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Mahan and threat inflation

April 5, 2011

George F. Will had a column a few weeks ago touting the specter of the PLAN’s shipbuilding efforts and the influence of Mahan on its strategies. While I share an interest in the strategic culture of the PLAN, and a concern for the People’s Republic’s large build up, this piece misrepresents Mahan, China’s strategic outlook, and its implications for American strategy.

After describing Chinese admiration for Mahan and their discomfort with US naval dominance, Will writes:

America’s cheerful assumption has been that although its ships are not as numerous as they recently were — 286 now, down from 594 in 1987 — there actually is a 1,000-ship Navy. That comforting figure aggregates all the navies of nations that have no agendas beyond keeping the great common orderly.

Actually, Mahan was generally in favor of alliances of seagoing powers doing exactly this sort of duty. In The Problem of Asia, Mahan envisioned a coalition of Britain, Japan, and the United States (along with Germany) vying with the continentally-oriented states of France and Russia. Many of Mahan’s books in fact extolled a buildup of United States naval capabilities so America could function as a credible partner to the powerful British navy.

Indeed, if one remains sober about the naval statistics, the US enjoys enormous blue water supremacy. Britain’s naval hegemony sought to enjoy a two-navy standard, by which Britain’s fleet was as powerful as its two leading competitors combined. According to Robert Work of CSBA, the US fleet, despite the reduction in the number of vessels, enjoys unparalleled hegemony. Measured by fleet displacement, which more accurately gauges the size and power of warships, America has a thirteen-navy standard. Measured by firepower, it has a twenty-navy standard.

By no measure is China prepared to challenge the United States for naval supremacy in blue waters. It is, however, attempting to reduce the US fleet’s freedom of action in its “blue national soil”:

China is deploying new submarines at an impressive rate — three a year. They are suited to pushing back U.S. power projection in the Western Pacific. China’s much-discussed ballistic and cruise missiles also seem designed to keep U.S. surface forces far from China’s soil. And China seems increasingly inclined to define the oceans off its shores as extensions of the shores — territory to be owned and controlled like “blue national soil.” This concept is incompatible with the idea of the oceans as a “common.”

This includes the “near seas” — the Yellow, South China and East China seas. But such “far seas” as the Indian Ocean also are crucial to China’s global commercial reach as a hyperactive importer and exporter. Disciples of Mahan want a national capacity to protect their nation’s interests there.

Consider that the United States adopted a very similar idea about its immediate waters: the Monroe Doctrine. While enforced by the British fleet, rather than its own, the Doctrine still implied the Americas should exclude foreign power projection. While the US never went so far as to declare, say, the Caribbean an extension of its “national soil,” the principle of naval exclusion rings true. Additionally, it is important to consider that while foreign fleets generally needed far-flung bases to operate in the Americas, rendering a specific oceanic exclusion somewhat redundant (since the Doctrine already limited foreign colonial ports), the more closely-packed strategic geography of East Asia makes it extremely difficult for China to even contemplate excluding foreign ports.

When Mao reigned, say Yoshihara and Holmes, Mahan was “reviled” as “an apostle of imperialism and colonialism.” Now, they report, at major international conferences Chinese analysts have cited Mahan’s bellicose definition of command of the sea to emphasize “the value of sea power for China.”

This is misleading. There is a difference between the logic and grammar of Mahanian strategy. Mahan’s logic compels China to recognize the value of sea power, but the Mahanian grammar of challenging the US fleet’s strength head-on through fleet battles for sea command does not necessarily follow. As Holmes and Yoshihara point out in a recent piece, Chinese strategists are looking to Julian Corbett for a more relevant grammar of sea power. China and its discussion of “blue national soil” do suggest a desire to challenge the USN’s freedom of action, it does not imply it wants to seek command of the sea, but merely to make that command strategically irrelevant within designated Chinese areas of interest.

Consider the words, quoted in Holmes and Yoshihara’s piece, of PLAN Rear Admiral Huang Jiang:

Seizing command of the sea is not a zero-sum interaction. In sea battle, the loss of our freedom of movement does not necessarily mean that the enemy has gained freedom of movement. Similarly, preventing the enemy from attaining freedom of movement does not mean that we possess freedom of movement. It is only when one side not only immobilizes enemy freedom of movement at sea, but also enjoys unfettered ability to maneuver at sea that command of the sea has been grasped. Otherwise, command of the sea remains in a contested state, belonging to neither side.

This would seem to capture quite simply the true nature of China’s vision of “blue national soil” in its naval strategy. The goal is not to achieve command of the sea generally through the outright elimination of the enemy fleet. It is not even to achieve command of the sea within that “blue national soil.” It is to exclude US freedom of movement in China’s critical waters. Will is wrong to assume a necessarily global strategy for command of the sea when he writes:

Extraordinarily dependent on sea lanes because of what one Chinese intellectual calls its “outward-leaning economy,” and now largely free from land threats, China has the opportunity and incentive to project power beyond the Asian continent. In Mahan, it has an excuse.

Leaving aside the question of whether China has as few landward concerns as Will implies, there is no reason to think that China is seeking power projection far beyond the “Asian continent,” or at least for the purposes of command of the sea that Will strongly implies. Indeed, as the ideas of “blue national soil” and defense against US power projection imply, the brunt of Chinese efforts towards countering US naval hegemony amount to a desire to reduce US freedom of action in China’s “near seas,” which necessarily means its ability to challenge it in the “far seas” of say, the Indian Ocean faces severe constraints. China’s fleet will certainly show the flat in Africa and across the southern rimlands of Eurasia, but it is decades away from achieving command of the sea against the US in those regions. Whether China’s neighbors, such as Japan, India, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam should be concerned is another matter entirely. To use Mahan, as Will does, to imply the size and combat power of the US Navy is no longer capable of command of the global commons, while Chinese adherence to his precepts will allow it to seize it, is to use Mahan in as shallow manner as many statesman did in the strategist’s own day: as a little-read but oft cherry-picked sage to justify more naval building.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 6, 2011 7:23 pm

    Very glad to see Will called out on this column (which I missed). I would argue the U.S. does not need a navy with the size and margins of superiority it currently has. But that would be another discussion.

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