- The Influence of Sea Power on China, or the Influence of Mahan on Yoshihara and Holmes?
Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy is part of the growing body of literature that examines China's expanding naval capabilities. Based on an extensive survey of Chinese language sources regarding the role of navies and maritime power, Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes conclude that China will pursue a maritime future and posit that Chinese decisionmakers will follow the logic of Alfred Thayer Mahan, even if they do not necessarily hew to his specifics (or "grammar") (p. 18). Thus, the authors laud the Chinese for "an impressive synthesis of strategic theories from foreign and indigenous sources," with Mahan providing the "geopolitical logic" and Mao providing the specific "strategies and tactics" (p. 30). But while an intriguing hypothesis, the authors' approach neglects to address the possibility that China may be pursuing policies that are at times consistent with Mahan but not motivated by his writings at all.
The authors note in the foreword that by 2004 they had begun to notice that Chinese strategists were regularly citing Mahan, which suggests that these strategists were "studying and internalizing his writings in anticipation of China's entry into the nautical domain" (p. ix). If so, to the authors, better understanding what kinds of military and non-military strategies, operations, and tactics China might develop was imperative, given that they might well be applied against the United States. In short, the volume is dedicated to trying to understand "how an aspiring or established sea power thinks about strategy [as] indispensable to forecasting how it will fare on the high seas" (p. 3). To this end, Yoshihara and Holmes discuss the growth of Chinese maritime thinking, examine potential approaches by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to fleet tactics, discuss the possible role of antiship ballistic missiles, survey U.S. maritime strategy in Asia, and analyze the growth of imperial German naval power as a possible parallel to China's experience (and argue that China will not follow the same path).
The book astutely notes that Chinese thinking on sea power is likely to differ, often fundamentally, from that of Western counterparts, given that the intellectual struggle over ideas often extends into realms such as geography [End Page 142] and geopolitics that are no longer fashionable in the West (p. 42). The authors warn that Western observers should avoid projecting their own assumptions onto Chinese strategic thinkers. Instead, by examining Chinese strategic theory on its own terms, Western analysts could acquire "an instrument to track China's maritime rise, complementing more traditional techniques of net assessment" (p. 43).
An examination of Chinese sources leads Yoshihara and Holmes to conclude that China is pursuing a deliberate turn to sea power along Mahanian lines of logic, although not necessarily adhering to Mahanian approaches (e.g., seeking a decisive fleet engagement), or "grammar." To support their argument, they rely on Chinese texts rather than Western analyses and cite an impressive array of Chinese literature on naval and maritime power. Indeed, one of the great strengths of this book is the authors' explicit discussion of their methodology and research methods.
It is, perhaps, a mark of how far the debate on China's growing maritime power has progressed, and the rapidity of that growth, that at times the volume seems to be making almost indisputable arguments. The idea that China will develop a strong navy, or that Beijing is intent on developing an aircraft carrier, is now widely accepted, whereas just a few short years ago many scoffed at the prospect.1
Yet essential aspects of that growth are left unexamined. For example, the authors argue that Chinese strategists are budding disciples of Mahan, who they maintain saw "peacetime commerce…[as] the true path to national prosperity and greatness" (p. 9). Yet the volume includes only the most cursory discussion of the sinews of China's sea power, such as its merchant marine or the major shipbuilding industries that remain state-owned enterprises. More problematic is the lack of clarity over whether China is pursuing an explicitly Mahanian strategy...