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  • Is the PLA Navy Channeling Mahan? And Does it Matter?
  • Michael McDevitt (bio)

Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, both associate professors in the Strategy Department of the Naval War College with PhDs from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, have written a follow-on to the their excellent work Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan, a work I greatly admire because of its focus on and exploitation of Chinese sources. Published two years later, Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy is a companion volume that is intended to "validate, refine, and expand" the authors' earlier survey of Chinese maritime strategic thought (p. ix).

This is a difficult review to write because this expanded work covers so many distinct topics. The central arguments of the first volume remain, but new or expanded material has been added—in some ways the new work is characteristic of an edited volume of discrete essays. There are a number of chapters on various topics, ranging from an extended case study comparing the rise of imperial Germany (sort of a cautionary tale of a Mahanite gone bad) and China, to a curious chapter entitled "Fleet Tactics with Chinese Characteristics" that unsuccessfully blends commentary on Alfred Thayer Mahan, Mao Zedong, retired navy captain Wayne Hughes's classic works on tactics, South China Sea scenarios, weapons capabilities, and the anti-access concept of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). This chapter is a bit of a hodgepodge that lacks focus.

There is no question that the authors have provided a great service by pointing out that Chinese maritime theorists and strategists have studied Mahan and find his judgments useful. There is also no question that there is a debate taking place in China regarding maritime strategy, and that Mahan is a starting point for discussing maritime power. The great utility of both this and the earlier volume is in bringing to light Chinese-language sources that help us understand the debate going on in China over its maritime future.

Yet although I admired their earlier work, I must confess that for me a little bit of Mahan goes a long way. Clearly, Yoshihara and Holmes are two of the leading interpreters of Mahan's strategic theories on the planet. But they push these theories too far for my taste, using Mahanian theory as the yardstick against which virtually everything that Chinese experts write is measured. [End Page 149]

To my mind, there is also no question that the Chinese as "scientific strategists" are perfectly capable of conceptualizing a maritime strategic approach for China that best suits its geography, interests, and perceived threats without giving Mahan a second thought. In fact, that has always been my problem with Mahan: his work illustrated that the British, and before them the Dutch and the Venetians, were perfectly capable of putting in place an integrated economic and maritime strategy. Smart people over the centuries have managed to do that without the help of Mahan. I have always thought of him as more of an ex post facto interpreter of what happened, and why it happened, than a visionary like Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, who theorized about airpower in the early years of aviation.

Given the importance to the PLA Navy's decision to revise and update the "Historic Missions of the PLA," I was surprised I could not find a reference to Hu Jintao's 2004 speech that announced these changes. Hu identified expanding national interests beyond China's borders as a mission of the PLA. I consider this speech historic, given that it generated a political demand signal for the PLAN to begin to focus and operate globally. Hu argued that China's global economic interests had created global political interests. For the first time, the PLA (and therefore the PLAN) was being assigned responsibilities well beyond China and its immediate periphery. This was official recognition that China's national interests now extend beyond its borders and that the PLA's missions are to be based on those expanding interests, not just geography. This certainly has a Mahanian ring to it but is also...


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