James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the Jamestown Foundation conducted a recent analysis of Chinese naval goals that’s worth reading and considering in full. In short, China appears to have a resurgent interest in the work of Mahan, but Beijing is clearly still digesting the details and trying to square Mahan’s theories with their developing strategic goals. Here are the key conclusions:

An Asymmetric Yet Mahanian PLAN

Even if China does interpret Mahan in warlike fashion, it need not construct a navy symmetrical to the U.S. Navy to achieve its maritime goals, such as upholding territorial claims around the Chinese nautical periphery, commanding East Asian seas and skies, and safeguarding distant sea lines of communication. Beijing could accept Mahan’s general logic of naval strategy while seeking to command vital sea areas with weaponry and methods quite different from anything Mahan foresaw. If the much-discussed anti-ship ballistic missile pans out, for instance, the PLA could hold U.S. Navy carrier strike groups at a distance. Medium-sized Chinese aircraft carriers could operate freely behind that defensive shield, sparing the PLAN the technical and doctrinal headaches associated with constructing big-deck carriers comparable to the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz or Ford classes. Beijing would fulfill its Mahanian goal of local sea control at a modest cost—an eminently sensible approach, and one that Mahan would have applauded. Thus, Western observers should avoid projecting their own assumptions onto Chinese strategic thinkers.

Strategic theory, then, gives Westerners an instrument to track China’s maritime rise, complementing more traditional techniques of net assessment. If Chinese scholars and seafarers continue ignoring the cooperative strands of Mahanian thought, mistaking his writings for (or misrepresenting them as) bloody-minded advocacy of naval battle, Chinese strategy will incline toward naval competition and conflict. On the other hand, a China whose leadership fully grasps the logic governing Mahanian theory may prove less contentious.

I, like many current thinkers, am unconvinced that the United States and China must out of necessity become strategic adversaries. Indeed, given the ever-expanding economic interdependency between our two nations, an adversarial relationship would likely benefit neither. However, the ambiguity in the relationship and China’s strategic goals remain the key problems. And of course, U.S. naval planning and force structure will and must continue to consider the PLAN a potential threat to access until the ambiguity is resolved.

Posted by Chris van Avery in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security
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  • UltimaRatioReg

    There was a superb panel discussion at AFCEA West 09 regarding the very complex entity that is China. https://blog.usni.org/?p=1285

    She is capable of being an adversary, rival, sometimes friend and partner, just about simultaneously. Her naval expansion should be watched with concern. Her potential is growing while ours is shrinking. The “long view” of decades, and even centuries, is a very foreign view for America, whose time frames are four year election cycles and QDRs.

    We have many times held out hope that economic ties would allow “cooler heads” to prevail. However, seldom have such things worked out that way. The 1870 Franco-Prussian War was waged by the primary members of the Customs Union (the German states and Prussia) against France, the very economic partner that eight years before they had maneuvered into the Union’s partnership.

    Germany’s most important trade partners in 1913? France, Russia, and Great Britain. Germany was a key trading partner for France and Britain, and Russia’s largest.

    In 1939, Germany imported the preponderance of her raw materials and oil from Russia, and strategic metals from Norway.

    Japan’s largest trading partner in 1940? The United States. By a huge margin.

  • capospin

    China (PRC) may build a fleet to take on the US Pacific fleet in the Taiwan strait the South China Sea. More likely China will build a “Risk Fleet”. Just like Admiral Scharnhorst built for Imperial Germany in the years before WWI (1900-1914). This type of Navy will not need to defeat the enemy fleet in combat, only bring it to a sea fight and make it pay a high price in life and ships for any victory it may win. This type of victory may be to high a price for the enemy to pay in the long run of a war. The PRC Armies Navy need only to be such of such a threat and project such power that it can not be contained and thus require a USN Pacific Fleet to fight it. This is the “Risk Fleet.” The Risk is to the US if we do not take action and the PRC will Risk their Navy to bleed ours. China’s real military power is its Army. It it the PLA that keeps the government in power and holds the many parts of China together. They can make waves with the PLA navy. We can not win without ours.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Interesting observations, and lots of parallels. I also see some other aspects of “past as prologue” in the situation vis a vis China.

    The Chinese naval buildup also has some uncanny parallels to Japan’s naval expansion through the 1930s into 1940. While at no time did the Combined Fleet match the US Navy in relative strength, by mid-1941 it was more than a match for the Pacific Fleet, newly based at Pearl. And the objectives were likely the same: Securing of the oil in Malaya and Indonesia and creation of a boundary (which in 2009 would be access denial rather than fortified islands in the Carolines and elsewhere) to prevent the US from interference without a national effort in a larger regional conflict than the United States would be willing or able to engage in.

    In 1941, the looming US commitment to Europe/Atlantic allowed Japan to move with relative impunity in executing her plans. In 2009, a lack of national will on the part of America to build and maintain an adequate Navy may provide China with her opportunity.

  • Ray Kilmer


    If I understand you and the analysis correctly, then I think you have brought up a key point in your first point, economics and hence freedom. If the Chinese government makes moves toward a freer society then the expansion of their navy could actually be a positive sign of a “defender.” But, at this time it still seems that they are sending mixed signals, such as having Google design an internet system that allows the government to watch over their citizens. In a free society a government would have no need to check up on every citizen. So, if I had to come to a conclusion right now on which way I thought the Chinese government was moving, I would say “aggressor.”

    And with that said, I sure wish that the CIA still had the funding and the man power that they did have before Carter became president and started appointing people and implementing his ideas over 30 years ago.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I think you may have mixed up von Scharnhorst (the Prussian General of Napoleonic Wars) with von Tirpitz, the Kaiser’s Grand Admiral and architect of the High Seas Fleet.

  • capospin

    Ultima, YOU ARE RIGHT, It is Grand Admiral Tirpitz and his RISK fleet. The Kaiser wished to build a navy greater then the RN or one that could take it on BB/CB to BB/CB. Admiral Tirpitz know that Germany did not have the money or time to get into a naval arms rase the the Brits and still build the Imperial Army into the two front war fighting force. So the concept of the “Risk Fleet”

    Also I am with you Ultima on our linking Chinas naval objectives with Japans from pre WWII. I follow your line of thought on this and there are a number of parallels with Japans naval history. For one the same basic part of the ocean and Asia land mass to fight over for the same stuff. The one point I would make on this is to understand Japan, Like the USA, is a naval power for national strategic objectives. The USA (and Japan) or sea powers so we can fulfill our national security goals. That is our Grand Strategy require us to be a sea power. Although China has a naval tradition from classical history, the current PRC has no real security goals or grand strategy that require or compel her to take to the sea and take on all comers. This is some thing the CCP feels or thinks brings power or leverage to the State PRC.

    One does not know how much longer the CCP can hold on to the State (PRC). China is bigger and older then the CCP. As the people and elite of the cost get rich in the world trade the hart land and back country or still poor. Big time poor. How much longer until a new Mao stands up to lead a revolution back to the rich cost? The event of 1989-1991 in Tiananmen Square are still close to many in China. A push to the south (like Japan in 41) or a move to take Taiwan by force would be motivated by these type of internal political forces. What China does with its Naval build up should be seen with these factors in mind.

    The real power backing up the CCP holding the state together is the Army (PLA). The PLA navy will be used to defend the east flank, project power to bolster the CCP and keep off balance the US Pacific Fleet. The PLA Navy wins not with sea power but by taking the US Navy off its game. The PRC could lose their battle fleet in combat and still win a strategic victory if they inflicted major damage with much blood on the US Pacific fleet.

  • Joseph Tan

    Many compare China with Prussia (Germany), Japan or the lots of other bad guys. They forget that China had been a world superpower since ancient times and even as late as 1850 when China economy (GNP) consists of 1/3 (a third) of the world’s GNP, bigger than the heydays of America (in the 1950’s and 60’s). Decades later from 1850, China were defeated by English navy, 10 combined foreign army sacked Beijing and even newly rise Japan defeated China. Why?

    Because she thought reasons should get better of one than making wars (she was wrong!) and she was too thrift to spend on her military armament then. She must not make this mistake again.

    Experts now predict that in another 18 years China economy shall surpasses US. Yet at this time China does not even possesses a single aircraft carrier to safeguard her trade or territory.

    One (especially US) should not too worried in regards to Chinese ASBM. China after all is a responsible Big 5. She had a lot of head-ache – how to raise the balance millions out of poverty, how to allocate more fund to the poorer area to overcome the rich-poor gap, the desertification, lack of drinking water for millions(!), the shortage of food, oil, export, jobs, natural disaster and of course Taiwan!

    She meant well when she use the DF-31 as ASBM with 1, 800 to 2, 500 km rather than a ICBM with 12 000km. She knows that if she strikes an American carrier, that means full war, which is the last in her mind. America is her largest debtor, she will not kill the goose that laid the golden egg. However the same cannot be said if the issue in regards to Taiwan, because she is left with no choice for she had to safeguard her “territorial integrity”.

    Basically her ASBM is a polite reminder to others that “don’t mess with me in regard to Taiwan”. That was all.

  • RickWilmes


    China is compared with the bad guys because of their statist nature. All the countries you mentioned do not have a system of government that protects individual rights and property. Taiwan does have such a system and that is why it is an issue.

  • capospin

    Joseph, China is not a superpower. It has not been a great world power for the last 400 years. China to today will not be the China 20 years from now. The economy of the PRC will not surpasses the US any time soon. It will take a big dive soon, look at the world econ news. If the US and the west stop or slow the buying what will the PRC do with the supply?? Also the good times, such as they are, are only felt in the east cost regions of China. The hart land is still big time poor. The elite in the CCP are going to become more in conflict with leaders in the west China. How to spend state money, taxes, land reform and support and make better the living conditions of West China vs. the rich east. China could crack or fragment on these lines as she did in 1900 – 1950. A new Mao, or Sun Yet Sen will come up at some point to take on the elite and old leaders of the CCP. The State will use Taiwan or “territorial integrity” to gut support from the people for the PRC State (nationalism) to stay in power. A conflict with the US will come about through these events. Taiwan is not vital to the security of China. The PRC naval build up is real. It is to project power into the seas of east asia and to bring the US Pacific fleet into a close fight with the PLA Navy if need be. Thus , China’s “Risk” fleet.

  • Atty

    Hey whay no one is talking of India’s naval expansion and its impact on US-China strategic relationship?

  • Atty

    Hey why no one is talking of India’s naval expansion and its impact on US-China strategic relationship?

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Plenty are talking about India’s expansion, but it seems that we (policy makers) are unclear on that expansion’s impact. Sort of a “stay tuned” scenario, with China and India building navies suited for wide regional hegemony.


  • Byron

    Atty, I’ve been talking about it for the past 10 years. Everyone seems to think I’m crazy. Events will decide who’s right. But if Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia are smart, they’ll keep a weather eye out to the west.