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Information Dissemination - Is China the real Mahanian maritime power of the 21st century?

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Today's guest is Robert C. Rubel, Dean, Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College.

Is China the real Mahanian maritime power of the 21st century?

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783 was published in 1890 and became a global best seller.  The book itself had an influence on history, being read and acted on by Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm, among others.  Of late, the Chinese seem to have developed an attachment to it also.  Whether it will exert similar influence on their naval policy remains to be seen, but the question posed by Information Dissemination reveals the continuing reverence that is paid to Mahan’s work in this country, even though its ideas are dated and inconsistent with the current geopolitical circumstances of the Republic.

The popularity of Mahan’s work in China seems to emanate from similarities in the geostrategic situation between the United States of 1890 and modern day China.  In 1890 the key policy of the United States was the Monroe Doctrine, a continental strategy of hemispheric defense.  Mahan had a dichotomy to reconcile: his historical analysis was based on the success of Great Britain, a global maritime power with a colonial empire, whereas his own country was a continental power with no (formal) ambitions to colonize.  The French project to dig a canal through Panama helped him square the circle.  Mahan realized that the completion of such a canal would not only significantly alter the patterns of global maritime commerce; it would allow the US Navy to more rapidly shift naval forces between the coasts.  The canal thus became, even before the US took ownership of the project, a key piece of maritime infrastructure that would be critical for the security and prosperity of the country.  It therefore needed to be defended.  At the time there were, in the US, two general schools of thought about the composition of the Navy.  Those of a “Jeffersonian†bent favored a distributed fleet of coastal gunboats that would guard individual ports. Mahan led the constituency that favored a capital ship fleet that would be concentrated in order to conduct a mobile defense of not only US East Coast ports, but also the Canal and Caribbean positions covering its approaches.

Moreover, the mobile fleet could be shifted rapidly to the West Coast as necessary.  Flowing from this logic was the primacy of interior lines and the central position, which Mahan extolled in a number of lectures at the Naval War College, using land combat examples in Europe to support his point.

Emerging naval technology of the day also influenced Mahan’s thinking.  The transition from sail to coal, and the unreliability of steam propulsion plants in those days meant that warships required overseas bases for refueling and repair.  Given the American tradition of dispatching ships and squadrons overseas to support our commercial interests, obtaining such an infrastructure featured prominently in Mahan’s later writing.  The expectation in some quarters that China will develop a “string of pearls†in the Indian Ocean may be an outgrowth of this kind of thinking.

All of this reasoning resonates, apparently, with the continental-minded Chinese.  It not only squares well with their reflexive center – out perspective as an authoritarian power whose security starts with the capital and emanates outward, but it also serves as justification for a big navy.  One can easily see how the Straits of Malacca represent in their minds a clear analogue to the Panama Canal. So in this sense, the Chinese are indeed the emerging Mahanian maritime power of the 21st Century.

However, the question contains an imbedded assumption that a Mahanian navy is desirable; the sine qua non even, of naval capability.  This is open to debate.  In order to clear the decks for action, so to speak, let’s dispense with a canard that has developed gradually and insidiously over the decades.  That canard is that Mahanian thought represents the exclusive logic of a big, ocean-going navy, and non-Mahanian means attachment to some kind of smaller or coastal navy, or at least one composed of smaller vessels.  Sir Julian Corbett attempted to supplant Mahan’s view of a concentrated, continental defense force with one that was based on the perspective of a global maritime power.  Corbett was most concerned with the distribution of naval forces for the purposes of sea control, the protection of commercial shipping and of those forces involved in transporting the army overseas.  The geostrategic geometry of such a perspective was the reciprocal of that of Mahan and the US in 1890; it was based on the global exterior position in which command of the seas allowed Britain to maintain credible contact with allies, provide sanctuary for her internationalized economy and create multiple strategic lines of operations in the event of hostilities.  Halford Mackinder, that oracle of continental power, himself acknowledged that in the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain “enveloped†France.  Thus, the alternative to Mahanian thought is not anti-big navy; it is rather a global, external position view rather than a continentalist, central position view.

Today, although not possessing an empire, the US, as the leading proponent of a globalized liberal trading system, has adopted the maritime style of geostrategy, driven to it really, because of the world wars and the challenge from the Soviet Union.  Our navy, the largest in the world and more powerful than Mahan could have imagined, is not Mahanian in any way.  Our aircraft carrier strike groups and our amphibious groups are strategically dispersed in a way that Mahan would have abhorred, but Corbett would have applauded.  Its purpose for routine dispersed deployment is to exercise command of the sea and to provide security for the global system, because the proper functioning of that system is now critical to the economy and security of the country.  Continental defense is no longer a matter of capital ships; it is dependent on the cooperative operations of all the world’s navies to achieve global maritime security so that terrorists cannot smuggle weapons of mass destruction or disruption into the country.  Maritime security requires the utmost in naval dispersion, something anathema to Mahan.

China is a free rider on the US Navy, a situation PLAN officers have acknowledged, just as the US was a free rider on the Royal Navy back in the Monroe Doctrine days.  China is building a blue water fleet for much the same reasons we did back in the early 20th Century; prestige and expanding national interests.  The real rub comes in with regard to strategic ethos.  Despite wanting to protect the Caribbean and Panama Canal with a capital ship fleet, it did not occur to Mahan or any American administration to try and territorialize the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean; we were always committed to an open and free commons.  In the three “Near Seas†(Yellow, East China, and South China Sea), by contrast, China makes no such commitment, and is in fact pursuing a combination of increased jurisdiction and outright sovereignty, together with a growing set of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to attempt to deter outside influence in its disputes.  The coupling of a “Mahanian†navy with an ethos of continental-style buffering and exclusion at sea is a recipe for conflict.  This is not that different from what Japan attempted to do in the 1930s.  Our objective should be to try to convince China to build her navy, which she has every right to do, for the right reasons – to do her part to defend the global system.

US Navy Photo
The danger represented by the question Information Dissemination has asked is not that the US will allow its navy to decay; rather it is that we will confuse ourselves through an unthinking attachment to a famous American oracle of sea power whose perspective is out of sync with the geopolitical realities of today.  Using Mahan as a basis for advocating a big navy is misguided.  The United States certainly does need as big a navy as it can afford, since the world depends on us to keep order in the commons and even on land, and that good order is a vital security interest for us. More to the point, a Mahanian outlook connotes an all-capital ship navy.  Here again a focus on Mahan could lead us down a blind alley.  We do indeed need a force of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, along with the escorts to protect them.  We also need sufficient amphibious shipping to get the Marines in force to where they might be needed.  We also need a robust submarine force, a robust mine clearing capability and all the attendant logistic, scouting and auxiliary forces.  But we also need some smaller forces – a “flotilla†if you will, to advance the cause of global maritime security and to fight for littoral sea control at an acceptable degree of risk.  The USN should be a tailored force whose structure is aligned to the modern geopolitical needs of the nation.

A basic element of Mahan’s theory is that a key function of a navy is to blockade and strangle enemy sea commerce.  I am not convinced that in today’s world we could effectively do this to Chinese commerce without a) harming neutrals and allies due to the highly interdependent nature of today’s economic system and B) inviting nuclear escalation.  Moreover we ought to be very careful about invoking not just Mahan, but Corbett too.  Corbett's work comes closer to being relevant to today's naval circumstances, but he too is fading.  Corbett, like Mahan, says that the first function of a dominant navy is to protect one’s own trade and deny trade to an enemy. This is not true anymore, at least not in the way Corbett meant. Sea trade today is so internationally intertwined, with flag, ownership and cargo all being mixed and matched in ways not seen before, that the disruption of trade to one country inevitably imposes dire economic consequences on many others.  The world has become very dependent on the uninterrupted flow of resources and goods among the large majority of the world’s nations.

In the world of today, the first function of our dominant navy is to ensure the US can maintain the rules of the international order.  A book by George Modelski and William Thompson entitled Seapower in Global Politics 1494-1993 does a quantitative study that correlates sea power with overall national power.  Their conclusion is that command of the sea allows its possessor to set the rules of the international order, which the US did in 1945 and at least reinforced them again in 1992.  Once the global system became truly universal, the dominant navy's function is to help provide system security and flow, which includes preventing war.  A war between the US and China is not very likely, and a global naval war even less likely.  However, in the event something was to happen, it most likely would be a sea control fight somewhere along the Chinese littoral, ranging from the Yellow Sea down to the Straits of Malacca.  If the Chinese follow their own script of “localized warfare under high tech conditions,†and If we play our cards right, we neutralize the PLAN relatively quickly, and it then becomes a matter of China deciding whether to embargo the US by not buying from us or not selling to us.  If we thought through the matter objectively, we would see that our preference would be for everyone’s commerce, including China’s, to continue unmolested throughout the whole affair.

Commercial shipping is perhaps less threatened in today’s world than ever before.  Where shipping is potentially threatened is two places: the Strait of Hormuz and the South China Sea.  Hormuz is a systemic vulnerability because there is no alternate route around it.  The South China Sea is a vulnerability because China seems to be claiming it as internal waters, which would present a critical constriction on a key conduit of world trade, a “strategic maritime crossroads†according to Admiral Greenert, all the more so because if she were successful in this project, the precedent would open the door for 38% of the world’s oceans, now defined as exclusive economic zones, to become claimable as sovereign territory, which would ultimately generate a mare clausum.  In reality, both the USN and PLAN have a shared interest in keeping Hormuz open, just as both navies cooperate in anti-piracy efforts off Somalia.  However, in the South China Sea, our interests collide.  China’s “Mahanian†navy is being designed to muscle out both the USN and the small forces of bordering countries.

Chinese Type 022 Houbei Squadron
It has been common to associate Mahanian theory with the notion of sea control.  In fact, Mahan does not mention the term in his most famous work. What he does say is that capital ship forces would engage in a decisive sea battle to achieve “overbearing power.† Corbett called this command of the sea, and acknowledged that it could be so achieved, but went further to recognize that command was not enough; sea control would have to still be exercised as a kind of naval housekeeping task that would be made possible by the precursor seizure of command of the sea.  In today’s world, and especially in the South China Sea, the whole framework has changed.  China, in order to exert control over that sea and the islands within it, is building a range of combatants, ranging from the Houbei, a small catamaran coastal missile craft, to an aircraft carrier.  The task for the USN is to ensure China cannot exercise such control if it is being used in the furtherance of policies inimical to ours.  In this area, the USN’s potential task would be sea denial, something best conducted by submarines, mines, unmanned systems and perhaps LCS or some other form of small littoral surface combatant.  There is no percentage in using our most capital intensive units – the carriers – for this task.  However, a reflexive but distorted focus on sea control a la Mahan would lead us into disaster by doctrinally associating our large units – the carriers – with a function for which they are no longer suited.

So, to get back to the original question, yes, one could make the case that China is becoming a real Mahanian power, and this is of concern to the United States, but not for the reasons I suspect are behind the question.  There should be no race to achieve Mahanian sea power.  Rather, it would be better for both China and the US to steer a course away from Mahan’s vision and logic. The current US maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower†(CS21) incorporates valid modern logic based on the interdependent global system.  If we could convince the Chinese to adopt this view, both nations would be more secure in the future.  Both the US and China are great nations that have good and sufficient reasons for maintaining large navies, but an attachment to Mahanian thinking – on both our parts - is a recipe for conflict and war in a way not so very unlike the British/German naval rivalry leading up to World War I.  The question suggests that America needs a new round of naval education.  We must give Mahan credit for performing this function 120 years ago, and his lessons served the nation well.  However, the world has moved on, and we must release our attachment to Mahan and engage in the kind of creative thinking in our time that he exercised in his.


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