sources of wisdom on military and naval affairs. Yet looking beyond Chinese traditions is eminently Chinese. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, probably written in the fourth century B.C., remains a fixture in Chinese strategic discourses. The Chinese sage counsels generals, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.” This may be a truism, but it is one worth repeating, and it is important because it urges strategists to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each belligerent and reject analyses blinkered by culture or ideology.

American commanders should heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom as well. They need to understand U.S. forces’ material and human strengths; acknowledge their own shortcomings; and come to terms with the ends, ways, and means likely to guide China’s efforts in crisis or war. Only thus can they fashion strategy for overcoming Chinese forces. The Mahanian geopolitical logic that helps govern Chinese maritime strategy could also help goad Beijing into a trial of arms involving the United States. Our purpose here is to explain what such a prospect means in operational and tactical terms. A few propositions:

•  If Mahan supplies the grand logic of maritime war, Mao Zedong’s operational-level writings on land warfare will inform Chinese tactics and operational practices in any clash off Taiwan, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, or at hotspots elsewhere along the Asian periphery. This is China’s martial grammar.

•  The South China Sea represents the most likely maritime theater for Beijing to conduct combined-arms attacks designed to saturate and overpower U.S. task groups’ defenses in support of China’s geopolitical and strategic aims.

•  PLA forces will integrate weapons systems, new and old, into joint “orthodox” and “unorthodox” attacks, executing offensive actions to attain strategically defensive goals. They will not depend on any single method or system, or solely on aerial, surface, or subsurface warfare. Multiple axes of attack, multiple weapon types, and preparedness to shift nimbly between the main and secondary efforts will represent hallmarks of China’s way of naval war.

Among the three tactical scenarios Wayne Hughes posits (described below), PLA Navy planners and commanders will probably incline toward dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order. Unless Beijing grows so confident in its quantitative and qualitative superiority that it can simply hammer away, saturating American defenses at a single blow, it will stay with tried-and-true Chinese methods.

As Sun Tzu’s theories suggest, more acute understanding of oneself and the adversary could provide the margin of victory in an armed conflict against China. Now fast-forward from China’s Warring States period, when Sun Tzu purportedly lived, to nineteenth-century Europe. Recall that Carl von Clausewitz depicts war as “only a branch of political activity … that is in no sense autonomous” (emphasis in original). “Is war not just another expression of [peoples’ and governments’] thoughts, another form of speech or writing?” he queries before answering his own question. “Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”

By this he means three things. First, war is the act of pursuing policy aims with the admixture of military means. The addition of violent means fires passions among the combatants—usually negative ones such as fear, rage, and spite—while bringing chance and uncertainty to the fore. Second, nonmilitary instruments such as diplomacy and economic coercion still have a part to play after the shooting starts. And third, warlike preparations and war itself are expressions of political and strategic thought. A violent clash of human wills is not easily reducible to rules, formulas, or statistics. Those schooled on Clausewitz cannot fully appreciate Chinese hardware and tactics without grasping the larger strategic, political, and cultural considerations that impart the logic—the purpose—to war.

Despite our dour tone, we are not prophesying naval war in Asia. There is ample room for debate about China’s intentions and its vision of its maritime destiny. Chinese naval power might evolve in a benign direction, although that prospect appears dimmer than it did when the first edition of this book appeared. We believe U.S. political leaders and commanders should do their best to shape conditions in favor of a maritime entente with China, but hoping for an agreeable outcome is not a strategy.

Washington, that is, can no longer afford a strategy of neglect simply because it reckons that the probability of a clash with China is low and wants to keep it that way. Nor, can the United States assume that its traditional strengths in naval warfare, including air power and undersea forces, will be sufficient to fend off China’s striking power at sea. By investigating the logic and grammar impelling Chinese sea power, U.S. strategists can estimate how the PLA Navy would mount an integrated, offense-minded defense against U.S. Navy carrier, amphibious, and surface action groups in Asian waters. Foresight will help them prepare for this eventuality.


Chinese Type 039A (Yuan-class) SS

Tactical Scenarios: Near Shore and on the High Seas

Hughes considers two very broad categories of wartime contingencies: (1) U.S. forces might close in on the coast of an adversary that boasts considerable land-based defenses but lacks a fleet able to stand against the U.S. Navy in open waters; (2) a prospective opponent might possess a fleet able to meet the U.S. Navy in highseas combat, operating more or less independently of land support. The permutations between the two paradigms are endless, as Barry Posen suggests in his definition of “contested zones.”

As Posen observes, a skillful though weaker adversary enjoys certain advantages when operating on its home ground, including nearby shore-based assets and manpower, short lines of communication, and intimate acquaintance with the tactical environment. A savvy power can parley these advantages into distinct strategic and operational advantages over the United States, imposing costs Washington might find politically unacceptable. If the costs of fighting China prove steeper than the stakes merit, rational U.S. leaders may refuse to pay them. Even a lesser foe, then, could induce U.S. decision makers to hesitate or perhaps even to withdraw U.S. forces following a traumatic event—say, the crippling or sinking of a major surface combatant or aircraft carrier. This dynamic—and it is worth spotlighting its pronounced psychological, nontechnical component—will characterize any military encounter off Chinese coasts for the foreseeable future.

The prospects for variety in the operating environment—especially in littoral combat—should give wise fleet tacticians pause. Strategist Bernard Brodie points to a perverse facet of naval warfare: “There are too few naval wars and far too few major naval battles to enable us ever to prove the correctness of a tactical theory” (his emphasis). Even an epic battle—a Trafalgar or Tsushima—represents just a single data point for evaluating a theory. The U.S. Navy fought its last major engagement at Leyte Gulf in 1944; China’s PLA Navy has never fought one. Fleet actions take place too seldom to allow for rigorous trend analysis or confident findings. It is a fallacy to extrapolate from one bit of information that may not even be accurate.

As Brodie notes, even a marginally different configuration of forces or tactics on the part of one combatant or the other could have produced a different outcome to a particular engagement. Analysts would then render a different—and possibly faulty, yet equally confident—verdict on the efficacy of the tactics deployed. Brodie might add that the times and technology change between the major battles that constitute the data points for analysis. It is hard to draw trend lines between disparate combatants, historical epochs, and geographic settings, and those who do should take care to leave generous margins for error.

With all of that in mind, Wayne Hughes posits three representative scenarios for naval engagements on the high seas: attack by massed forces on massed forces, dispersed attacks that arrive on top of targeted forces nearly simultaneously, and sequential attack. The latter refers essentially to attacks dispersed in time rather than space.

Two caveats are in order. First, we are not predicting specific Chinese tactics; we use these three possibilities only as crude indicators of how Chinese forces might respond to a U.S. naval offensive.

The attacking force—“Force B” in Hughes’ nomenclature—could represent a mix of Chinese shore- and sea-based missile shooters supplemented by platforms such as minelayers or torpedo-firing submarines. The important question is whether Chinese strategic and operational preferences incline Chinese commanders toward massed, dispersed, or sequential attack. A related question: would Chinese commanders prefer to keep the PLA Navy closer to home, in keeping with the fortress-fleet approach, or would they feel comfortable dispatching the fleet for independent operations beyond shore-based cover?

Tactics for Striking at an Approaching Naval Force

Second, in the formulae Hughes develops to gauge the probabilities of U.S. defenses’ being overwhelmed or penetrated by “leakers” (platforms or munitions that get past the battle group’s layered defense), he avoids using the characteristics—ranges, warhead sizes, and so forth—of specific weapons systems. We follow suit for the most part. Capabilities change, while tactical principles apply across many contingencies. It falls to those closer to tactical and technical questions than we are to put the analysis and findings presented here into actual practice.

In short, China’s contested zone in littoral sea areas will comprise some composite of land and sea defenses. As the Chinese military extends its reach seaward—especially if a post-Taiwan era ever comes to pass—the high-seas component will naturally come to predominate. In Clausewitzian terms, as the PLA extends the range of land-based weaponry and continues building its oceangoing fleet, China will thrust the “culminating point of the attack” for its foes outward from its coasts. Clausewitz observes that when one state invades another, the combat power of the invading army starts to dwindle while the defending army grows stronger and stronger as the lines of communication with its bases shorten and it takes advantage of familiar surroundings.

The culminating point represents the crossover point at which the defender’s strength starts to surpass that of the attacker. A fleet that stands into an enemy’s maritime contested zone faces the same dynamic. U.S. Pacific Fleet relief forces will exhaust themselves if they push too far in the face of Chinese resistance. This phenomenon will bolster China’s prospects for denying the U.S. military access to important waters and for exercising sea control in those waters. Extending the reach of the PLA’s anti-access armory farther out to sea means the PLA can strike at the Pacific Fleet farther away and hasten the onset of the American culminating point. In all likelihood the PLA will strike in dispersed fashion, concentrating combat power from many axes atop its U.S. Navy targets at the same time.

Applying Maoist Active-Defense Grammar to Offshore Operations

Wars are not—and should not be—fought for their own sake. Politics and grand strategy impart the logic or purpose to warfare, assigning statesmen, soldiers, and mariners the ends toward which they strive. War’s grammar, on the other hand, is the ways and means whereby warring combatants try to reach those ends. Alfred Thayer Mahan proffered both a Clausewitzian logic of sea power premised on commercial, political, and military access to important regions and a grammar of naval strategy, operations, and tactics.

Mahan’s sea-power logic remains persuasive in China, it seems. Beijing has resolved to gain or preserve commercial, political, and military access to theaters it deems important to China’s national interests. Mahan’s writings on operational and tactical matters, on the other hand, have a musty if not archaic feel about them. He affirmed that the “offensive element in warfare” was “the superstructure, the end and the aim for which the defensive exists, and apart from which it is to all purposes of war worse than useless. When war has been accepted as necessary, success means nothing short of victory; and victory must be sought by offensive measures, and by them only can be insured.”

This vision of offensive battle comports with Chinese strategic proclivities, as does Mahan’s advocacy of forward bases and a robust merchant marine. But Mahan’s doctrine of battle between big-gun battleships is obsolete in an age of high-tech combat. Nor do Chinese analysts draw detailed lessons from his works beyond his injunctions to mass combat power at the critical place to prosecute a fleet engagement and to size fleets accordingly.

That Mahan has fallen into disrepute in operational and tactical matters is not surprising. As he admitted to Theodore Roosevelt, he was an indifferent fleet officer—“I am the man of thought, not the man of action,” he confided—and more than once he came up on the short end of a technical debate. He feuded with W. S. Sims, for example, on the question of whether new U.S. battleships should be fitted with all-big-gun main batteries or with a composite battery of big guns and lesser-caliber naval rifles. Richard Hough notes that Sims administered an “annihilating” rejoinder to Mahan’s advocacy of mixed armament, upbraiding Mahan for ignoring the combat punch of Japanese 12-inch gunfire at Tsushima.

Mahan’s poor performance in tactical debates in his own day makes it scarcely surprising that American and foreign tacticians nowadays look elsewhere for insight. Chinese officials, mariners, and scholars consult other martial traditions as they draft a grammar of marine combat—including their own. Chinese traditions offer a rich stock of land-warfare concepts, including the writings of Sun Tzu and, in particular, Mao Zedong, who etched his strategic outlook on contemporary China through personal example and voluminous writings on political and military affairs.

Admiral Xiao Jinguang, for instance, drew inspiration from Mao’s writings to develop his naval doctrine of “sabotage warfare at sea,”. One component of China’s current maritime strategy, “offshore waters defense,” takes its guiding precepts from the Maoist doctrine of active defense, an approach to warfighting distilled from Mao’s experiences in land campaigns against Imperial Japanese occupiers and the Chinese Nationalist Army. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping explicitly paid homage to Mao’s formula when he articulated his vision for China’s maritime strategy in the reform and opening era.

Mao scorned passive defense. His military writings are wholly offensive in character, even the material written during the wilderness years when his Red Army was vastly inferior to its enemies and had little choice other than to remain on the strategic defensive. Passive defense represented “a spurious kind of defense” for him, while active defense meant “defense for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive.” Even strategically defensive aims, then, were best attained through offensive ways and means. Passive measures were necessitated by an unfavorable balance of forces. They were transient. They were not the core of China’s national strategy, let alone its strategic preference. This outlook lends China’s quest for sea power much of its grammar.

To Chinese eyes, U.S. mastery of East Asian seas resembles the Nationalist Army’s strategy of “encirclement and suppression” transposed to the East, Yellow, and South China Seas. The Red Army did not reply to Nationalist Army ground offensives through passive means. It unleashed tactical offensives opportunistically to elongate the war, tire out enemy forces, and shift the balance of forces in the Communists’ favor. Patient action represented a precursor to a counteroffensive and ultimately to decisive victory.

Prompted by Mao and Mahan, Chinese naval strategists today talk routinely of prying control of the waters westward of the first island chain from the U.S. Navy’s grasp. They intend to surround and control these waters by offensive means, even if the United States still commands Asian waters at large.

True, Mao did warn against risking engagements in which victory was not assured, but it represents a grave mistake to equate such prudence with acquiescence in military inferiority. The strategic defensive was an expedient for Chairman Mao, not a desirable or permanent state of affairs. If the PLA heeds his advice, its grammar of naval war should give the U.S. Navy pause. America’s control of Asian waters does not render all naval battles unwinnable for Beijing. Washington must take seriously the reality that Beijing has adopted an intensely offensive naval strategy in its littoral waters. The PLA Navy is making itself a force to be reckoned with.

In this context, dispersed attacks on exterior lines are becoming increasingly thinkable for the PLA, as they were for the Red Army in its struggles against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. (Operating along exterior lines is like operating around the circumference of a circle while the competitor on interior lines is located at the circle’s center and operates along its radii, with the advantages a central location confers.) The dispersed approach confers a variety of benefits. First, Maoist preferences predispose Chinese defenders to let U.S. forces close on Chinese shores, casting Americans in the part of Mao’s “foolish” boxer who “rushes in furiously and uses up all his resources at the very start.” Plunging deep into China’s offshore defensive zone attenuates the strength of the U.S. forces, weakening them before PLA defenders mount attacks from shore- and sea-based weaponry scattered around the battle zone.

Nor will the PLA confine its fleet tactics to any particular warfare domain. It will unleash missile barrages complemented by submarine attack, minefields, and the panoply of other tactics and systems on which China has lavished attention. As American forces come under the shadow of Chinese coastlines, the PLA will assume the exterior lines, rendering dispersed attacks possible along multiple threat axes. By deploying land-based implements of sea power, Beijing can bring the full force of its contested zone to bear, creating a 360-degree threat to U.S. expeditionary groups. In the ideal case, if those land-based forces are successful, the PLA may not even need to hazard the PLA Navy battle fleet in action.

Second, PLA commanders will concentrate their efforts on individual vessels or small detachments. Despite the tenor of Chinese commentary, U.S. commanders should not automatically assume that aircraft carriers will be the prime target for PLA action. Amphibious ships, for example, would make tempting targets in a Taiwan contingency, assuming U.S. Marines attempted to land to succor Taiwanese defense forces. Disabling or sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis warships would certainly give the United States pause, stirring memories of the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole and thus magnifying the political impact of such a feat of arms on the American electorate.

The PLAN might even set its sights on U.S. combat-logistics vessels transiting to or from the conflict zone. Despite the lower political profile of tankers and stores ships, depriving carrier or amphibious task groups of “bullets, beans, and black oil” would bring the U.S. effort grinding to a halt. Even a nuclear-powered carrier demands refueling every few days. Otherwise its complement of aircraft cannot fly, and it may as well have been disarmed.

Third, and closely related, the PLA will incorporate orthodox and unorthodox methods and weaponry into its defensive scheme in keeping with Mao’s and Sun Tzu’s warfare precepts. Western naval analysts commonly invoke the concept of saturation attack, implying that cruise missiles will be China’s sole implements in such a confrontation, or at any rate its implements of choice. This may be true. More likely, though, PLA saturation attacks will involve the concerted use of cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles; aerial attack from manned or unmanned warplanes; mines; torpedo attack; electronic warfare; and cyber warfare. All of those weapons are ideal for a contested zone and complement more conventional means.

Antiship missiles might thus represent not the primary, orthodox element of an active-defense campaign but the secondary, unorthodox element. For example, missile attack would compel U.S. tacticians to look skyward while Kilo-class diesel boats loosed salvoes of wake-homing torpedoes (torpedoes that find their surface target by following the water turbulence churned up by the target ship’s propellers) against U.S. surface combatants from beneath. It also bears repeating that Maoist tactics emphasize fluidity. Astute commanders shift between axes as circumstances permit, making the unorthodox attack into the orthodox attack if it appears more promising, and switching back again if need be. Distinguishing orthodox from unorthodox tactics may prove next to impossible in the heat of battle—which is the point of this supple approach.

And fourth, Beijing will merge nonmilitary instruments into its defensive efforts by using diplomacy to augment Maoist active defense. China constantly wages what strategists dub “three warfares,” deploying psychological, media, and legal measures to shape opinion in China’s favor. It carries on this shaping effort in wartime and peacetime alike, in the spirit of former premier Zhou Enlai’s dictum that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

For instance, Beijing could impress upon Washington the lasting diplomatic and economic repercussions of taking on China over Taiwan. It takes time to debate whether a military undertaking is worth its price and hazards. The United States could pause to reflect, and its hesitation could grant the PLA enough time to attain its goals before U.S. forces intervened. Additionally, Chinese diplomats could act as coalition breakers trying to weaken or pick off U.S. allies. Discouraging Japan from granting the use of bases on its soil or impressing on Australia that it will pay a price for supporting U.S. military action would impair America’s strategic position in Asia. Indeed, without access to allied bases America has no strategic position in Asia. Denying access to them incapacitates them, which is almost as good as destroying them from China’s standpoint.

Beijing would turn operational achievements of Chinese arms to propaganda advantage using its three-warfares strategy. Even small tactical triumphs would weary the American populace while giving America’s allies second thoughts about supporting the United States against Asia’s central political and economic power. Asians understand that win or lose in a sea war, they will have to live with a vindictive China that has a long memory. Asymmetries in commitment to the allied cause could open fissures that China could pry open further—degrading or dismantling the alliance system that lets U.S. forces operate on exterior lines far from North American shores.