Haunted by History

What did 1997 mean? On 1 July that year the People’s Republic of China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. China’s senior leadership and British government ministers and officials took part in a punctiliously choreographed midnight handover ceremony. Rain poured down, and tears were shed for all the reasons that tears might be shed: sadness, joy, fear, confusion, or relief. The departing Governor stepped aboard the British royal yacht Britannia just after midnight and sailed away. The Union Jack had been pulled down at midnight, the five stars of China’s flag raised in its stead, and the colony’s own standard was at the same time surmounted by that of the new Special Administrative Region. Other symbols of colonial rule were being removed as midnight passed, and many had already been superseded by 1997. In Beijing there were fireworks in Tiananmen Square. A digital clock that had been placed in front of the Museum of Revolutionary History, and which had been counting down the days and seconds since 1994, reached zero. Crowds chanted as the seconds ticked down. A century of humiliation had been ‘washed away’ as the rain fell in Hong Kong.

There had been other ways of looking forward to this moment than the clock. (This was one of several; there was one at the Hong Kong–Shenzhen border, and another in Beijing at the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan, the old Summer Palace looted and burned down by French and British troops in 1860.) One that had stuck with me was a music video that seemed to be endlessly repeated in 1994 on a satellite music channel – itself a phenomenon that was bewildering for a visitor to China – and that I had watched in a Shanghai hotel room. A young woman faced the camera, strumming a guitar. Her name was Ai Jing, and at the age of twenty-four she had a hit across and beyond the Chinese-speaking world with a catchy song, ‘My 1997’. It takes the form of a jaunty folk riff periodically interrupted by passages in a Chinese opera style, in which she narrates her journey from Shenyang in the far northeast, through Beijing, to Shanghai’s Bund and down south to the border with Hong Kong. Visually the film makes the same shifts from past to present. But the song is about the future: ‘when will I be able to visit Hong Kong?’ she asks from Guangzhou. It is a cheeky song, lamenting at once a Hong Kong lover, but Hong Kong itself as a lover, perhaps, certainly as a future for the Chinese. The song and video’s celebratory climax presents a sensual longing for urban freedom and modernity. On the cover of the CD itself Ai Jing was photographed in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong bar district. ‘What is it like? What are Hong Kong people like?’ Ai asks. In the years before the handover of the last significantly sized British colony, the Chinese government was sponsoring academic research and film-makers. In these endeavours it was making Hong Kong the focus for a celebration of China’s new strength, and a reminder of past weakness and humiliation. Culture still mattered; it was no less a political sphere than it had been in the most hectic days of the Maoist era, or even during the more cosmopolitan republic. So Ai Jing’s song deftly struck the right political notes, and subverted them. Her 1997 was not about national humiliation, but about personal liberation.

Late colonial Hong Kong had boomed as a British imperial city was transformed into a global capitalist hub. The disputes between the British and the Chinese diplomats continued almost up to the last moment. Signs of that old treaty-port world remained in abundance after the formal symbols of British power were removed, but many of the new expatriates of the 1990s and after were looking north, waiting for China, diving in whenever opportunity was opened up, finding partners, and chasing ancient fantasies of unlimited China markets. For the Chinese government the question was how to manage it all, and how to bring the foreign back in without re-creating the past, and without surrendering sovereignty and dignity. Reclaiming Hong Kong was a grand affirmation of its triumph over history. The handover was a substantial exercise in political theatre, but it was also a landmark in the growing economic freedoms enjoyed by Chinese. After 1949 the city had inherited Shanghai’s modernity. High-rise Hong Kong provided an alternative vision of China’s present, and its soon-to-be-realized future. The return of Macao in 1999 was also accompanied by much fanfare, but the earlier return in 1997 was made significantly more important as a symbol, as its roots lay not in the Ming Dynasty but in the nineteenth-century British assault on China’s sovereignty.

Ai Jing’s video lingers in the mind, but there were orthodox cultural projects launched before 1997 that were intended to resonate widely as well. In one way the most mainstream of these was a big-budget film, The Opium War, which premiered with a showing for senior government leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 9 June 1997, and which was described by its director, the veteran Chinese film-maker Xie Jin, as a ‘special gift for the motherland and the people … to ensure we and our descendants forever remember the humiliation the nation once suffered’. Hong Kong’s Shanghai-born incoming senior leaders – Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Legislative Council President Rita Fan – attended the Hong Kong premiere three days later. The film had already been endorsed by no less a figure than Deng Xiaoping’s successor, the Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, and patriotically minded backers had put up the funds. Group bookings by government and other official and party units produced a good deal of the receipts. Hong Kong’s origins in the conflict over the opium trade and in the British bid to seize ‘the entire East … the Nineteenth century’ mattered most in this retelling (and the ambition was put into the mouth of Queen Victoria). The film was by some measure the most expensive then yet made in China. Its script delivered a more nuanced understanding of the British position than might have been expected; however, the significant point is that ultimately the project was not rooted in Hong Kong’s present but in China’s past. Hong Kong was not what its people had made it by 1997, and what they might make it afterwards, but was to be remembered as an historical act of theft, with its origins in a squalid criminal enterprise and the weakness and chauvinism of the Qing.

It was not in fact the first time in modern Chinese history that a retrocession had been commemorated with a film about the Opium War. The earlier occasion had been the premiere of the 1943 Japanese-sponsored Chinese movie Wanshou liufang (Eternity), screened in Nanjing for the benefit of collaborationist president Wang Jingwei. That, too, had been an officially directed project, and it was released to mark the handover of the International Settlement to the quisling Shanghai Special Municipality on 1 August 1943. At the very least this coincidence of rituals demonstrates the centrality of nationalism and anti-imperialism to all twentieth-century political projects in China. The Chinese Communist Party and Wang Jingwei, once allies, later the bitterest of opponents, played tunes from the same narrow repertoire. This is not to suggest any equation between the CCP and Wang Jingwei’s regime, but to highlight the centrality of these issues of humiliation in understanding the competing forms of nationalism that have emerged in modern China.

Over the next thirty years the world that Ai Jing’s song laid claim to was brought to China. The state enterprises that her lyrics mention her father working in have folded, and have been broken up for scrap like those ships that were the fuel for the first foreign business established in China. These enterprises were swept aside by the massive programme of renewal and economic development that began with those contentious reforms in Guangdong province in 1979. Economic growth brought profound social and cultural transformation that is still unfolding, and there are now bar districts like Lan Kwai Fong all over China. Hong Kong is still very different, providing a distinctive modern Chinese culture with different values; but like Macao it is also partly irrelevant to the story of change in China itself. A quarter of a million foreign nationals live in Shanghai, for example, which has hungrily embraced all the trappings of its ambitions to be a world-class city, and all the greyer and darker ones too. Only the rickshaws are missing from the streets.

There are plenty of those in the museums, however, for the past is bigger business than ever in China. An estimated 10,000 ‘Red Tourism’ sites and half a billion visits to them in 2011 accounted for one-fifth of all Chinese domestic tourism. Heritage initiatives with little political flavouring have also made progress in the generally unequal battle with the bulldozer and property speculation. Some of this apparent political elision is striking: Tianjin’s former Italian concession was revamped as the ‘Italian-style scenic district’ after 2004. In this case an Italian colonial enterprise now serves as an example of cosmopolitan heritage style. The repackaging of the colonial as the cosmopolitan is now quite common. It serves the purpose too of stressing continuities over time despite China’s shutdown during the Maoist era. The iconic modern skyline in China is still Shanghai’s. Its high-rises were the stuff of the movies viewed across the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, and this persisted. But now the vista representing Shanghai in its room at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing is of the Pudong skyline, across the river from the Bund. To appreciate this, which thousands of tourists from all over China do every day, one needs to turn one’s back on the old Bund and its buildings, on the British Consulate, the headquarters of Jardine Matheson and Co., the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel, the North China Daily News Building, Yokohama Specie Bank and the Shanghai Club.

But even when backs are turned the memory is kept alive. On 1 October every year, China’s national day, city officials in Shanghai gather on the north end of the Bund at what is still called a park, although little trace of anything much like one remains. What dominates the site now is a ‘Monument to the People’s Heroes’ that was unveiled in 1993. Three granite pillars lean together at the top to form a three-sided obelisk reaching 60 metres into the air. They represent the ‘eternal glory’ of the ‘people’s heroes’ who died in the liberation war, in revolutionary movements more widely since the 1919 May Fourth Movement and since the Opium War. In a sunken area around its base are seven bas-relief friezes depicting key incidents in the revolutionary history of the city down to 1949, culminating with students dancing the yangge in Shanghai’s streets in May 1949. For some decades prior to 1943 another much less imposing obelisk stood close to this very same spot, a memorial erected in 1866 to the foreign officers of the Ever Victorious Army, the unit led by General Gordon that supported Qing forces in the battles around Shanghai against the Taiping. The city’s histories, like all of China’s, overlay and echo one another. And not far away you can read the twentieth century’s changes on what was formerly the China headquarters of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries. Shorn now of the allegorical reliefs with which it was adorned on its unveiling in 1923, its own name is just still visible, and so are huge sets of Cultural Revolution slogans running down the building, wishing long life to the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao. It now houses a securities firm.

The annual ceremony at the memorial on the Bund is of fresh vintage. Recently the event commenced early in the morning with the playing of the national anthem by a military band, while the participants stood in contemplative silence. Then, without a word, the Shanghai Party Secretary, the Mayor and representatives from other official organizations stepped forward to lay wreaths in front of the obelisk. So the ceremony itself echoes another, the one that took place annually from 1924 to 1941, and then again from 1945 to 1948, on 11 November, Remembrance Day for the Allied dead of the world wars. That took place at the other end of the former International Settlement Bund, in front of Shanghai’s tall war memorial. This is a powerful testament to the reach of imported practices and forms, and their acculturation – including the ceremonial silence, and the playing by a military band using European instruments, of a national anthem indebted to Western musical forms, and indeed to the very idea of a ‘national anthem’. The concrete forms of memorialization – those obelisks – are linked in a similar way. But none of these are any less authentic facets of modern China and modern Chinese culture. Most of Shanghai’s tourists do not pay any homage at the memorial, despite the fact that it is a ‘patriotic education base’. Most do not even really visit that end of the promenade: the blindingly neon-lit Pudong skyline at night is the draw instead. Such is the pervasiveness still of the humiliation narrative that they hardly need to, for the stories it tells remain at the heart of the nationwide system of patriotic education.

Reactions to bilateral and other disputes that unfold or erupt today are still nearly always addressed through the prism of the past, or they are about that past. There were violent street and online protests during the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands in 2012, which were inflamed by its coincidental timing with the anniversary of the Japanese Kwantung Army’s attack on Manchuria on 18 September (usually simply ‘918’ in Chinese). The islands themselves are another legacy issue from the longer history of territorial disintegration in the nineteenth century: ‘No longer learn from Li Hongzhang,’ shouted demonstrators in Nanchang, echoing Deng Xiaoping’s curt rejoinder to Margaret Thatcher over Hong Kong. ‘Never forget National Humiliation; Remember 9.18; Recover the Diaoyu islands’, ran another slogan. Since 2000 controversy over demands for the repatriation of artefacts looted from the Yuanming Yuan in 1860 has also gathered tremendous momentum. And over forty years after Prime Minister Tanaka’s incompetent first apology, and the 1972 Sino-Japanese joint declaration, Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s official statement in 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War was closely read, and sharply criticized for its perceived inadequacies in Chinese and others’ eyes. The sullen and resentful language of the text was a mark not only of Abe’s own conservative politics and revisionist leanings, but also of a wider exasperation in Japan with the never-ending war. For China the past is becoming more important. And what’s clear in all of this is that the Chinese state is now often playing catch-up, struggling to keep abreast of the popular nationalism that it has nurtured and encouraged, and which runs riot in social media, on foreign university campuses and sometimes in Chinese streets. The state needs to be agile, for its perceived inadequacies in defending China’s honour have frequently diverted popular hostility towards it and away from Japan.

The story of the world outlined in this book is on the whole not well enough known. It certainly lives on in saga, romance or thriller, or through cinema – J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical Empire of the Sun, mediated through Hollywood, for example. As we have seen, it was portrayed as romance back in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, and this persists. But it is still too easily thought of as a sideshow, far away and involving people with whom there is little connection. In most cases there was always a profound asymmetry in relations: the West was always far more important in China than China seemed to be at home. As we have seen, this was not always in fact actually true, although it generally holds good. What it does mean is that a significant imbalance in knowledge and understanding persists. In 2011 I was invited to give a talk about The Scramble for China at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. It seemed wise to signal in advance that I could not provide much by way of enlightenment on contemporary policy. I did not know what the then CCP leader Hu Jintao thought, or much about climate change or healthcare initiatives. I was not to worry, was the response, leave policy to us, but we really need to know more about the history. Our recruits have learned little of it before they join us, yet the Chinese still talk about it all the time. Given how profoundly modern China has been shaped by its relationship with the United Kingdom, this was a telling admission.

They know this well in China, of course. And in which other state does a new leadership team, on the day that it is unveiled, change into more sombre clothing, and make a pilgrimage to a history museum? (What other state has so many history museums?) This is what Xi Jinping and the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo did on 29 November 2012. The most powerful leaders in the land paid homage to the past through this visit to the National Museum of China, and its permanent display ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’ (the official translation of the Chinese Fuxing zhi lu). The design aesthetic in the first galleries is darkness. Art works and artefacts illustrate a stridently captioned narrative of China’s story of humiliation and weakness from 1840 onwards. But then comes the light, and in the second set of galleries a different aesthetic decorates a record of events and triumphs since 1949 (and in a discreet and selective way some disasters). The exhibition concludes, or at least did on my own last visit – when it was thronged with school groups assiduously taking notes – by paying homage to China’s space programme, and then with a display of mobile phones. The promise of a project that generates intense national pride, and the history of China’s economic growth and individual prosperity, are both framed in a story of release from the shame of the past. The promise at the end of the black tunnel of history is a smartphone.

The story of the foreign presence in China in the twentieth century, as much as in the nineteenth century or in any part of China’s modern history, is too important today to be left in the hands of the Chinese party-state and this approved script. Its sanctioned narrative is partial, self-serving and ultimately incendiary. A new nationalism in which angry demonstrators have been heard many times clamouring for war and for killing Japanese is pregnant with the potential for calamity. But this is not a Japanese problem alone. No nation complicit in the degradation of China after the 1830s – which includes most European states as well as the United States – is ultimately secure. Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage. In this book I have aimed to show that world in all its complexity and all its contexts – and that word ‘complexity’ is no coy cover for nostalgia or an apologetics. The foreign presence in China in the twentieth century had more than its fair share of bigotry, racism, violence, greed, or simple callous indifference. This is on display in profusion in the National Museum of China. In that world, too, you can find collaboration, cohabitation, alliance and coalition. Many other voices also spoke for China and stood up for it against its enemies and against ignorance and prejudice overseas, and on China’s streets. This is all but absent in the displays in Beijing. There was also self-delusion and self-conceit, as well as genuine humanitarian concern and disinterested technical interest. This was a world in which the imperatives or norms of a world in which colonial power was exercised overlapped with (and helped shape) new forms of globalization and the movement of people, goods and ideas. It was a world in which people in China incorporated into their lives all sorts of innovations that came from overseas, and equally made their own new culture, promiscuously mixing all sorts of foreign ingredients and indigenous ones too. Chinese of all political hues and none worked with and against the unequal and unjust exercise of foreign political power in China and the treatment of China in international forums and organizations. The Chinese Communist Party holds no monopoly of nationalistic virtue, and it was itself complicit in the continued degradation of Chinese sovereignty in the 1950s.

‘The Chinese nation has suffered unusual hardship and sacrifice in the world’s modern history,’ said Xi Jinping in November 2012 at the end of his museum visit. Its people ‘have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of their own destiny’. Xi’s rhetoric then and since has promised a ‘China dream’, the ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation’ and individual aspiration, subsuming along the way the hopes of Ai Jing’s song ‘My 1997’. The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.

Trade between Middle East Countries and China before 1500

A map showing the route and destinations of the seven voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 CE, acting as an ambassador and explorer of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE).

Some products were traded over very long distances indeed. In the thirteenth century date honey was produced in Bahrain and was much in demand in China by Buddhist pilgrims travelling to India. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He brought back to Beijing several giraffes, including one from Malindi and one from Bengal, the latter having apparently been given to the ruler of Bengal, Saifu’d-Din, by the ruler of Malindi. Most extraordinary, and mysterious, was the discovery in 1944 by an Australian radar team of five Islamic copper coins from Kilwa on a beach in the remote Marchinbar Islands, part of the Wessell Islands off Australia’s Northern Territory coast. None have dates, but from the inscriptions two may be tenth century, and three early fourteenth. We have no idea how they managed to travel clear across the whole Indian Ocean.

Long-distance trade was governed by the monsoons. One example was a route from the Gulf region to China around 1000 on the longest voyage sailed by any one ship. The Arab geographers claimed that a passage from Oman to China took about three months and ten days, though one exceptional voyage was completed in 48 days. These sound extraordinarily rapid, but they are only sailing times. Several stops were necessary on the way, partly to trade, and partly to wait for the right monsoon, so that the actual time from leaving the Gulf to reaching Guangzhou (Canton) was at least six months. The dhows sailed down the Gulf before it became too rough, in September or October, and then went on to Malabar on the northeast monsoon, arriving in mid-December. They stayed there while they traded, and waited for the cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal to end. In January they sailed to Malaya, and used the last of the northeast monsoon to get around the straits of Melaka and so catch the southern monsoon in the South China Sea and reach Guangzhou in April or May. The return voyage began in October to December when the northeast monsoon took them back to Melaka and over the Bay of Bengal to the west coast of India. The last stage, back to the Gulf, was sailed using the beginning of the southwest monsoon, reaching home around midyear.

Another example comes from five hundred years later. Very early in the sixteenth century Barbosa left us a compelling description of one of the major long-distance trade routes of this period, that is from Malabar, specifically Calicut, to the Red Sea. He wrote that the Muslim traders in Calicut from the Red Sea and Egypt:

took on board goods for every place, and every monsoon ten or fifteen of these ships sailed for the Red Sea, Aden and Meca, where they sold their goods at a profit, some to the Merchants of Juda, who took them on thence in small vessels to Toro, and from Toro they would go to Cairo, and from Cairo to Alexandria, and thence to Venice, whence they came to our regions. These goods were pepper (great store), ginger, cinnamon, cardamons, myrobalans, tamarinds, canafistula, precious stones of every kind, seed pearls, musk, ambergris, rhubarb, aloes-wood, great store of cotton cloths, porcelains, and some of them took on at Juda copper, quicksilver, vermilion, coral, saffron, coloured velvets, rosewater, knives, coloured camlets, gold, silver, and many other things which they brought back for sale in Calecut. They started in February, and returned from the middle of August up to the middle of October of the same year. In this trade they became extremely wealthy. And on their return voyages they would bring with them other foreign merchants who settled in the city, beginning to build ships and to trade, on which the King received heavy duties.

These two accounts point to a major change in the structure of long-distance sea trade in our period. Barbosa was describing a trade divided at south India, while the first account sketched a direct passage from the Gulf to China. What happened is that around the eleventh century the trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to southeast Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China. South India was always a place where there was a halt, and exchange, but the difference is that in the earlier time the same merchant and ship kept going beyond there, while later they did not.

In the earlier period, from say the eighth century, the very long-distance trade from the Gulf to China was handled by Persian merchants. In the Gulf Siraf, on the east bank, was the main centre, where were to be found goods from all over the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. Later Julfar, on the west coast up from Hurmuz, was important, and later still Hurmuz. Another old centre was Daybul, in present day Pakistan. Arabs also took part in this trade, and soon became more important than the Persians. Later some Chinese ships also, from the twelfth century and particularly in the fourteenth, traded into the Arabian Sea. However, from around the eleventh century the direct passage from Baghdad to Guangzhou declined, and we see the rise of emporia, that is shorter routes connecting the major port cities of Baghdad, Hurmuz, Cambay, Calicut, Melaka and Guangzhou, with many minor routes from, say, the Bay of Bengal feeding into this network. What evolved then was a basic change in the orientation of long-distance trade, which in the earlier period was on an east–west axis, from Baghdad to Guangzhou, and later was more north–south, that is Baghdad down to India, then an east–west segment to southeast Asia, and then north–south again up to China. We can even see here an early version of today’s divide between north and south, for the north, India and China, provided manufactures like cloths and porcelain, and the south unprocessed tropical products such as ivory, slaves, gold and spices.

From the twelfth century or slightly later we have three segments: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the South China Sea. Chinese and Indians went to Melaka, Persians and Arabs only to India. It is significant that the account by Wang Dayuan, who travelled extensively in the 1330s, finds a western ocean and an eastern one, with the division at the Straits of Singapore. This important move towards segmentation may have been a result of traders realising that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places, but it was probably also a result of the rise of important Indian trading communities in south India associated with the powerful Cola dynasty. We will turn to the influence of politics on trade presently, but we can remember here that the wealth and stability of the Abbasid empire from 750 CE, and of T’ang China, 618–907, certainly fostered this long-distance and quite perilous trade. The effects of the rise of the Cola empire in South India from the late ninth century has been less investigated, but it may be that the Colas, and the powerful merchant organisations, akin to guilds and associated intricately with state power, had two results. First, the stability provided by this state had the same effect as the equivalent in Baghdad and Guangzhou, that is a wealthy and stable state which had a large demand for foreign luxuries, and second merchants based in this state could trade both east and west, and especially to the east, to southeast Asia, where they met up with the powerful Sumatran-based trading empire of Srivijaya, which benefited from controlling the Melaka Straits up to the thirteenth century. South India seems to act as a fulcrum in this very long-distance connection. Later in our period other Indians joined in, this time Muslims based in the many emporia on the west coast, and in the major Islamic state of Gujarat from the thirteenth century. Increasingly the trade beyond India was controlled by Indian Muslims, while Arabs, and a few Persians, were restricted to the Arabian Sea.

We can start our survey of routes, trade and ports in the east, in China. We have noticed that Chinese products, especially porcelain, were traded all around the Indian Ocean from very early times. We have already quoted Ibn Battuta’s valuable description of the ships he saw in Calicut. His account dates from the early fourteenth century, but Chinese products have been found in the Arabian Sea from much earlier. Chinese pottery has been found on the Swahili coast from at least the eighth century, and a little later in Mauritius also. These goods were transshipped many times in a relay fashion, and some no doubt came overland to the Gulf and then were sent on by sea. An actual Chinese trading presence seems to date only from the twelfth century.

Many of the vast Chinese ships had both economic and political functions. We refer to the famous tribute system. Ostensibly this was a matter of foreign rulers accepting the superiority of the Chinese emperor, and sending tribute to signify this. However, much of the tribute was actually trade items, and the system then was a method of fostering exchange as much as a matter of political dominance. In the later thirteenth century the new Mongol dynasty, the Yuan, was keen to expand trade. In 1286 either the sons or younger brothers of the rulers of ten kingdoms ranging from Malabar to Sumatra came to pay tribute.88 Marco Polo got part of the way back home accompanying one of these politico-trade missions. Around 1290 a Mongol princess was sent by sea to Persia to become the consort of the local ruler, Arghun Khan, and the Polos went with her. She travelled with 600 sailors and officials, in a fleet of fourteen ships. They left from Zaiton, of which more in a minute, and touched at Champa and the Malay peninsula. Reaching Sumatra, they were forced to wait for five months to avoid monsoon storms. They then travelled near the Nicobar Islands to Sri Lanka, the west coast of India, and so to Hurmuz. However, Arghun had died by this time, and the princess was handed over to his son, Mahmud Ghazan, instead. This sort of voyage has been described in Chinese sources also. They said that it took forty days to get from China to Sumatra. One spent the ‘winter’ there and then took thirty days to get to the Malabar coast. This information again points to the good sense of the rise of the emporia trade, which meant that ships travelled shorter distances and did not have to wait for a change in the monsoon. Rather they could sell their goods and return home.

Kulke claims that in the thirteenth century there was a large Indian settlement, complete with temple, in south China, and Chinese settlements in Cola south India. Chinese traded to India, but it seems that many more Indians traded to China. Indeed Polo makes clear that Indian traders had by his time replaced Arabs and were an important community at the main Chinese port, which now seems to be Zaiton, that is modern Quanzhou, rather than Guangzhou (Canton). In a famous passage he wrote that Quanzhou is

frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [the surrounding province], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi.

Much later, when he got to Malabar, he again wrote, ‘Ships come hither from many quarters, but especially from the great province of Manzi. Coarse spices are exported hence both to Manzi and to the west’.

Quanzhou was located north of the modern port of Amoy, or Xiamen, opposite Taiwan. Muslims had traded there very early on, even from the seventh century, and in 1350 there were six or seven mosques in the town. Among the products they imported was rhinocerous horn, which establishes a connection between East Africa and China. Fujian merchants began to venture out only from the late tenth century. Indian merchants had been in Guangzhou by at least the early sixth century.93 From the twelfth century the Kling merchants from south India began to concentrate on Quanzhou, where in the mid fourteenth century they built a large Siva temple modelled on that back home in Madurai. By this time however Chinese traders were taking over the trade between China and Melaka from both Hindus and Muslims. This trade may have been fostered by the awe-inspiring state-directed expeditions of the eunuch Zheng He, to whom we must now turn.

Zheng He erected a tablet which gives a flavour of his pride and sense of superiority. He had inscribed:

We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare….

This chauvinism is reflected even more in another inscription, where he claims that during his voyages ‘those among the foreigners who were resisting the transforming influence of Chinese culture and were disrespectful, we captured alive, and brigands who indulged in violence and plunder, we exterminated. Consequently the sea-route was purified and tranquillised and the natives were enabled to pursue their avocations.’ So also with many modern authors: Mills claims in his introduction to Ma Huan’s account of Zheng He’s 1433 expedition that the representatives of sixty-seven foreign states, including seven kings, came to China to pay tribute and render homage. At this time, at the height of Ming power in the 1420s, Yong Le’s fleet had 400 warships of the fleet, 2,700 coastal warships, 400 armed transports, and the pride of the Ming fleet, 250 treasure ships, each carrying 500 men. Throwing caution to the wind, Mills enthusiastically claims that ‘China enjoyed a hegemony over a vast arc of land which extended from Japan to the east coast of Africa.’

Comparisons have often been made with Portuguese activities at the same time in the early fifteenth century. When the Chinese were travelling all over the Indian Ocean, say in 1422, the Portuguese had not even got to Cape Bojador, 26° N. Zheng He’s greatest ships were 400 feet long, while Vasco da Gama’s were between 85 and 100 feet. Many senior historians have speculated that Zheng He’s fleets had the ability to round the Cape of Good Hope (indeed maybe they did) and proceed north to discover western Europe. World history would have been stood on its head.

The reality is a little less exciting than this. There were a total of six expeditions between 1403 and 1433, sponsored by the Yong Le emperor of the Ming dynasty. These vast fleets travelled all around the littoral of the Indian Ocean, going as far as Jiddah, and far down the Swahili coast. Each had between 100 and 200 ships, and forty to sixty of these were the famed huge treasure ships, which could be 150 metres long. There were maybe 27,000 men in each fleet. However, most of the ships were much smaller, some for example being water carriers. Barker tentatively claims that even the size of the great treasure ships has been enthusiastically overestimated: they may have been only about 230 feet long (though this is still very large for the time). They are to be seen as a continuation of the tribute system, with its characteristic mixture of tribute and trade. However, the fleets also engaged in essentially pedling trade in the Indian Ocean, that is, they took goods from one place to another quite apart from any association with tribute. They took southeast Asian sandalwood and Indian pepper to Aden and Dhofar, Indian pepper to Hurmuz, sandalwood and rice to Mogadishu, and rice, probably from Bengal, to the Maldives.

Perhaps the most important point is that Zheng He (perhaps understandably) has bewitched historians, and led to their ignoring three important matters that place his voyages in context. First, his activities were really a continuation of a long tradition, albeit writ large. Second, the tribute system, so-called, hardly meant Chinese suzerainty all over the Indian Ocean. Third, for much of the time the expeditions engaged in humble Indian Ocean trade alongside many other merchants. We described Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo travelling in private, and very large, Chinese ships, and generally Chinese merchants, often ignoring official prohibitions on overseas trade, dominated the trade from their coast to southeast Asia, and at least up to the middle of the fifteenth century, well after the end of major state expeditions, participated fully in trade from Melaka to the west coast of India but not beyond.

Overall then Chinese merchants, and state expeditions, played a rather small and transient role in the Indian Ocean proper.

Strategic Geography of Chinese Sea Power I

The First and Second Island Chains

In military strategy as in geoeconomics, geography is not fate. But it does mold fate. Chinese strategists are acutely conscious of this. When they take stock of China’s oceanic future, strategists glimpse everlasting struggle amid claustrophobic surroundings. To Chinese eyes the string of islands just offshore—the “first island chain” enclosing Eurasia’s eastern crest—resembles a Great Wall in reverse where Americans and their allies occupy the sentinel towers. The island chain imprisons China’s freedom of oceangoing movement. This preoccupation with geography is integral to Chinese discourses about sea power—and thus about China’s dream of national vigor and majesty.

We contend that the archipelagic concept casts a long shadow over Chinese strategic thought. It shapes how Chinese leaders perceive threats and in turn informs how they think about strategic and operational requirements for maritime defense. To them the island chain constitutes not just a physical barrier but also a metaphor for the resistance they expect from the occupants of the first island chain, including such potent maritime competitors as Japan and the United States. Consequently, the most fitting metaphor for the island chain is a barricade—a line of physical obstacles occupied by active defenders to ward off an opposing force. Beijing’s effort to ameliorate its island-chain quandary thus helps outsiders probe the nexus of marine geography, sea power, and great-power politics in Asia.

The First Island Chain: A Line at Sea?

The term “first island chain” refers to the offshore archipelago that envelops Eurasia’s eastern seaboard in its entirety. While Western commentators differ over which features constitute the island chain, most concur that it centers primarily on the Japanese home islands, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands. The first island chain is a geographic construct peculiar to China’s worldview, which situates the Chinese mainland at the epicenter of maritime Asia. And indeed, a seaward-looking China cannot avoid facing the islands. The island chain roughly parallels the nation’s long coastline, and no Chinese harbor outflanks it. Worse, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines constitute the “first” island chain only because a more distant, looser island group centered on Guam—the “second island chain”—forms an additional concentric ring around China. In short, China’s unique vantage point infuses the island-chain concept with tangible geospatial meaning.

Analysts outside China began to detect this Sinocentric perspective in Chinese official discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among the first to report on the phrase in Western scholarship were You Ji and You Xu of the Australian National University. In 1991 they claimed that the first island chain comprises Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines. Three years later Alexander Huang defined the island chain more concretely, maintaining that it encompasses “the Aleutians, the Kuriles, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands.” In 2001 historian and retired U.S. Navy captain Bernard Cole asserted that the island chain runs southward from the Kurile Islands and terminates at Borneo and Natuna Besar. The phrase has seeped into the mainstream Western academic lexicon over the past two decades, aided by analyses such as these.

In recent years this geographic concept has diffused beyond the small circle of China and defense specialists in the West. Official U.S. reports about China’s military and naval modernization use it to describe Chinese geospatial thinking. The Pentagon’s 2006 annual report on Chinese military power delineated the geographic makeup of the first island chain for the first time.4 In a 2009 study of the Chinese navy, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) produced a map that traces the first island chain. The phrase, moreover, now surfaces regularly in the popular press. Robert D. Kaplan, who has done more than any other journalist to draw attention to China’s maritime ambitions, explicitly referred to it in a 2010 opinion column. It is remarkable that an obscure term coined in the recesses of China’s massive military bureaucracy more than thirty years ago has found its way into common parlance in Western newspapers, on websites, and in official documents.

Despite wider usage and acceptance, analysts disagree over the conceptual value of the first island chain. Some naval experts hold that China’s apparent obsession with the archipelagic construct might degrade the quality of Chinese strategic thought and operational planning. Bernard Cole, to name one, argues that the first island chain demarcates a belt of offshore waters that the PLA Navy seeks to command. As the PLAN grows more powerful, it means to expand its reach progressively beyond the first island chain toward the second island chain.

Cole thus postulates that the island chains are geographic features that define the operational scope of Chinese naval activities and “the PLAN is intending to draw lines at sea.” He pronounces such geospatial yardsticks for measuring sea power unhelpful and perhaps even counterproductive. “Ironically,” he contends, “defining ‘phases’ of maritime theaters by fixed geographic boundaries reveals a strong continentalist perspective…. It violates the central tenet of classic maritime strategy that while the soldier thinks of terrain and theaters, the sailor of necessity thinks in wider terms outside immediate physical limits—there is no ‘terrain’ at sea.”

China, in short, is projecting terrestrial defense concepts out to sea. Cole ascribes this habit of mind to China’s strategic traditions, steeped as they are in land warfare, and to Soviet intellectual influence on China’s navy during the Cold War. By implication, the Chinese are indulging in retrograde thinking about sea warfare. He thus concludes that “if the Chinese navy is training and planning to operate within fixed areas and along fixed lines at sea, then it is demonstrating its lack of understanding of naval warfare and exposing itself to failure.”

Admiral Yoji Koda, the former fleet commander of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, likewise objects to the island-chain concept, declaring that it has “no significance” from a “practical military strategy and planning point of view.” First, Koda concurs with Cole that “real naval operations” unfold independent of “lines drawn on charts or maps.” Such lines unduly fetter an oceangoing navy’s “maneuverability, flexibility, and agility.” Second, if Chinese planners treat the island chain as a sort of Maginot Line at sea, then the demands on the PLAN to defend a perimeter undulating across thousands of kilometers would quickly overwhelm China’s finite resources and manpower. No force can be strong at every point along a distended defense perimeter. And third, the archipelago is not neutral territory. It would be presumptuous if not nonsensical for Chinese strategists to draw an offshore defense perimeter incorporating the soil of potentially hostile nations such as Japan and Taiwan. It would be tough to mount a defense from the islands short of invading them.

While these critiques from two sea-service veterans carry analytical weight, they are far too narrowly conceived. Most of their objections are operational in nature. They wonder, for instance, how far offshore Chinese sea power will extend and how the PLA Navy will go about defending the homeland. Construing Chinese maritime strategic thought so literally oversimplifies the island-chain concept. The Chinese are not just drawing lines on a map in a classroom, estranged from strategic and operational reality.

Nor do Chinese thinkers consider the island chain a defensive perimeter shielding China from attack, as Admiral Koda seems to think. It would indeed be nonsensical to designate a prospective foe’s homeland as part of a defensive line. If anything Chinese strategists see it as an American defense perimeter meant to channel, constrict, and perhaps even block Chinese sea and air movement along the Asian seaboard and from the China seas into the western Pacific. If so, it is a hostile fortification to be punctured, not a friendly fortification to be defended.

China’s is an accurate appraisal of the first island chain, and it comports with U.S. strategy dating to the 1950s. It will remain accurate so long as the islands remain in hands friendly to the United States. Cole and Koda err by transposing concepts from open-ocean combat to the congested realm of maritime East Asia. Sea fights far from shore obey the laws of vector mechanics in that they unfold on what amounts to a vast, featureless plain. But no Chinese seafarer worth the name would disregard geography when doing battle. Terrain does matter when fighting close to land. It matters, in other words, at likely scenes of action in maritime Asia.

But in any event, a close reading of open-source literature from the mainland suggests strongly that larger strategic motives, including the range of geopolitical and geoeconomic imperatives, animate Chinese assessments of the first island chain. The discourse in China over the island-chain concept opens a window onto three distinct aspects of Chinese strategic thought. First, it reconfirms China’s perennial belief that the United States harbors malign intent toward China and has done so since the early days of the Cold War.

Second, the U.S. forward bases located along the first and second island chains impress upon Chinese observers the structure of American military power in the western Pacific. Beijing knows it must contend directly with the occupants of the first island chain, and especially with the combined military power of the U.S.-Japan alliance. At the same time the island-chain dilemma underscores the competing geopolitical priorities confronting Beijing on land and at sea. Finally, China’s growing dependence on seaborne commerce—on mercantile traffic that must pass through the narrow seas piercing the first island chain—exacerbates the nation’s offshore economic vulnerability.

It is a central contention of this study that the island-chain concept is not the strictly naval concept Cole and Koda envision. Rather, it is a geographic construct that engages Chinese grand strategy across a range of national security concerns. Discourses about the first island chain reflect Chinese analysts’ understanding of Mahan’s logic and grammar of sea power. Without a broader understanding of what the island chain means to Chinese strategists and policy makers, Western capitals risk understating the analytical value of the first island chain to Beijing while misreading China’s intentions and designs in maritime Asia.

Origins of Island-Chain Thinking

Chinese commentators trace the origins of the island-chain concept to U.S. strategic thought during the early years of the Cold War. These analysts blame American architects of the Cold War for fortifying the island chain to erect a geographic bulwark against Chinese and Soviet communism. To them American hostility toward the newly founded People’s Republic manifested itself most concretely in the alliance relations among the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines—relations that emplaced U.S. forces all along the island chain. This constituted the infrastructure of containment.

Memories of containment run long in China. Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, scholars from Dalian Maritime University and Dalian University of Technology, recall the words of Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state. In January 1950, speaking before the National Press Club, Acheson sketched a U.S. “defense perimeter of the Pacific” running along the Aleutians down through Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines. Liu Hong cites General Douglas MacArthur, who in April 1951 told a joint session of Congress that control of “a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas” would enable the United States “to dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.”

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s chief diplomat, is another villain in this storyline. Sang Hong quotes testimony from Dulles to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that described Taiwan as an “important link in the so-called ‘island chain’ that bounds the western rim of the Pacific.” Chen Chungen and Jiang Sihai fault Eisenhower as well for cautioning Americans that losing Taiwan to China would open “a breach in the island chain of the western Pacific that constitutes, for the United States and other free nations, the geographical backbone of their security structure in that ocean.”

Some Chinese analysts see today’s architecture of American military power in the Pacific as a direct descendant of U.S. containment. Huang Yingxu of the AMS contends that “the U.S. assembled a C-shaped strategic formation” incorporating “the first and second island chains formed in the 1950s.” In Huang’s view, the United States has transposed its Cold War containment strategy to the post–Cold War era, inscribing a “C-shaped encirclement, or encirclement arc” on the map of Eurasia. While this strategy “may not be entirely aimed at China,” he concludes, “it surely has the intention to curb and contain China.” Bad memories die hard.

This Chinese version of events reveals a great deal about Beijing’s worldview and habits of thought. By insisting that the United States remains captive to a Cold War mentality, the Chinese relate a politically correct story about Beijing’s maritime environment and corresponding strategic choices. According to this line of reasoning, China’s nautical ambitions represent a mere reaction to the American menace in Asia. A selective reading of history supplies a convenient vehicle for setting the terms of debate about Chinese maritime strategy. No matter how aggressive Chinese strategy becomes, Beijing has the luxury of depicting it as defensive, throwing the United States and its allies on the defensive in future controversies.

While it remains unclear exactly when the phrase “first island chain” entered China’s lexicon, chances are it did so during the 1980s, when Admiral Liu Huaqing was supreme commander of China’s navy. Deng Xiaoping appointed Liu to the top navy post in 1982 with a mandate to reform the service following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In a speech at a 1987 symposium on PLA naval development, Admiral Liu stated: “The first island chain refers to the Aleutian islands, the Kurile islands, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan island, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda island in the western Pacific that form an arc-shaped arrangement of islands akin to a metal chain.” Liu thus construed the island chain in expansive terms, seeing it stretch across vast waters from the North Pacific into the heart of the South China Sea.

The year before his “metal chain” speech, Admiral Liu issued a NDU report that for the first time laid the basis for a coherent Chinese naval strategy. His masterful analysis explicitly depicts the first island chain as one marker delineating the geographic scope of China’s naval operations. It encompasses “the wide sea areas west of the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Philippine islands,” not to mention China’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and Chinese-claimed territories in the South China Sea. To Liu, then, the island chain not only set operational parameters for the PLA Navy but also defined where China’s uppermost economic and security interests lay in the maritime realm. Like Mahan, Liu clearly thought in grand-strategic terms about the sea.

Islands, Islands Everywhere

The debate over the island chain has moved on since the days of Liu Huaqing. In a comprehensive survey of China’s maritime geography titled Island Chain Surrounding China, Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei formally define the first island chain as an “island belt” connecting the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands. This “crescent-shaped island chain is interlocked along our nation’s coastal areas,” the two authors note, adding that “this geographic conformation whereby an island chain separates a continent from an ocean is the only one of its kind in the world.” These islands in turn border a series of straits and channels through which Chinese mariners must pass to reach the world’s oceans. Liu and Yang list twenty-two straits and channels—from the Soya Strait to the north to the Palawan Strait to the south—that they consider critical to China’s national security and economic development.

Yu Kaijin, Li Guangsuo, and Cao Yongheng, naval combat-systems engineers from the Marine Design and Research Institute, view the island chain as aggravating the threat to China. First, the major straits and channels along the first island chain are under the control of other states. China’s seaborne trade is susceptible to blockade at critical choke points as a consequence. The commercial access that constitutes the purpose of sea power and propels maritime strategy is in peril close to home. Second, the island chain demarcates China’s claims to territory and natural resources. The continental shelf and the waters above contain natural resources China and other claimants covet. Maritime territorial disputes with neighboring countries, moreover, simmer within or near the island chain. Third, the mainland’s proximity to the island chain exposes China’s coastal cities to long-range, precision-strike weapons emplaced along the archipelago. The authors conclude, “Our maritime frontiers lack strategic depth, permitting our nation’s economically advanced regions along the coast to directly face enemy threats.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that geopolitically minded Chinese strategists see an island barricade obstructing access to the ocean when they gaze seaward. In their eyes, the first island chain compromises the mainland’s long coastline and bountiful harbors by restricting China’s nautical endeavors. Writing in China Military Science, Senior Captain Feng Liang and Commander Duan Tingzhi of the Naval Command College depict the apparent island encirclement of China in graphic terms. They proclaim that “these islands obstruct China’s reach to the sea.… The partially sealed-off nature of China’s maritime region has clearly brought about negative effects in China’s maritime security…. Because of geography’s nature, China can be easily blockaded and cut off from the sea, and Chinese coastal defense forces are difficult to concentrate.”

Major General Peng Guangqian of the AMS agrees, lamenting that “even though our nation is a great littoral power, the sea areas surrounding our nation are either sealed off or semi–sealed off…. This has further added strategic pressure from the seas upon China while increasing the difficulty and complexity of China’s maritime defense.” Interestingly, Senior Colonel Wang Chuanyou likens China’s geostrategic position to Germany’s during the two world wars. Wang maintains that the British Isles, Orkney Islands, and Shetland Islands constitute a mini-island chain across the North Sea. If fortified by a hostile power, they block German egress into the Atlantic.

Like many Chinese strategists, Wang sifts through history for insight into China’s maritime geography. Lin Hongyu, a scholar at the China University of International Relations, offers an even more pessimistic—if not fatalistic—assessment of the nation’s plight:

From the perspective of the geostrategic environment, China today suffers from the harshest global geopolitical security situation among the great powers. In particular, China’s eastward oceanic geostrategic structure is abnormally complex and unfavorable. With a long coastline facing eastward to the sea, China is an oceanic great power. Yet, it is also a weak sea power that “has access to the seas but not the oceans.” This is because countries and regions with different political systems and ideologies obstruct the strategic corridors to the oceans. The very narrow strategic sea lanes can easily be controlled by others. To overcome this dilemma, China must develop a strategic plan to shatter the first island chain.

Lin sees the first island chain as depriving China of its full maritime potential. The author’s reference to ideology, furthermore, reflects deep discomfort that democracies control the first island chain. Lin may also be obliquely referring to allied and semiallied ties joining Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to the United States, a democratic great power intent on advancing its values in Asia. Lin and like-minded strategists long to break out of this nautical cordon.

Hu Bo of Peking University presents a sophisticated interpretation of the islands’ strategic significance to China. He believes China must amass the capacity to dictate events in the bodies of water bounded by the first island chain, namely the Bohai, Yellow, East, and South China Seas—expanses Chinese dub the “near seas.” To him, Chinese control over the near seas would bolster China’s strategic superiority in sovereignty disputes over Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the Spratlys. It would ease China’s psychology of insecurity about its maritime periphery, extend China’s buffer zone, and embolden Beijing to stand up to hostile powers. Hu shares the concern of others documented here that the occupants of the first island chain could threaten China: “The United States, Japan, and other countries control virtually all the islands in the western Pacific. Moreover, they have used these islands as forward bases to construct a three-dimensional superior land-sea-air-space power to deter and contain China. Strategically, China is on the defensive. And because China’s economic, political, and cultural centers are located along the eastern coastal regions, China lacks the necessary strategic depth to cope with maritime threats.”

Hu takes a geoeconomic view, portraying the configuration of power along the first island chain as a hazard to China’s economic security. To the island powers, the near seas are a highway leading to China’s seaboard. To China, these same waters constitute a critical intermediate zone where approaching threats can be met and defeated. For these reasons Hu considers the security of the near seas a “core oceanic interest” for China. He defines core interests as those that impinge on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the CCP’s survival, or on the nation’s development and social stability. Alternatively, some interests command great strategic or global importance. Either way, concludes Hu, China must use force to defend core interests should the leadership deem it necessary.

Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying view the first island chain as part of a far larger strategic architecture overseen by the United States. To them, the first island chain meanders southward from the Aleutians through Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago, running roughly parallel to the Chinese shoreline. A second island chain stretches southward from Japan through the Ogasawara, Volcano, Mariana, Yap, and Palau Islands, terminating at Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. A third island chain, maintain Shi and Li, starts from the Aleutians in the north and extends south through Hawaii. It ends somewhere in the southwest Pacific, perhaps as far south as New Zealand.

The first, second, and third island chains pass through concentrations of U.S. military power in Northeast Asia, on Guam, and on Oahu, respectively. Collectively they manifest American forward presence, alliance commitments, operational command of forces, and power-projection capabilities—in other words, the military power at Washington’s disposal to manage events in Asia and beyond. Shi and Li perceive U.S. bases and access agreements with host nations as existing in mutually supporting clusters. They see installations in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and Guam as a single unit, while facilities in Australia, Hawaii, and Alaska constitute the strategic rear area for U.S. forces.

This interpretation of the American military posture in the Asia-Pacific conveys the image of concentric rings of bases rippling out from North America toward China. Accordingly, Chinese government mouthpieces routinely insist that U.S. leaders remain prisoners of a Cold War mentality. Obsolescent thinking or simple malice biases the United States to contain China. In other words, the island-chain concept expresses deep Chinese misgivings toward the United States and its alliance system in Asia. And because Beijing conceives of the island chains as siege lines obstructing China’s access to the common, their existence pits rival great powers against each other in a geostrategic struggle.

Strategic Geography of Chinese Sea Power II

Taiwan: Central Link in the Chain

While the policy community in the United States remains divided over the geostrategic importance of Taiwan, the notion that the island is imbued with strategic and military value is uncontroversial on the mainland. Indeed, the intersection of geography and strategy is central to many Chinese narratives about the first island chain and Taiwan’s place in it. The Science of Military Strategy, a book China watchers widely hail as authoritative, captures the essence of this geostrategic line of reasoning. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, coeditors of the 2005 edition, warn:

If Taiwan should be alienated from the mainland, not only our natural maritime defense system would lose its depth, opening a sea gateway to the outside forces, but also a large area of water territory and rich reserves of ocean resources will fall into the hands of others. What’s more, our line of foreign trade and transportation which is vital to China’s opening up and economic development will be exposed to the surveillance and threats of separatist and enemy forces, and China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific. As a result, China’s national security will be confronted with serious threat and the essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation will be lost.

Reunifying with Taiwan, then, involves far more than sovereignty and national dignity, the motives Westerners commonly impute to China. Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would buttress China’s strategic position, broaden access to resources and trade, and brighten prospects for restoring China’s rightful standing in Asia. Other Chinese analysts have elaborated in detail on Taiwan’s geostrategic qualities listed above. Many view Taiwan as an organic and indispensable component of China’s maritime frontier that overlaps with the first island chain.

This is neither a novel nor a peculiarly communist way of thinking about Taiwan. In 1947 the supreme leader of China’s Nationalist Party, Chiang Kai-shek, bewailed the Chinese heartland’s poverty of natural defenses. Because of this, outlying territories, including Formosa, were “strategic regions for safeguarding the nation’s existence; to lop off any one of them from China is to destroy her national defense.” Frontier defenses were indivisible for Chiang. Compromising any section of the ramparts brought down the whole edifice.

The 2013 edition of Science of Military Strategy is less explicit than its predecessor about Taiwan’s geographical significance. Perhaps the coauthors, a team from the AMS’ Military Strategy Department, regard the island’s standing in China’s maritime strategy as self-evident and feel no need to restate the obvious. Whatever the case, they are no less explicit about Taiwan’s strategic significance to China. They opine that the “U.S. strategy of ‘containing China with Taiwan’” remains unchanged, and that the protracted Taiwan controversy has become a “major factor that ties down and consumes China’s strategic resources in politics, the economy, and the military.” They depict the unresolved quarrel as “a long-term hidden danger obstructing the Chinese nation from realizing its great revival.”32 Taiwan, then, represents both an implement of latter-day American containment and a barrier blocking China from fulfilling its dream of national revival.

Some commentators employ geometry to elucidate Taiwan’s strategic geography. In a study sponsored by the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, for instance, Wang Wei depicts Taiwan in precise geometric terms. Along China’s 18,000-kilometer coastline, the Shandong Peninsula, Taiwan, and Hainan Island constitute the maximum seaward extensions of Chinese territory. The distance from Taiwan’s Kaohsiung to the tip of the Shandong Peninsula and to Yulin in Hainan is roughly the same, about 1,400 kilometers. Wang views the three “protruding points” as aligning to form China’s maritime defense perimeter in the shape of an isosceles triangle. Taiwan is at the apex of this triangle, positioned astride China’s north-south line of communications.

In theory, military assets based on Shandong, Taiwan, and Hainan could render one another mutual support, expanding coverage throughout the China seas or beyond. Should Beijing abandon efforts to regain Taiwan, two analysts at the PLA University of Foreign Languages warn, “China’s maritime defenses would be cut into two pieces while our navy would be forced to operate separately in the two seas, unable to provide mutual support.” Zhang Shirong of the Central Party School concurs: “Once Hainan Island loses mutual support from Taiwan Island, the defense of the Spratly Islands would erode, making the protection of sea rights in the Spratlys far more difficult.” A triangular arrangement bereft of its apex accomplishes little in martial terms.

As a geographic marker, the Taiwan Strait also exposes the asymmetric structure of China’s seaborne commerce. If Quanzhou, near the Taiwan Strait’s midpoint, is used to divide China’s coastline along its north–south axis, then ten of the mainland’s sixteen major ports lie to the north. But while China’s ports lie mainly to the north, three of the four main international trading routes—bound for markets in Southeast Asia and Oceania, Europe, and South America, respectively—generally head southward from these northern harbors. By implication, Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would restore balance to China’s economic access points and the flow of seaborne trade.

Other commentators speculate that retaking the island would grant China a commanding position over the near seas while guaranteeing direct military access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, possession of Taiwan would open the way for Chinese forces to look and operate beyond the first island chain. If the island chain looks like a Great Wall in reverse, then regaining Taiwan would open a breach in the wall while lodging the PLA firmly at its midpoint, thus opening a secure sally port into the Pacific. According to Senior Captain Li Jie: “Possessing Taiwan would enable one to effectively control the strategic choke points between the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Possessing Taiwan opens an advantageous waterway to the interior seas of the second island chain while opening a convenient path to the high seas. As such, Taiwan Island serves an important function as the central pivot of the first island chain.”

Zhu Tingchang of the PLA’s Institute of International Relations vividly describes the geostrategic value of Taiwan: “For China to develop in the Pacific, it must charge out of the first island chain. And the key to charging out of the first island chain is Taiwan. Taiwan is China’s front gate to the Pacific. If the Taiwan question is not resolved, then it is akin to a lock around the neck of a great dragon.” Hyperbole aside, Zhu’s view of Taiwan as China’s portal to the Pacific is widely shared.

But more than just access to the oceans is at stake. Many strategists consider Taiwan the lynchpin of U.S. containment strategy in Asia. Returning it to China’s sovereignty would undo that malign strategy, wresting away the strategic advantages Taiwan bestows on the United States while helping defeat Western efforts at containment. Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, in fact, believe that restoring the renegade province to China’s rule would dismember the postwar architecture of American power in Asia: “Solving the Taiwan problem and fulfilling China’s reunification is the most central strategic choice for breaking the three main island chains, especially the first island chain binding China. Because Taiwan is located at the center of the first island chain, it is the important strategic base point for guarding the South China and East China Seas. At the same time, the island is the chain link located closest to our mainland shore and plays an important role as an intermediate hub along the entire stretch of the first island chain.”

Shi and Li predict the various strategic effects that unification would produce in maritime Asia in evocative language: “Taiwan’s unification with the Chinese mainland would snap the central waist of the first island chain that the United States and its allies have so carefully constructed. It would also substantially reduce the strategic value of the Ryukyu Islands, which are strategically interdependent with Taiwan. This would mean that the first island chain would completely collapse as an American and allied instrument for blockading China. The United States would have no choice but to retreat to the second island chain.”

In other words, the two authors maintain that China can render Japan’s southern flank untenable by taking Taiwan and severing the first island chain in half. Doing so would subject the southwestern islands and the Senkakus to withering Chinese pressure. Shi and Li also prophesy a breakdown in the U.S. forward presence in Asia following unification, including withdrawals from South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. They leave unsaid why losing Taiwan would compel the United States to fall back to Guam, but they clearly see cross-strait unification as the trigger for a cascading failure of the U.S.-led alliance system.

Carl von Clausewitz distinguishes between “negative aim” campaigns and “positive aim” campaigns. The first denies an enemy its strategic goals; the second strives for positive strategic gain. Union with Taiwan would accomplish the negative aim of nullifying American containment while advancing the positive aims of ensuring access to the Pacific Ocean and applying pressure on U.S. allies. This adds up to a compelling brief on behalf of retaking the island.

Japan: The Northern Anchor

The lengthy Japanese archipelago north of Taiwan bestrides the strategic intersection between the maritime interests of rival great powers. As Zhang Songfeng of the PLA’s Institute of International Relations observes, “The maritime lifeline that Japan depends upon for its imports and exports is also the only passageway for China’s eastward entry into the Pacific, the United States’ westward entry into East Asia, and Russia’s southward movement.”

Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei call on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 to explain how Japanese geography molds great-power struggles in Northeast Asia. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) exploited Japan’s advantageous geographic position to keep Russia’s Asiatic squadrons divided and confined to Port Arthur and Vladivostok. St. Petersburg’s inability to concentrate its fleet, they argue, supplied a key ingredient in Tokyo’s victory.

Describing the Japanese islands as an “impassable maritime great wall,” Liu and Yang further contend that the archipelago’s proximity to eastern Eurasia enables Japan-based forces to project power throughout the Yellow Sea or East China Sea or deep into the Asian continent. They observe that “the combat radius of advanced fighters launched from bases on the Japanese home islands could reach the interior of East Asia. Warships that sortie from Japanese ports could conduct operations along the East Asian littoral without refueling en route.”

Japan, then, forms a segment of a wall that commands offensive—not just defensive—potential for its holders. That being the case, the Japanese archipelago, home to the combined military power of the U.S.-Japan alliance, figures prominently in Chinese assessments of the American forward presence in Asia. Feng Liang and Duan Tingzhi argue that “from a comparative perspective of maritime power in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan’s current oceanic security strategy relies on an oceanic alliance based on Japan-U.S. sea power cooperation as its backstop. Whether it is measured by oceanic comprehensive national power or by naval capabilities, both countries are superior to China. Moreover, both possess favorable geographic advantages arising from island chain encirclement, a posture that can easily pressure China from the oceanic direction.” Feng and Duan clearly see a strategic bloc possessed of the resolve, capability, and geographic position to frustrate China’s maritime ambitions. Small wonder that they hope to eliminate the first island chain as a geostrategic weapon of the democracies.

Geopolitically minded commentators pay special attention to the Ryukyu Islands, which arc insolently from the Japanese home islands toward Taiwan. From an economic perspective, Chinese shipping depends heavily on the Osumi and Miyako Straits. The vast majority of seaborne traffic connecting Shanghai, Ningbo, and Hong Kong to markets in the United States and Canada passes through Osumi, a narrow sea located just south of Kyushu. It offers the most direct path to the great circle route, cutting transit distances by more than one thousand kilometers. Approximately a quarter of U.S.-China trade goes by this route. Indeed, Osumi is a preferred gateway even for southern Chinese ports. By contrast, merchant shipping bearing Chinese goods to Oceania and Central and South America frequently transits the Miyako Strait. For China, then, the Ryukyus are central both to coastwise trade within Asia and to trade across the Pacific Ocean.

From a military perspective, some fret that this crescent-shaped archipelago essentially closes off China from the Pacific. As Zhang Xiaowen notes, “The seas surrounding Japan’s so-called ‘Southwest Islands’ (referring to the large and small islands of Miyakojima, Ishigakijima, and the Senkakus southwest of Okinawa) constitute an important passageway constrained by the island chain that the Chinese navy must break through to enter the oceans.” Notably, Guo Yadong of the PLAN’s Naval Studies Institute justified the April 2010 transit of a ten-ship PLAN flotilla through the Ryukyus on concrete military grounds. Rapid advances in precision-guided weaponry, the need to train realistically under complex meteorological and electromagnetic conditions, and the requirement to bolster logistics on the open ocean all demand access to the high seas. For these reasons, exclaims Guo, “the Chinese navy’s march to the deep blue must shatter the bottleneck of the first island chain.”

Furthermore, the Ryukyu island chain constitutes a major staging area for American military power in the western Pacific. Professor Shen Weilie of the PLA’s NDU regards Okinawa as the “forward position” of a U.S. “westward strategy” in Asia. He notes that cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Xiamen lie within striking distance of the island, while U.S. forces could monitor or blockade the Osumi and Miyako Straits from there. Chinese strategists are also frank about the operational importance of this island perimeter to Japan during a cross-strait conflict. Aviation units forward-deployed along the Ryukyu chain, contends Li Zhi, would play a critical part in contesting PLA control of air and sea. Chinese analysts thus carefully track the military disposition of the Japan Self-Defense Force along the Ryukyus.

Japan, in short, constitutes a fortified barrier to China’s access to the western Pacific, and thence to the national greatness underlying the Chinese Dream. Puncturing that barrier through the narrow seas is pivotal as China strives toward lasting prosperity and influence.

The Korean Peninsula: The “Half Island”

Chinese definitions of the first island chain typically leave out the Korean Peninsula, much as Dean Acheson left the peninsula outside his American defense perimeter of the Pacific. After all, it is not an island. Korea nevertheless qualifies as a “half island,” surrounded as it is on three sides by the Yellow Sea, the Korea Strait, and the Sea of Japan. Though appended to eastern Eurasia, Korea inhabits an intensely nautical environment where local great powers converge and sometimes collide. Koreans refer to their homeland ruefully as “a shrimp among whales.” Its west coast bounds the Yellow Sea, while just 193 kilometers of water separate North Korea from the Shandong Peninsula. The east coast faces the Sea of Japan, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok and Japan’s escort flotilla in Maizuru. One of Japan’s main islands, Kyushu, lies roughly 161 kilometers off South Korea’s southeastern coast. These are cramped quarters for sure.

None of this is lost on Chinese commentators. The Korea Strait, which divides South Korea and Kyushu, stands out for its economic and strategic importance to China. The strait not only facilitates communications between the east and west coasts of Korea, but also connects the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea. Seagoing Chinese trade must pass through the Korea Strait to reach Pusan and Vladivostok as well as Fukuoka and other Japanese coastal cities fronting on the Sea of Japan. Some freighters bound for North American seaports also pass through the strait to reach the great circle route. And if climate change opens new Arctic routes to Chinese shipping, cutting voyage distances and therefore costs, the Korea Strait could witness a substantial increase in mercantile traffic.

Strategically, Korea’s Jeju Island guards the strait’s western end while Japan’s Tsushima, Fukue, and Iki Islands form a menacing arc along the waterway’s eastern approaches. Major U.S. naval bases in Japan and South Korea surround the strait, including the bases at Sasebo, Pusan, and Chinhae. In 1986, during the late stages of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy identified the Korea Strait as one of sixteen invaluable choke points in the world. That it represents Northeast Asia’s only strategically crucial passageway has not escaped notice in Chinese circles.

Unsurprisingly, then, Chinese commentators see the Korea Strait as another location where the United States and its allies could bring pressure to bear against China. In an oblique reference to the United States, Guo Rui and Li Qiaoqian of Jilin University vouchsafe that “the Korean Peninsula’s current importance to China lies in its role as the strategic frontier of the hostile maritime power. Preventing the Korean Peninsula from falling completely into the adversary’s hands or becoming the hostile power’s strategic maritime passageway is very important to effectively protecting China’s national security.” Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, cited previously, are even more explicit about American power and intentions: “Thus far, the United States and its allies command the seas of the Korea Strait. In times of armed confrontation or war in Northeast Asia, they will very likely engage in blockade, cutting off navigation routes. As such, China must quickly build up its navy and strengthen its maritime deterrent power to safeguard the passage of Chinese shipping through the Korea Strait.”

Beyond the Korea Strait, the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea could also shackle China’s options in the Yellow Sea. Liu Feiguo and Zheng Fang, two scholars at the Naval University of Engineering, warn:

The United States, through the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance, has engaged in continuous infiltration of China’s Yellow Sea and surrounding waters as an offensive tactic for defensive purposes. The intent is to hold back China’s maritime power behind the first island chain and to check Chinese actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. China’s main combatant fleet would face severe challenges as it would lose the maritime communications for operations in the Pacific.

Here again, geography colors how Chinese strategists appraise threats. The Korean half-island and the Japanese archipelago converge on key bodies of water while forming straits near China’s political and economic centers. Whether the U.S.–Japan–South Korea alignment can ever become a coherent strategic unit is dubious at best in light of the two Asian allies’ turbulent past. Nevertheless, Chinese observers find it unsettling that two U.S. allies boasting advanced economies and modern armed forces stand athwart sealanes essential to China’s security and economic health. Sowing disunion among the allies would partly ameliorate this dilemma—and thus represents a strategic imperative for Beijing.

Strategic Geography of Chinese Sea Power III

Luzon Strait: A Gap in the Chain

Chinese commentators devote the vast majority of their attention to the northern segment of the first island chain. They seldom describe the Philippine archipelago in ominous geostrategic terms. Why not? For one thing, China’s coastal economic centers and military bases do not directly face the southern, more distant portion of the island barrier. The southern part of the archipelago represents a minor worry at most. For another, Manila lacks the martial wherewithal to challenge China’s movements even in Philippine littorals. But the most important reason Chinese strategists neglect the southern reaches is because they have fixed their gaze on the Luzon Strait, a waterway to the Philippines’ immediate north.

The Luzon Strait constitutes the passageway to and from the South China Sea that Chinese analysts find most promising. The strait is home to the Bashi Channel, an undersea canyon separating Taiwan from the Batanes Islands. The channel is one of the widest and deepest of the narrow seas piercing the first island chain. Most of the waters southeast of the channel, where it opens into the Pacific Ocean, exceed one thousand meters in depth. This maritime junction between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea thus looks like an optimal point for PLA Navy submarines to break out of the China seas. They can transit the strait underwater and disappear into the Pacific depths almost immediately afterward.

The Luzon Strait is particularly well suited for Chinese submarine operations owing to its unique meteorological and oceanographic characteristics. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) is a difficult art in the best of circumstances—let alone the worst—and the Luzon Strait is home to some of the worst. Atrocious weather conditions afflict the area, severely degrading airborne efforts to hunt subs while boosting PLAN boats’ chances of eluding detection. Furthermore, a confluence of undersea environmental factors peculiar to the strait helps submarines maximize their stealth. According to Du Pengcheng and Hu Chengjun of the Navy Submarine Academy, the kuroshio—a powerful oceanic current that flows through the Luzon Strait and skirts the east coasts of Taiwan, the Ryukyus, and Kyushu—is particularly conducive to sonar-reflecting undersea thermal layers. Thermal layers remain thick, wide, and stable year-round in the Luzon Strait’s deep waters. Deftly handled, subs can hide beneath these “thermoclines,” concealing themselves from enemy warships, aircraft, and submarines. Submarine skippers familiar with local waters could exploit favorable conditions to slip out of the island chain unnoticed.

Consequently, to Modern Navy contributor Yu Fengliu, the Luzon Strait represents “a maritime area with extremely high economic, military, and political value worth the weight in gold, a nautical zone boasting important strategic meaning in the western Pacific, and also a channel for China to go past the first island chain worthy of close attention.” Because the strait is the largest passage through the first island chain and presents a problematic environment for U.S. Navy sub hunters, Yu contends that Chinese air and naval assets could sortie independently through the strait without shore-based air cover. Such confidence speaks volumes about the strategic significance of Sanya, the sprawling naval complex on Hainan Island. Boats based there would find the Luzon Strait a convenient exit into the Pacific Ocean.

Geostrategy and Chinese Sea Power

Sea-power theory again furnishes a sure guide to evaluating the interplay among geography, strategy, and China’s maritime outlook and how this nexus shapes Beijing’s assessment of its nautical surroundings. We can revisit Mahan’s definition of sea power as commerce, ships, and bases while applying it fruitfully to the nations inhabiting the first island chain.

Just as the geography of production, distribution, and consumption helps explain China’s economic rise and its turn to the seas, that geography also reveals the engines that propelled past economic miracles in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei led the way in Asia, tapping into the transformative power of the U.S.-led liberal economic order. From China’s perspective, the island states’ “comprehensive national power”—a Chinese concept that encompasses economic strength, technological prowess, per capita productivity, sociopolitical cohesion, and myriad other attributes—makes them a formidable cluster of strategic competitors.

At the same time, the naval dimension of Mahanian sea power—the defense-industrial complex, warships, and bases—illuminates the architecture of military power along the first island chain. The United States enjoys access to major naval bases and shore-based facilities there. It has stationed one of the world’s great expeditionary fleets, the Seventh Fleet, in Japan and sometimes operates the U.S.-based Third Fleet in Asia as well. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan possess some of the world’s most advanced industries and shipyards. These shipyards employ highly skilled individuals, many of whom work on behalf of the U.S. Navy.

The Japanese and South Korean navies deploy warships outfitted with the best sensors and weaponry the United States has to offer, and they exercise and train regularly with their American counterparts. The Taiwan Navy, while not at the technological forefront like its northerly neighbors, operates potent legacy U.S. platforms that could make trouble for the PLA Navy. Chinese analysts can only conclude that China faces an intensely competitive saltwater environment.

We wish to reiterate yet again that strategic geography is not destiny. Geography, like time, is neutral. It would be absurd to impute malign intent to inanimate geographic features. Conceptions of geography, in the form of physical and mental maps, are ultimately constructs of the human mind.62 People determine how they read, interpret, and make use of maps, not the other way around. Consequently, it is safe to say that island chains in and of themselves hold little menace. Rather, it is what people do with these geographic features that makes them forbidding. The claustrophobia many Chinese feel when they glance at the map stems not from inert terrain but from the political, social, historical, and strategic context pervading maritime Asia.

The Chinese writings reviewed here show that the island chain carries substantial historical baggage. It represents not just a reminder of American containment during the Cold War but also a physical manifestation of U.S. power projection today. American forces deployed to and launched from the first island chain have directly influenced events in Asia—often to the detriment of Chinese interests. Thus it comes as little shock that China’s strategic community remains leery of America’s military posture along the island chain. The real surprise would come if Beijing seemed indifferent to a superpower presence so close by.

Contentious history informs the skepticism of Chinese strategists. Think about what U.S. forces have done in Asian seas and skies since 1950. In the early months of the Korean War, American reinforcements flowed through Japan to halt and roll back North Korean advances down the peninsula. Expeditionary forces delivered by sea denied the Communists victory. China felt compelled to intervene at great sacrifice to stave off North Korea’s defeat. Perhaps most painful of all from China’s standpoint was that President Harry Truman interposed the Seventh Fleet between China and Taiwan, ending any hope China had of seizing Taiwan and virtually guaranteeing U.S.-China enmity during the first decades of the Cold War. The U.S. Navy subsequently undertook escort and patrol missions in support of Nationalist forces during the 1954 and 1958 Taiwan Strait crises. In other words, the first island chain administers a constant rebuke, signifying that China is neither whole nor complete nor the master of its fate without Taiwan. The island chain is an irritant transcribed onto the map.

Such encounters have continued intermittently for decades. In the 1960s, B-52 bombers staged bombing runs from Okinawa against North Vietnam, waging an aerial offensive from airfields at China’s doorstep. In 1995, to stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. forward-deployed forces in Asia during the heady days after the Cold War, Washington stabilized the U.S. regional presence by making a standing commitment of 100,000 military personnel to the island chain. There would be no withdrawal from Asia, even to save money and resources and thus claim a “peace dividend” from victory in the Cold War. Indeed, at the height of the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan as a show of force. Poignantly, it was the USS Independence—the U.S. Navy’s only permanently forward-deployed carrier—that helped telegraph American resolve in a crisis involving Taiwan independence. To many Chinese, then, the U.S. Navy and its basing arrangements along the island chain have thwarted national union ever since the founding of the People’s Republic.

Over the past decades, American reconnaissance and surveillance missions along the mainland coast—many of them launched from Japan—have become a major source of bilateral friction. China has long regarded such intelligence-gathering activities as unfriendly if not hostile. The PLA’s impressive military modernization has enabled Beijing to respond tangibly to U.S. naval and aviation operations, backing up its rhetorical objections with physical power. Hazardous encounters have ensued in international airspace and waters. Noteworthy incidents include an April 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft, harassment of a U.S. ocean-surveillance vessel by Chinese fishing trawlers and government ships in March 2009, a near collision between a U.S. Navy cruiser and a PLAN amphibious transport in November 2013, and numerous dangerous Chinese aerial intercepts of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Close-quarters encounters have become commonplace.

The literature surveyed above shows that the island chain is not merely a geographic marker designating zones for Chinese naval planning and operations. The concept is far richer than its critics allow. The island chain serves as an analytical proxy for assessing (1) the state of American power and purpose in Asia; (2) the health of the U.S.-led regional order; (3) the durability of the postwar alliance system; (4) China’s choices as a hybrid land-sea power; (5) China’s quest for reunion with Taiwan; (6) China’s relative economic and strategic vulnerability; (7) the types of conflicts and military campaigns for which Chinese planners prepare; and, lastly, (8) how much room for maneuver the PLA Navy enjoys. Note that only the last index of Chinese maritime strategy is strictly naval in nature. The other—more pressing—matters of strategic import relate to China’s grand strategy in maritime Asia, or what we term the Mahanian logic of sea power and the maritime strategy to which it imparts substance and direction.

We return, then, to Mahan’s logic of maritime strategy and his grammar of maritime operations. What does China want, and how will China go about getting what it wants? The island-chain construct offers a framework for answering these vital questions. If China covets dominion in the near seas, then orchestrating a reconfiguration of power along the first island chain is probably a prerequisite for success. The correlation of forces on the transnational archipelago must shift in ways that accommodate China’s expanded interests and power, allowing Beijing to bend the islanders to its will. Whether China must compel the United States to draw down—or terminate altogether—U.S. commitments and resources to allies and friends on the first island chain to fulfill its ambitions remains unclear. If China concludes it must, it remains unclear how far back the United States must fall to satisfy China. And it remains unclear what form the regional order would take after an American pullback.

Another open question is how much would unification with Taiwan magnify China’s strategic leverage over its neighbors, particularly Japan. Whether reunion would satiate China’s ambitions or whet its appetite for more real estate is open to debate. Moreover, it is worth asking what expectations Chinese leaders would set for occupants of the first island chain in a post-American future. The regional order’s complexion would change considerably if Beijing settled for quiet deference, as opposed to demanding outright subservience. And it remains to be seen what kinds of—and how much—military and nonmilitary power China would need to ease its nagging, deep-seated insecurity about the island chain. Such grand-strategic questions are worth pondering, and sea-power theory helps analysts and practitioners of marine affairs ponder them.

The irony in all of this is that no one did more than the occupants of the first island chain, along with the United States, to readmit China to the international system after decades of Maoist self-isolation. While Chinese commentators are loath to admit it, China ranks among the greatest beneficiaries of the U.S.-led liberal order. China’s economic rise over the past three decades owes a great deal to the global system’s openness. And it was American and allied forces along the first island chain that supplied the international public goods—chiefly free seas for commerce—that underwrote this openness. Beijing long appeared content to free ride on U.S. and allied naval power. Those days seem to have passed.

Policing the sea was not the only service the island powers rendered. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States opened their markets to Chinese producers while providing the bulk of the foreign direct investment needed to launch China on its meteoric ascent. The very stakeholders in the current order that facilitates efforts to generate wealth along the mainland’s coast inflame China’s sense of insecurity. The dual character of China’s relationships with fellow Asian powers constitutes an enduring paradox of its rise.

The geography of production, distribution, and consumption has combined with Chinese perceptions of the first island chain to reinforce Beijing’s oceanic orientation. China’s economic success has drawn it toward the seas, begetting demands that China develop the means to protect its seaborne interests. As Beijing leans seaward, though, it finds itself bumping up against the first island chain, the geographic basis of American primacy in Asia. The gnawing sense that hostile powers could interrupt China’s nautical destiny lends urgency to Beijing’s effort to uphold maritime interests. China’s militancy in the near seas must be understood as a product of this complex, interactive process.

Geography informs policy decisions about how much attention and how many resources a nation should dedicate to manage events at a particular place on the globe or a nautical chart. In China’s case, geospatial imperatives indicate that Beijing must not only shoulder the burdens that come with sea power but must also balance constantly between priorities in the continental and maritime domains. Geography alone makes an inadequate guide to how China will shape its nautical rise. As Mahan notes, sea power is a conscious political choice. A society—elites and citizenry alike—must make that choice. And that choice determines the character of its maritime strategy. In short, strategy must respect the bounds imposed by geography, but those bounds afford people considerable latitude for strategic choice. China is no exception.

Even in an autocracy like China, policy makers must fashion a coherent case explaining why the country should put to sea and why society must expend scarce resources on seafaring, an inherently capital-intensive enterprise. Chinese elites, intellectuals, and strategists have crafted arguments that vow to deliver national greatness on the high seas. The Chinese Dream awaits.

China Report

The Chengdu Wing Loong II (‘Pterodactyl II’), military designation GJ-2, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group in the People’s Republic of China. Intended for use as a surveillance and aerial reconnaissance and precision strike platform, Chengdu unveiled the concept of Wing Loong II at the Aviation Expo China in Beijing on September 2015. Wing Loong II has long range strike capability with satellite link.

In 2019, China’s Central Military Commission and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remained focused on reaching the goal of achieving mechanisation of the PLA’s ground forces by 2020, improving `informatisation’, and working towards achieving the 2035 goal of armed-forces modernisation and dominant regional power-projection capabilities. The 1 October 2019 parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic reflected the breadth of China’s defence modernisation, with particular attention paid to new additions to China’s missile, uninhabited-aerial-vehicle (UAV) and hypersonic capabilities. Apart from hardware, the parade also seemed to reflect the organisational and doctrinal shifts in the PLA. The inclusion of personnel from all branches in the Strategic Support Force (SSF) and Joint Logistics Support Force sections of the parade, for example, sought to highlight China’s progress towards joint operational capability across services. Meanwhile, the presence of officers and scientists from the National Defense University, University of Defense Technology and Academy of Military Sciences highlighted China’s focus on civil- military integration.

The PLA continues its efforts to improve combat capabilities under realistic training conditions. The navy and air force were particularly active in 2019, though the PLA Rocket Force and SSF also conducted drills. The PLA Army conducted the Firepower-2019 exercise in Inner Mongolia, while the PLA Navy (PLAN) conducted multiple exercises in the East and South China seas, as well as near Taiwan. The PLA Rocket Force practised its ability to withstand an attack and launch a counter-strike. The SSF remains little discussed publicly, though reports point to it having also participated in joint-operations exercises and drills. The navy has been active in joint exercises in the East China Sea and around Taiwan through 2019, timing these `routine drills’ with political developments in the region. On 15 April, the day before Taiwan and the United States marked the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act with a high-level forum in Taipei, the PLA held `necessary drills’ with warships, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft around the island. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has focused on continuing to develop offensive and defensive air and space integration. Chinese media reports points to the PLAAF’s `circle of friends’ growing larger, with joint exercises with the air forces of Brazil and Russia in 2019. In 2019, Beijing also acknowledged for the first time the existence of theatre-level joint exercises, code-named North, East, South and West. A possible example is the July 2019 exercise involving all five service branches off China’s southeast coast, although there was no official confirmation of this.

China’s latest defence white paper, released in July 2019, constituted a progress report on PLA reforms, with attention given to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each service branch. Though the PLA is making progress across the board, the white paper notes that mechanisation and informatisation were behind schedule – in contrast to President Xi Jinping’s statement in 2017 at the Army Day Parade when he announced that the PLA had already achieved mechanisation and made rapid progress towards informatisation. The 2019 white paper is likely to be more accurate in its description, and it signals that the 2020 goal of achieving mechanisation and making significant progress towards informatisation may not be met. Beijing’s definition of these two goals remains unclear.

However, a breakdown of defence expenditure was provided for the first time since the 2010 white paper. The new detail, and the framing of China’s defence modernisation and military spending as `reasonable and appropriate’, signals an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to quell external criticism of China’s military build-up. While the 2019 white paper compares China’s defence spending to that of other countries, to highlight that it represents a relatively small percentage of GDP, it is also presented in a domestic context alongside the budgets of the other government ministries with which the PLA competes for resources.

The white paper emphasises increasing instability in various geographical regions. It portrays China as the architect of, contributor to and mediator within the `community with a shared future for mankind’ in the `new era’. The US-led alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific is considered outdated and ill-suited. Although the white paper considers the regional security situation `generally stable’, it suggests that Asia-Pacific states have become `increasingly aware’ that they are part of this regional community of shared destiny. Bilateral negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China over a code of conduct for the South China Sea would likely be Beijing’s preferred model for any such `regional’ security architecture.

Nevertheless, for the moment the regional security architecture is unlikely to expand to include new arms-control regimes. Following the dissolution of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between Russia and the United States, the US indicated any new arms-control treaty could usefully expand beyond the original two signatories and include China as well. However, Beijing has made it clear that INF and post-INF Treaty arms-control issues should be resolved first between Russia and the US. While China is concerned about the consequences of potential US deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific, in the wake of the INF Treaty, China’s missile development has generally been in line with `China’s national defense policies’ (for instance, a large number of its missile systems are based within range of Taiwan) and Beijing has stated that it will `in no way agree to making the INF Treaty multilateral’.

While mentioning a range of challenges, the 2019 white paper reaffirms that the status of Taiwan remains one of China’s main national-security concerns. In his New Year address for 2019, President Xi emphasised that resolving the Taiwan question and completing reunification was a historic task and could not be stopped. `One country, two systems’ and peaceful reunification were the best paths to China’s national reunification, Xi said, though he made `no promise to renounce the use of force’ and reserved `the option of taking all necessary means’. This sentiment was echoed in Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s speech at the 2019 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. Despite numerous military exercises and live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait and off Taiwan’s east coast throughout 2019, Beijing faces a difficult choice. As President Tsai Ing-wen gears up for the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan, China’s military drills and political unrest in Hong Kong are reinforcing narratives that reunification is not in Taiwan’s interest. Indeed, in response to Xi’s speech on Taiwan, both the Democratic Progressive Party and Kuomintang have stated that one country, two systems is no longer a viable option.

The Chinese Type 99A2 is the most modern Main Battle Tank in service with the Peoples Liberation Army.  Development started in 2003 with trials of the vehicle starting sometime in 2007 or thereafter. In comparison to earlier Type 99 Tanks it has a number of changes in terms of firepower, mobility, protection and technology resulting in dimensional changes in the hull and turret sizes.

 PLA Army

The process of re-equipping the PLA Army continues, with a focus on the objectives of completing basic mechanisation and improving informatisation by 2020. Legacy equipment, such as the ZTZ-59 tank and PL-59 howitzer, is now being cycled out of frontline units, although it is unlikely that all of it will be replaced by the 2020 target date. Additional heavy combined-arms brigades in the Central and Northern theatre commands are now finally receiving the long-awaited ZTZ-99A main battle tank. However, the Eastern and Southern theatre commands will likely continue to operate lighter tank designs – primarily the ZTZ-96A and ZTQ-15 – because of the terrain in those areas. The Central Theatre Command’s 161st Air Assault Brigade has begun taking delivery of the Z-20 medium transport helicopter – an indigenous version of the US Black Hawk design.

The army’s Stride series of exercises for its combined-arms brigades continues, albeit not at a fast pace, with only one exercise at Zhurihe (for heavy brigades) and two at Queshan (for medium and light brigades) completed by September 2019; these all involved Central Theatre Command formations as the `Red Force’ (friendly) under evaluation. Following the PLA’s participation in Russia’s Vostok-2018 exercise, China once again sent a relatively small contingent of 1,600 personnel to participate in Russia’s Tsentr-2019 exercise in September, primarily drawing on a heavy combined-arms battlegroup and aviation detachment from the Western Theatre Command’s 76th Group Army.

The Dongfeng-41 (DF-41, CSS-X-10) (‘East Wind-41’) is a fourth-generation Chinese solid-fuelled road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery Corps). DF-41 is the fourth and the latest generation of the Dongfeng series strategic missiles developed by China. The missile was officially unveiled at the China National Day military parade on October 1st, 2019.

PLA Rocket Force

New missile systems were publicly unveiled in October at the parade marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. This underscored the PLA Rocket Force’s continuing expansion and highlighted priority areas of capability development. The DF-41 (CH-SS-20) road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), like the existing DF-5B and DF-31A(G) ICBM variants, is believed to have the capacity to carry either multiple warheads or a single warhead and multiple jammers, penetration aids and decoys. The parade also featured two new highspeed conventional systems: the DF-17 medium range ballistic missile and hypersonic glide vehicle, and the CJ-100 cruise missile. This emphasis on additional capacity and higher speed for nuclear and conventional systems respectively reflects the Rocket Force’s approach to retaining credible capabilities in light of the improving missile defences of potential adversaries.

While the DF-17 was described at the parade as a purely conventional system, media reports in 2019 quoting unnamed officials at the China Aerospace and Industry Corporation suggested that in future the system may have both nuclear and conventional payload variants, much like the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile before it.

The DF-41, DF-17 and CJ-100 are all now believed to have officially entered PLA service with Rocket Force brigades. However, there is traditionally a lag between a system’s official entry into PLA service and the declaration of initial operating capability, and it is unclear if any of these new systems have reached that stage.

The Type 055 destroyer (NATO/OSD Renhai-class cruiser) is a class of stealth guided missile destroyers being constructed for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Surface Force. It is a multi-mission design; the combination of sensors and weapons suggests a main role of area air defence, with anti-submarine warfare capabilities surpassing previous Chinese surface combatants

PLA Navy

The PLAN continues to make significant strides in filling the gaps in its capabilities in order to operate as a blue-water navy. In 2019, these included the public debut of the first Type-055 (Renhai-class) cruiser at the navy’s 70th-anniversary fleet review in April. In September, China launched the fifth of eight Type- 055s that are either currently under construction or already complete.

Another important milestone in the development of the PLAN’s power-projection capability was the launch in September of the first Type-075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) large amphibious-assault ship. Another Type-075 is under construction and it is thought that at least one more is planned; the ships are estimated at around 30,000 tonnes fullload displacement. Meanwhile, the sixth Type- 071 (Yuzhao-class) landing platform dock entered service in January, with at least two more under construction.

Beyond the Type-055, China’s output of surface combatants remains striking, with the 19th and 20th Type-052D (Luyang III-class) destroyers launched in May and a 63rd Type-056/056A (Jiangdao I/II-class) corvette later in August. Meanwhile, the PLAN also retired a number of older destroyers and frigates. The PLAN’s focus so far seems to have been more on raising the capability levels of its platforms rather than just boosting inventory numbers.

In this context, speculation continues regarding China’s aircraft-carrier ambitions. In some respects, progress remains cautious – for example, in the relatively modest operations so far of the first carrier, the Liaoning (RUS Kuznetsov class), and the extended initial sea trials of the second, as-yet unnamed ship (RUS Kuznetsov mod). A third, larger vessel is under construction. China may still be struggling with the challenge of creating an effective carrier capability, and so there is uncertainty over when the PLAN might be able to achieve a step change in capability, particularly in terms of long-range carrier deployments or integrated task-group operations. Similarly, bringing the complex Type-075 LHD into full operational service may take some time. A second Type-901 (Fuyu-class) fast large under way replenishment vessel, perhaps intended to accompany the carriers, entered service in February. However, the PLAN will need more such vessels if China maintains ambitions to deploy a truly global multi-carrier capability in the future.

While China’s defence minister gave a forthright speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2019, blaming tensions in the South China Sea on `foreign’ naval deployments, China’s own naval activities in the region appeared more assertive and in July it reportedly carried out a drill that included what appeared to be a first salvo-launch of anti-ship ballistic missiles in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, two tests were reported of the navy’s new JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which is intended for its next-generation ballistic-missile submarines – these may be the Type-096. This combination has the potential to provide Beijing with significantly longer-range submarine-based ballistic missile capability sometime in the next decade.

At the same time, there continues to be increased focus on Chinese `hybrid’ or `grey zone’ activities, highlighted by the tensions raised by Beijing’s deployment into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone of a survey vessel with coastguard escort. Increasing attention has been paid to the maritime militia, which is based chiefly on large numbers of supposed fishing vessels. The latest US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) `China Military Power’ report stated that the PLAN, the coastguard and the maritime militia are increasingly visible throughout the region.

J-20As fitted with the original AL-31 engines

PLA Air Force

It is known that China has been developing a next-generation `strategic’ bomber, but the US DIA in 2019 also suggested that a `tactical bomber’ in the same class was part of the PLAAF’s acquisition programme. The `China Military Power’ report characterised the latter project as a `fighter-bomber’, capable of carrying long-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs).

New air systems displayed during China’s 70th-anniversary parade included the WZ-8 high-speed reconnaissance UAV and the GJ-11 uninhabited combat air vehicle. A new variant of the Xian H-6 bomber, the H-6N, was shown for the first time. This airframe was observed with a large under-belly recess, although the anti-ship ballistic missile that some analysts contend may be associated with this new variant was not displayed.

Meanwhile, the successor to the H-6 series, likely to be designated the H-20, is anticipated by the US Department of Defense to enter PLAAF service around the middle of the next decade. Some reports suggest the H-20 is a low-observable flying-wing design. While senior Chinese officials have confirmed that a new bomber is in development, at the time of writing there has been no similar comment regarding a tactical bomber.

The tactical bomber’s association with a long-range AAM may be an allusion to the PLAAF’s PL-17 very-long-range dual-mode AAM, now in development. This missile is likely fitted with an active electronically scanned-array radar and an imaging-infrared adjunct seeker. The PL-17 appears to be aimed at countering high-value low-density targets, such as tankers, but also airborne early-warning and control, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, aircraft. The PL-17, and a rocket-ramjet-powered AAM possibly known as the PL-21, could enter service in the early years of the next decade.

The first operational Chengdu J-20A fighter/ ground-attack aircraft PLAAF unit was formed in 2019, and production of the type is likely to increase over the next few years as more units are re-equipped with it. At the same time, the Shenyang J-31 multi-role combat-aircraft project continues, but at a slower pace than that of the J-20A.

Great-power competition and cooperation

Intensifying US efforts to clamp down on economic, technological and knowledge flows to China – based on a widening interpretation of US national-security considerations – are another obstacle to the long-term development of China’s defence and strategic capabilities. This was underscored in 2019 by US efforts to isolate Huawei by excluding the firm from access to US markets or technology. US export-, investment-, and academic-exchange controls have also been significantly tightened. In response, Chinese leaders have urged the country’s S&T establishment to step up their efforts to develop indigenous technological capabilities, particularly in emerging core areas such as AI, semiconductors and 5G.

The defence white paper makes clear that China is in long-term military-technological competition with the US and that `the PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries’. The white paper warns that the Chinese armed forces need to make `greater efforts to invest in military modernization to meet national demands’ and are at risk of being surprised by technological developments elsewhere and a widening generational gap in technologies. As Sino-US military-technological competition intensifies, Beijing and Moscow are forging closer defence-technological cooperation. China is reportedly examining whether to purchase another 24 Su-35 combat aircraft to complement those it has already received. Russian arms-export officials have also been keen to market the export version of the Su-57 fifth-generation combat aircraft to the PLA Air Force, although there are no indications that a deal is close.

Russia and China Report I

These debates take place in an environment where potential adversaries continue to accelerate their military modernisation. The fortunes of Russia’s Su-57 Felon multi-role fighter improved in May 2019 when President Putin increased the order in the current State Armament Programme from 16 to 76. It is also moving ahead with the development of faster and wholly new weapons. Its Burevestnik nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile, and the Status-6 nuclear armed long-range autonomous underwater vehicle, may have seen only halting progress, but hypersonic plans are firmer. The Avangard system (SS-19 Stiletto mod. 4) was on the brink of service entry at the end of 2019. The Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile has been observed on MiG-31s, while Moscow has spoken of further integrating precision weapons on naval vessels. The `Kalibr-isation’ of the fleet has been noted in recent years; Moscow is now discussing fitting to its naval vessels the 3M22 Zircon high-speed anti-ship cruise missile.

China’s October 2019 military parade, marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, highlighted the breadth of its military modernisation process and showcased systems designed to achieve military effect faster and at greater range than before. The DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle was displayed at the anniversary parade. China’s system is intermediate range, while Moscow’s Avangard may be intercontinental. Concerns over China’s military modernisation loom large in Washington’s policy considerations, and they are driving many equipment and procurement decisions both in the US and elsewhere.

Systems like these pose additional challenges for air defences. They complicate early detection, target acquisition and successful intercept. Achieving all three is not impossible, though the number of targets that may arrive fast or slow, high or low, perhaps with signature-management features, means that investments will be needed in better radars, interceptors and command and control, all underpinned by ever faster computing power and better coordination with partner countries. These weapons are being integrated in order to rapidly achieve destructive effect but perhaps also because this will help to outpace and undermine an enemy’s decision-making cycle; this might, in turn, have implications for strategic stability.

Both China and Russia continue to modernise their conventional military forces. Moscow is improving its air assault forces’ mobility and striking power and also its artillery capabilities, among other areas. It is more closely integrating UAVs into its artillery find-fix-strike complex. China, meanwhile, stood up the first operational unit with its Chengdu J-20A combat aircraft, and has maintained recent progress in developing and fielding air-launched missiles. It also continues to build increasingly sophisticated naval vessels, which is an important factor motivating other Asian states to do the same. Both China and Russia aspire to improve their military capability by integrating emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

States including Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey and the United States are increasingly seeking to integrate active protection systems (APS) onto their armoured fighting vehicles, either as retrofits to existing designs or as integrated systems for future vehicles. The proliferation of highly capable man-portable anti-tank weapons has increased the demand for protection from this kind of threat in both low- and high intensity conflicts. Many countries are looking to counter these weapons with APS. With many legacy platforms approaching their upper weight limits, these systems offer increased protection for relatively little weight gain, when compared to traditional armour.

China, Russia and the US are all now at various stages of developing, testing and deploying truck-borne gun-howitzer systems. These are more easily transportable, including by air, than traditional tracked armoured systems, and offer integral mobility, potentially making them less vulnerable to counterbattery fire than their towed counterparts. This makes them particularly attractive to light- and medium-weight rapid-response units in need of fire support.

China and Russia appeared to be in the process of deploying hypersonic glide-vehicles as 2019 drew to a close. The US is also expected to put its own hypersonic glide-vehicles and hypersonic cruise-missile systems into operational service in the early 2020s, and a number of other states are currently conducting research in this area. The performance characteristics of these systems further complicate an already demanding environment for missile defences.

The relatively easy availability of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) for both state and non-state actors has led to renewed military interest in both hard- and soft-kill counter-UAV systems. Both Russia and the US have deployed systems to the Middle East to protect their facilities and/or vessels from attack and are likely to feed the lessons of their experiences into future development work.

China Modernisation

Amphibious-warfare capabilities are again subject to close attention, especially in Asia. China is continuing to boost its capacity with more and larger vessels, Japan has established its amphibious rapid-deployment brigade and Australia is developing its navy as a task-group-focused force, centred on its landing helicopter docks. The United States, meanwhile, has issued a new operating concept and is looking to exploit new technologies and systems to enable integrated operations in contested environments.

An officer in the People’s Liberation Army’s Electronic Engineering Institute wrote that `the ultimate purpose of information dominance operations is to influence or destroy an enemy’s decision-making process’. Primary targets, the article continued, should include enemy command-and-control centres, communication nodes, radar stations and computer-network systems. However, China’s 2019 defence white paper is not as fulsome as the 2015 white paper on the centrality of cyberspace as a new arena for international strategic competition, a decision perhaps influenced more by presentational considerations than by any weakening of the momentum towards military cyber power.

China’s military-modernisation process was motivated in part by its observation of the changes in modern warfare since its forces were last involved in major combat; this was in 1979, during the short war with Vietnam that principally involved ground forces. In particular, the 1991 First Gulf War against Iraq and, later, the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo provided the PLA with a clear example of how far it had fallen behind modern military forces. The PLA has also studied Soviet and Russian military modernisation.

The PLA had hitherto operated according to the strategy of `People’s War’ and `war under modern conditions’. However, the First Gulf War highlighted that modern technologies could be a force multiplier on the battlefield and that the PLA needed to boost the integration of its military systems and improve joint operations. Chinese thinking reflected this lesson shortly afterwards. Assessments were conducted and in early 1993 a new `strategic guideline’ was adopted by the PLA, indicating it would look to `win local wars under modern high-technology conditions’.

The Kosovo intervention led to a study by China’s National Defence University (NDU). This study, analysts noted, highlighted the centrality of `information superiority’ and paid close attention to how NATO forces used technology to suppress Serbia’s command centre and telecommunications. China’s 2004 defence white paper reflected the lessons drawn from Kosovo, and perhaps also Iraq in 2003. China’s armed forces aspired, it said, to win `local wars under informatised conditions’, giving priority to `building joint operational capabilities’. The assessment of the white paper was that information connects military domains and acts as a force multiplier but could also lead to more integrated force development.

China’s 2015 defence white paper assessed that China’s external environment was going through `profound changes’ and that threats were more diverse – and not necessarily local or indeed short term. China would, it said, take advantage of a period of strategic opportunity to build strong military forces. This white paper highlighted the increasing sophistication of long-range, precise, stealthy and uninhabited weapons and equipment, also noting that outer space and cyberspace were `new commanding heights’ in strategic competition. Ultimately, it noted, `the form of war is accelerating its evolution to informatisation’.

In October 2017, Xi delivered a speech at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in which he set out a timeline for the PLA to achieve its modernisation goals. By 2020, mechanisation should be `basically achieved’, `information technology (IT) application’ should also have progressed and strategic capabilities should have seen significant improvement. By 2035, he said, `basic modernisation of our national defense and our forces’ should be `basically’ complete, and at the same time the PLA should have modernised their `theory, organisational structures, service personnel and weaponry’. By the middle of the next century (perhaps 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic), he said the PLA should have fully transformed into `world-class’ forces.

China’s approach to future warfare and military modernisation seems to have heavily leveraged the lessons it observed when studying other modern militaries. Informatisation is similar to that of the US conception of network-centric warfare, utilising the employment of ICT-enabled modern weaponry and equipment, as well as improving C2. The PLA has focused on improving the capability and quantity of its precision-strike systems and its missiles, with emphasis on increased range and improved accuracy. It has pursued developments in the electromagnetic spectrum, in cyber and in space systems. In a way, the thoroughgoing ambition outlined for China’s informatisation process reflects the PLA’s understanding of its position relative to advanced Western militaries.

Discussions have been observed in China, in places such as the Academy of Military Sciences and the NDU, concerning the possible decentralisation of command structures and the potential degree of automation in future weapon systems. But while the drive for informatisation might have led the PLA to consider the need for greater flexibility in its decision-making and military-training requirements, Xi’s tightened grip over the PLA has led to greater centralisation in the CMC. While the process of `informatisation’ may be improving PLA capabilities, in tandem with the development and introduction of more advanced military systems, this does not mean that the PLA is combat ready or that the benefits of informatisation are being felt rapidly. These concerns are borne out by what can be observed of the PLA’s self-reflection as it goes through this process. At the same time, the degree to which the integration of more intelligent capabilities, such as big data and AI, will influence and improve Chinese weapons developments remains unclear. Although concerns have arisen about the degree of automation in Chinese weapons systems, because of centralised decision-making, Chinese discussions seem to still anticipate having a human in the loop. It is possible that the initial benefits of intelligent capabilities may be felt more in areas such as logistics support and C2. It is not yet clear whether `informatisation’ and `intelligentisation’ will give the PLA a comparative advantage over potential adversaries, some of which are modernising in similar ways. As such, the PLA will be careful about the risk of introducing into its own systems the vulnerabilities it looks to exploit or target in others. This may explain reports of China’s forces conducting exercises in a degraded electromagnetic environment.

At the same time, while the PLA has looked to US performance in recent conflicts to inform its military-modernisation plans and objectives, it will in future likely also look towards the military-modernisation programmes of other Asian states that are looking to integrate emerging-technology developments into their military thinking, equipment and forces. For China, however, realising the full potential of these developments will likely take longer than was first envisaged.

Terminology

Mechanisation: Analysts assess that the term `mechanisation’ refers broadly to ambitions to modernise and replace the PLA’s legacy equipment across all services and branches, though with significant focus on the ground forces. It is also understood to be closely linked to the reorganisation of the PLA Army from 18 to 13 group armies, which was intended to improve quality and military efficiency.

Informatisation: The 2000 defence white paper stated that the PLA should transform from using `semi-mechanised and mechanised weapon systems to automated and informatised systems’. By the time of the 2004 defence white paper, informatisation had `become the key factor in enhancing the warfighting capability’ of the PLA. According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), in its 2019 report on China’s Military Power, the term `informatisation’ is `roughly analogous to the U. S. military’s concept of netcentric capability: a force’s ability to use advanced IT and communications systems to gain operational advantage over an adversary’. China’s view of informatised local wars was, the DoD said, `defined by real-time, data-networked command and control (C2) and precision strike’.

According to PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) personnel and the Science of Military Strategy publication, informatisation provides the PLA with military capabilities that allow it to `leapfrog’ the capabilities of currently technologically superior adversaries. Space-, cyber- and electromagnetic-warfare capacities have the potential to paralyse a high-tech enemy’s `operational system of systems’ and undermine their command-level `system of systems’.

However, the PLA also intends to harness these technologies to help it better collect, analyse, share and train with data and information. It aims to make `basic progress’ by 2020 by introducing additional information and communications technologies, including cyber capacities, across its theatre commands and forces, in order to improve information-enabled capabilities and to boost command, control and communications. Informatisation is also important to the PLA’s efforts to improve its military education and training.

Intelligentisation: `Intelligentisation’ is a newer concept. China’s 2019 defence white paper said that `intelligent warfare is on the horizon’. It is understood to be based on the premise that military systems will be enhanced by the integration of advanced automation, big data and artificial intelligence (AI). The use of big data has increasingly been highlighted in PLA debates as central to the development of more powerful platforms and systems enabled by AI. Some Chinese sources have also indicated that harnessing these technologies might provide a means by which to `leapfrog’ the capabilities of other military forces.

During a late 2019 forum on military big data, researchers from the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) discussed aspects of the collection and processing of data, whether derived from reconnaissance, surveillance or intelligence, but also using data from geographic information systems and `human social and cultural data and social media data’. As military forces try to integrate big data into their structures, they said, operations would increasingly be characterised by human-machine interaction, combinations of human-machine intelligence, data-centric analytical processing and, ultimately, independent decision-making and autonomous-attack capabilities. In short, `the key to winning quickly is how to shorten the “OODA [observe, orient, decide, act] loop” and revolutionising C2′. However, while debates in China recognise that big data-driven research and development and AI-enabled technologies will result in the PLA’s acquisition of `smarter’ and more autonomous platforms and systems, the AMS researchers emphasised that `big data and AI technology cannot completely replace people and cannot change their decisive position in war’.

China EW capabilities

China is also overhauling its EW capabilities – perhaps even more so than Russia – as it modernises its armed forces. The US Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) 2018 China’s Military Power report said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) considered EW a key aspect of modern war and that `its EW doctrine emphasizes using electromagnetic spectrum weapons to suppress or to deceive enemy electronic equipment. Potential EW victims include adversary systems operating in radio, radar, microwave, infrared, and optical frequency ranges, as well as adversarial computer and information systems.’ Cyber actions, meanwhile, could attack an enemy’s C2 system, with the potential to `completely disrupt’ these systems, thereby `gaining battlefield superiority’. They would also be useful for other purposes including espionage. EW features in recent Chinese military exercises designed not only to improve the PLA’s ability to use EW but also to enhance its capacity to operate in a contested electromagnetic environment. Its EW units routinely train, according to the DoD, in order to `conduct jamming and anti-jamming operations against multiple communication and radar systems or GPS satellite systems in force-on-force exercises’. In 2019, meanwhile, reports that the accuracy of satellite-navigation systems was being degraded offshore Shanghai indicate growing Chinese capabilities, possibly in the civil sector as well as the armed forces.

The Mongol Reduction of Northern China I

Just as the Jin were being challenged by the Song on their southern border, the man whose ambition would bring about their destruction was being hailed as universal ruler or great khan by a confederation of Mongol tribes to their north. Chinggis Khan was not a great general or warrior, but he was a skilled and compelling political strategist who had used these talents to unite the disparate and often-warring tribes of the steppes. It seems likely that his plan was to use this confederation rapidly, and before it disintegrated like so many tribal alliances before it, to plunder the lands of northern China on a vast scale.

The Mongol raids on China began in earnest in 1209, with a campaign against the Tangut state of Xi Xia. The Tangut emperor ruled over a multi-ethnic population that included Chinese, Tibetans and many Turkic groups, in addition to the Tangut themselves. Indeed, when we use the term Tangut, as with Jurchen, Kitan or Mongol, we should remember that we are really only naming the leadership of these states or confederations. In reality, each of these entities were multi-ethnic and, particularly in the case of the Mongols as their empire grew, the leading group was very much a minority.

The Tangut emperor’s state also bordered the Jin state along the northwestern reaches of the Yellow River and extended into the Gobi desert and modern Ningxia. In the past the Tangut had lived a nomadic existence, with their only ties to the settled state being their trade in horses with the Song and their raiding of Song merchant columns. The nomadic past of the Xi Xia state, its largely Turkish population and its extension into the steppe made it a natural first target of the nascent Mongol confederation of Chinggis Khan. Its subjugation would give the Mongols access to the northwestern flank of the Jin state, from which they could raid the Yellow River plains, and if the Xi Xia state could be brought to full submission the Mongols would also gain access to its army of horse archers. Added to this was the fact that the Xi Xia state had never fully escaped the orbit of steppe politics, and the Mongol conquest of the state was also part of a ‘tidying up’ of loose ends, as all the Turco-Mongolic peoples on China’s perimeter were absorbed either voluntarily or otherwise into the Mongol ordus or horde. That Xi Xia could never escape its own steppe history is obvious from the fact that many Turkish princes seeking refuge from Chinggis Khan’s father found dubious refuge at the Xi Xia court and that royal daughters of the Xi Xia state were not uncommonly married to members of Chinggis’s own family. To add to this confused mesh of amiability and animosity, one Kereyid prince sought refuge from Mongol vengeance with the Tangut, but then gave a daughter in marriage to Chinggis’s son, Tolui, and she bore the great khans Mongke and Qubilai and the Persian Ilkhan Hulegu. Another of the dissident prince’s daughters married into the Tangut royal family and an unlikely romantic tale has her beauty being the catalyst for Chinggis Khan’s final annihilation of the Xi Xia state. Be that as it may, the Mongols certainly used the harbouring of Kereyid royal fugitives by the Xi Xia court as a pretext for their first extensive incursions into Xi Xia territory. Mongol raids across the Xi Xia state began in 1205 and the presence of their troops in an area bordering Jin also drew the Onggid tribes, a grouping of previously loyal barbarians whom the Jin had relied on to stabilise their northwest frontier, to join Chinggis’s horde.

The Mongols stayed in Xi Xia territory for the next two years and the Xi Xia sent a series of embassies to the Jin emperor, calling for alliance against the Mongols. These appeals were rebuffed by the Jin emperor with the curt comment, ‘it is to our advantage when our enemies attack one another. Wherein lies the danger to us?’

The autumn of 1209 saw Chinggis launching a major invasion of Xi Xia and defeating three Tangut armies before investing the capital Chong Xingfu. The Mongols then attempted to divert the waters of the Yellow River’s irrigation canals to flood the city, but succeeded only in deluging their own camp, which effectively broke the siege. However, they had done enough damage to the Xi Xia state to ensure its capitulation, and in 1210 the Tangut emperor, Xianzong, became a vassal to the Khan.

That Chinggis was only interested in Xi Xia’s submission as a prelude to the greater havoc he wished to wreak upon the Jin is evidenced by his almost immediate employment of Tangut horsemen in raids upon Jin borderlands. By 1214 Xi Xia troops, under Mongol direction, were extensively raiding Jin’s southwest provinces. By this point the Jin were becoming more and more dependent on this region for finances and for horses, as the Song had ceased the payment of the tribute that they had agreed to in 1207 and the Mongols were pressing hard from the north and gobbling up Jin pastureland. The city of Lanzhou slipped from effective Jin control in 1214, as the Xi Xia sponsored a rebellion there against them, and then the Xi Xia sent proposals to Song for a joint action against Jin in the west. At this juncture the Song sat on their hands and did not, in fact, act against Jin in alliance with the Xi Xia until 1220, and even then only in a half-hearted fashion. Perhaps it seemed more logical to the Song to let the Mongols destroy the ‘auld enemy’ for them than to engage the Jin directly themselves or even ally with them against the new foe. The lessons of the past and the debacle that had followed Jin’s conquest of Liao with Song complicity had evidently either not yet been learned or simply forgotten.

The encroachment by the peoples of the northern steppe on Jin lands had begun almost at the beginning of the Jin dynasty. In some ways, the Jurchen’s descent into ‘China proper’ in the first quarter of the twelfth century had created a power vacuum in the northern lands beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders, and this had been rapidly filled by new confederations. As early as the 1130s, the Jin had been compelled to send punitive expeditions into the hinterlands at the edge of the Gobi. They suffered many reverses on these expeditions, but through them they also managed to retard any progress towards unification by the tribes as they exterminated much of the leadership in the steppe. Possibly as a result of this policy, the words ‘a Jin Emperor killed one of my forefathers. Let me have my revenge!’ have been put into the mouth of Chinggis in traditional Chinese histories to explain the Khan’s invasion of Jin. We can be certain that no such justification was in fact required for the ensuing carnage meted out to Jin by Chinggis Khan and his descendants; invoking the will of Tenggeri the Sky Father or Eternal Heaven would have been sufficient. But there is tenuous evidence to support the fact that Chinggis could have been intent on revenging the death of Ambaghai Khan, whom the Tatar tribe had handed over to their Jin overlords for execution after they captured him. Chinggis Khan considered himself a legitimate successor of Ambaghai as leader of the Mongols. In 1194 Jin had also made a temporary alliance with the man who became Chinggis Khan. This had helped to stabilise the border but had also unfortunately increased the Mongols’ power, as it aided their elimination of tribal rivals. Chinggis Khan’s unification of the tribes was, then, in many ways, begun by the Jin’s actions in the steppes, and it was at the head of a vast confederation army of Mongols, Kitan and Tangut3 that Chinggis set out in March 1211 to launch what was in effect a vast raid or chevachee across the Jin state.

The word chevachee is the most apt way of describing the Mongol raiding tactics in 1211, for it is an act of plundering on a relentless and extensive scale, in order to make control and rule over a region untenable for the enemy. It also deprives the enemy of legitimacy if they cannot effectively respond to the terror inflicted upon their citizens. The taking of territory would have rendered Chinggis’s forces open to a Jin riposte, so the tactic of ‘burn and move on’ also served Chinggis well at this juncture. It is arguable that it failed the Mongols later, when they moved on to attempt to conquer Song, through Sichuan, a region that would not support the rapid movement of cavalry, and they then became bogged down in the garrisoning of territory and a long war of attrition. Later the genius of Qubilai Khan and his commanders was shown in their co-opting of Chinese infantry and engineers to operate where cavalry could not, thereby freeing up the horsemen to go where they could be most effective and to stretch the Song’s defences by lightning strikes. On a more philosophical plane Mongol warfare is a perfect paradigm of Clausewitz’s theory of ‘total war’, in which the ends of war are consumed by the means taken to achieve them. The brief lives of both the Yuan Dynasty and the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia are both, perhaps, partly explainable by the ‘total war’ origins of both states, and we will look a little later in more depth at how an inability to muzzle the dogs of war once they had been allowed to slip the leash completely contributed to the Yuan’s rapid demise. That such all-enveloping concepts of warfare were alien to China before the Mongols’ rise seems evident, given Sunzi’s five governing factors, the first of which is the Moral Law, which requires accord between the ruled and the ruler, and the fact that the Confucian definition of war was that it was a punishment for both the defeated and the victor.

In the spring of 1211 two Mongol armies totalling about one hundred thousand warriors entered China from the northwest, through lands formerly ‘guarded’ for the Jin by the Onggids, and from the northeast, through mountain passes near modern Beijing. They devastated great portions of the northern provinces and the northwestern army essentially split the Jin army of Shensi from the rest of the Jin forces in the east. This northwestern army, however, failed to take the key border fortresses as the Jin forces in the region outnumbered them by about four to one and the Jin garrison infantry were well equipped with cavalry pikes and crossbows. Initial defeats in the open field and a devastating famine across the entire state seem to have decided the Jin on a defensive strategy by which they hoped either to bring about the break-up of the Mongol army or to bring Chinggis to a negotiation where a modus vivendi similar to that enacted between the Mongols and Xi Xia could be formed. Given that Mongol warriors were unpaid and that therefore commanders were entirely reliant on booty for paying them, the Jin might have been hoping that Chinggis’s horde would disintegrate for lack of plunder. Certainly this was the norm for such barbarian confederations, but unfortunately the tribal army that had invaded China this time was perhaps exceptional in that it was composed of men who were ‘more obedient to their masters than any other men in the world, be they religious or secular’.

The strategy therefore failed. The Jin could keep the Mongols from taking their fortified cities through the technological advantages they held over them, the chief of these being gunpowder and trebuchet-fired ‘thunder crash’ bombs–some of which were moulded from wax to burn slowly, whilst others were hollow ceramic creations holding molten metal or barbs that would stick in wooden shields and make them impossible to carry. Naptha or ‘Greek fire’ was thrown in pots at the enemy and fire-arrows could also break up Mongol attacks, but the Jin could not match the Mongols in the field; the Jin had long ago abandoned the ‘battue’ or nomadic hunt and their stature as mounted archers had gone into decline. The slow-moving, often largely infantry-based field armies the Jin deployed against the Mongols, perhaps a product of the long, static, cold–hot war the Jin had fought against the Song, were easily defeated by the Mongols, and those Jurchen among the Jin armies who did retain the warrior skills of the steppes soon enough joined the Mongols. The cavalry that the Jin did retain was also denied pasture by the Mongols’ continual traversing of the northern plains. Each Mongol trooper had about six horses, and one ‘tumen’ of ten thousand troopers also meant the presence of forty thousand ‘civilians’ and six hundred thousand sheep or goats. Additionally, Bactrian camels and giant carts pulled by as many as twenty oxen were part of the Mongol army’s train. This vast caravan had been known to travel up to six hundred miles in nine days and its capacity for consuming pasture would have been almost locust-like. To worsen matters, the Jurchen homeland of Manchuria, from which they drew horses, cattle and Jurchen warriors, then slipped from the Jin’s grasp as leftovers of the old Liao Dynasty took the opportunity of Jin’s misfortune to desert their cause. Virtually all the Liao–Kitan cavalry and soldiers that had formerly fought with the Jin army swore their allegiance to Chinggis Khan in 1212. A Jin punitive expedition failed to regain Manchuria from the rebels in 1214 and, to make matters worse, its commander then went on to set up his own independent state in northeast China.

The Mongols withdrew for the winter, which gave the Jin forces some respite, but soon enough the Mongols were back again, and over the course of the next two years they also began to enrol Han Chinese deserters into their army. The engineers among these men would make a very valuable contribution to the later Mongol campaigns.

The poor showing of the Jin in this early contest lured the Mongols further into China than they may have planned to go. Certainly, by the time they had taken the Juyong pass and the environs of Beijing, they had in fact overreached themselves. They were unprepared for the siege of such a large city, and what was almost certainly meant as a simple large-scale raid had now got them wrapped up in a territorial war in China. The equipment of the Mongol troopers of this period makes it clear that there was no developed weapons industry available to the army that could produce siege weapons capable of tackling the walls of Beijing; in fact, even with the later acquisition of Chinese centres of industry, many Mongol troopers still lacked crafted metal weapons. The average Mongol soldier wore a simple heavy coat with a belt sword, dagger and axe, and carried dried meat and curds for rations, along with a stone sharpener. The heavy cavalry had lamellar armour, presumably purchased or looted from Chinese manufacturing centres, and every trooper carried a composite bow of yak horn, sinew and bamboo. Other weapons–round wooden shields and lassoes–were decidedly crude compared to the crafted and cherished Mongol bow. The myth that Mongol silk undershirts ‘wrapped’ arrowheads and prevented injury to the wearer has long ago been exploded, but the lamellar armour that the Mongols favoured was certainly more effective than mail against arrows, and this may have been particularly significant given the Jin and Song reliance on archers and crossbowmen.