- Right Arguments, Wrong Ocean?
Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes have produced an impressive, bold, and sustained analysis of the rise of the Chinese navy and its plausible future in challenging and thwarting U.S. influence. The book, however, is mistitled. Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy might just as well have been called something like "Red Star over the Indo-Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to the United States and India." For the arguments contained therein suggest that Beijing's primary maritime security focus will sooner or later become the Indian Ocean, with its arteries of energy supply and other commerce.
To generalists, policymakers, and security analysts not steeped in the lore of Sinology and studies of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the authors make convincing use of some quite startling Chinese-language primary sources: open-source publications that range from scholarly articles to speeches, interviews, comments, and popular journalism. They marshal these materials to make the case that Beijing's naval ambitions are more far-reaching, in scale and in distance, than many eminent experts on China's [End Page 146] international relations have led us to believe. In particular, the authors cast China's maritime strategy largely in terms of the theories of the old-fashioned and long-unfashionable American sea-power thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose ideas are alive and well in Beijing and, incidentally, New Delhi.
While Yoshihara and Holmes are proudly at pains to point out the novel and unorthodox nature of their approach—placing great store in very recent Chinese-language open sources—their conclusions may not be all that shocking to some readers in the defense communities of Australia or, one suspects, nations such as Japan and Vietnam in proximity to Asia's contested maritime zones. The strategic debate in maritime Asia has moved along briskly in the past decade. First there was relative unconcern about China's naval modernization, then a phase of wishful thinking around 2006–8, when Beijing's ill-fated charm offensive was still alive and hopes were kindled briefly about engagement with China as a partner in policing the maritime commons. But the past two years, and especially the multiple incidents at sea in 2010, have brought a new realism to the picture. In retrospect, Canberra was ahead of this curve: its 2009 defense white paper now seems prescient in identifying the need for a serious submarine fleet as a hedge against uncertainties surrounding China's rise (though the paper could still have been more diplomatically worded).
Thus, the present publication is ideally timed to inform the intense debates within regional security establishments about how to minimize the risk of conflict and destabilization accompanying Beijing's centuries-awaited return to naval greatness. Its insights into China's own robust strategic debates should be prized by security thinkers in Australia and other regional nations that desperately need to get their China analysis right. Yoshihara and Holmes also add valuable perspective on little-studied but militarily critical questions of how China might actually fight at sea, as well as on the complex intersection of its submarine-based nuclear deterrence imperatives and obsession with rolling back U.S. surveillance and sea presence in the South and East China seas.
For the reader hoping for an exhaustive exposition of what China's naval ascent in Asia might mean, there are a few notes of disappointment. In particular, the text repeatedly makes clear that China's maritime and wider national strategy will likely impel Beijing to seek ways to project its interests in the ocean-spanning sea lanes west of Malacca. Yet there is relatively little detail of how this might occur—suggesting, perhaps, a paucity of evidence at this stage in Chinese open-source writings. The logic of an eventual focus on the Indian Ocean makes sense, but for the time being Beijing is almost wholly [End Page 147] preoccupied with troubles on China's own maritime periphery, not only with problems caused by Japan and Taiwan and in the South China Sea but also with those caused by its unruly little brother, North Korea...