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  • Does Mahan Help Us Understand China's Maritime Strategy?
  • Bernard D. Cole (bio)

The authors of Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy are skilled literary craftsmen: Toshi Yoshihara provides the linguistic ability to access documents in the original Chinese, while James Holmes draws on his brief experience as a naval officer, including service in a battleship during the first Iraq war in 1991. The fact that these two prolific authors have published Red Star over the Pacific as their latest major work is by itself significant—all too few American analysts are focusing on China's navy, and Holmes and Yoshihara are leading scholars on that topic. It is fitting that both are faculty members at the U.S. Naval War College, where they can contribute to knowledge about Beijing's maritime programs as well as to appropriate policy developments for the U.S. Navy.

This reviewer is also an analyst of the Chinese navy. My most recent work, The Great Wall at Sea, looks at the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in order to understand how it may meet China's national security concerns now and in the future. Much of the analysis in my book informs this review of Yoshihara and Holmes's work.

There is much to recommend in Red Star over the Pacific, but I must note some points that detract from its analysis. The book presents a partial synergism of which the first element is "Mahanian grammar," a phrase that is neither clear nor helpful in understanding Beijing's maritime developments or their effect on U.S. interests in Asia. Viewing China's 21st-century [End Page 153] maritime power through the lens of the 19th-century theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who based his theories on England's 18th-century maritime status and campaigns, is misguided. If Chinese naval officers in 2010 believe Mahan is the apostle they should follow, then much of the concern about PLAN modernization will prove unfounded.

The second element in this apparent synergism is Mao Zedong's theory of "people's war." What is missing is the concluding step: if one agrees that Mahan's theories (or grammar) play a major role in PLAN analysis and planning, and that Mao remains a dominant strategic theorist in China, then what is the result?

Another general caution applies to all of us who try to analyze China's military policies and intentions: what sources are the most meaningful? Is an article by an obscure PLA lieutenant colonel or PLAN senior captain worthy of attention? Though Yoshihara and Holmes recognize this issue, they appear no better than other analysts at sorting out which sources are the most meaningful.

Moving to specifics, chapter one states that "as one civilization [presumably the United States or simply the non-Sinic] vacates the oceans, then, another is crowding the seas and skies with ships and warplanes that bristle with offensively oriented weaponry" (p. 3). This statement is simply incorrect:

  • • No "civilization" is "vacat[ing] the oceans"—certainly not the United States, whose navy continues to dominate the global seas, nor Japan's military and commercial maritime forces.

  • • China's navy certainly is not "crowding the seas and skies," as evidenced in the PLAN's very moderate—other than for conventionally powered submarines—ship and aircraft acquisitions of the past two decades.

  • • Even that modernizing fleet is not "bristl[ing] with offensively oriented weaponry," as an examination of the PLAN's new platforms demonstrates.

In chapter one the authors also explain that their intention in writing the book is to help the United States manage a disturbance to the regional order—to the extent possible. However, this work seems to offer no such assistance. It fails, for instance, to address the biggest shortfall in U.S. naval power: the lack of ships. More importantly, it offers an inadequate theoretical construct to explain the Chinese navy now at sea.

Early in chapter two the statement is made that "after years of studied denials and obfuscation" Chinese leaders have admitted to wanting aircraft carriers (p. 15). However, any brief survey of the literature dating back [End Page 154] to...


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