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  • Authors' Response:Varieties of Mahanian Experience
  • James R. Holmes (bio) and Toshi Yoshihara (bio)

We are grateful that some of the top scholars on the People's Liberation Army (PLA) invested their time in reviewing our book Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. We address three cross-cutting themes from their essays before turning to specifics.

Inexorable Logic, (Mostly) Outdated Grammar

Bernard Cole laments our employing "Mahanian grammar" as a prism through which to examine Chinese sea power. This, he says, is "neither clear nor helpful" and even "misguided." This would be damning—except that Cole has misconstrued our argument by inverting it.

To review, our approach originates with Carl von Clausewitz, who penetratingly analyzes the relationship between statecraft and war. In On War, Clausewitz proclaims that war proceeds under a unique "grammar" of violent political intercourse that distinguishes it from peacetime diplomacy. At sea, this grammar governs fleet operations. Contrary to Cole's interpretation, however, we consider and explicitly discard the possibility that China draws meaningful guidance from Alfred Thayer Mahan's writings on operational and tactical matters (see pp. 7–11, 77–78, 84). Given that Mahan exhorts tacticians to clear vital waters of the enemy's flag, thereby seizing "command of the sea," Beijing must look elsewhere for specifics.

Nevertheless, time spent consulting Mahan is not time wasted. Clausewitz vouchsafes that the same higher-order "logic" of political purpose impels both peacetime endeavors and war. Our basic premise is that the Mahanian logic of commercial, political, and military access to important regions endures. However perishable Mahan's commentary on operations and tactics proved, his logic of sea power remains at once universal and inescapable. The Clausewitzian structure of our analysis is neither arcane nor especially complex. In essence, we maintain that seafaring states can pursue timeless Mahanian ends through non-Mahanian ways and means. The logic and [End Page 161] grammar of sea power, then, are not indivisible. Chinese thinkers reared on Maoist active defense rediscovered Mahan, in effect retrofitting his overarching strategic guidance to preexisting operational and tactical preferences.

Michael McDevitt protests that "smart people" can devise maritime strategies without Mahan's help. Although this is certainly true, recall the words of the late Michael Handel, who averred that strategists can be Clausewitzian without reading Clausewitz. On War codifies logic and common sense yet remains a keen instrument for analyzing strategic questions. According to Dean Cheng, we contend that the discovery of Mahan caused China to turn seaward, in a kind of "Eureka!" experience. Far from it. We maintain that Beijing cast its attention seaward during the Deng Xiaoping years. As Chinese wealth and material strength started to match the country's maritime aspirations a decade ago, Chinese strategists did what good strategists do. They investigated great works of strategic theory—works whose logic transcends time and technology.

In sum, one need not consult Mahan to be Mahanian, but it does spare smart Chinese people from reinventing the wheel. They see little need to try, judging from how often they invoke Mahanian logic.

Sea Power Is More than Fleets

McDevitt and Cheng seem to imply that we divorce fleet operations from shore support, slighting the joint dimension of sea power. This, however, is not the case. Sea power is more than naval power. Maritime forces include not only ships underway but land-based antiship missiles and combat aircraft flying from air fields ashore. Indeed, such a merger is central to what we call "fleet tactics with Chinese characteristics" (pp. 73–100). As we see it, the PLA is creating a two-tiered architecture of sea power. Chinese commanders are forging shore-and sea-based platforms and weaponry into a joint sea-denial capability. Once they have erected an effective PLA anti-access shield, the PLA Navy (PLAN) surface fleet—a viable "fortress fleet," in Mahanian parlance—can roam Asian waters with impunity, backed by shore-based fire support.

Such grand sea-denial would exempt the PLAN from building symmetrically against the U.S. Navy, its chief rival. If access-denial measures can hold the U.S. fleet at bay, why bother planning to slug it out...


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