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.