Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. You can purchase the full version here.
China has a dream. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials tell us so. President Xi Jinping, who ranks first among them, made “Chinese Dream” his credo soon after ascending to China’s top post in 2012. And this is no mere slogan; it encapsulates CCP officialdom’s vision of China’s purposes and aspirations, first and foremost of which is “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” President Xi proclaims that fulfilling this “great renewal” constitutes “the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.” This book investigates what the Chinese Dream means for Chinese maritime strategy, all the way from the lofty realm of high purpose down to the nitty-gritty of how seagoing Chinese forces may coerce, deter, and fight to carry forth national purposes
What does rejuvenating China involve? It means making the nation prosperous and confident at home and influential abroad. There is a pronounced economic component to the Chinese Dream. In part the dream seeks to raise disposable incomes for urban and rural dwellers alike, reduce income inequality, improve access to medical care, enlarge physical living space for average citizens, and increase education levels by raising the proportion of the population holding college degrees. By the middle of the twenty-first century, when China will mark the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the CCP aims to rival the economies of other developed countries.
But there is also a foreign-policy component to the dream. China wants to assume its rightful station as a pole in a multipolar world, presumably as Asia’s dominant power. To what extent local primacy requires reducing America’s influence and presence remains unclear. At a minimum, though, Beijing sees the postwar, U.S.-led security architecture in Asia as out-of-date and out of step with China’s vision for the future regional order. Indeed, a January 2017 State Council white paper titled China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation bluntly derides the arrangements that emerged from the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty as “old security concepts” premised on a “Cold War mentality” and on a “zero-sum game.” Such sentiments are noteworthy because these purportedly obsolete concepts furnish the basis for regional peace and prosperity as well as bilateral U.S. alliances across Asia. They are also noteworthy because communist China, though not a founder of the UN system instituted in San Francisco, is one of five permanent UN Security Council members entrusted with upholding it. It is a coguarantor of the UN system yet now denounces that system in unequivocal terms.
While objections to hegemony and other manifestations of U.S. primacy in Asia have constituted a staple of Chinese diplomacy since the communist regime’s inception in 1949, China’s burgeoning power enables Beijing to make good on its intent to alter the U.S.-led status quo and revise the international order to its liking. The logic of the Chinese Dream, accordingly, mandates that Beijing mold the existing order in ways that accommodate Chinese power, ambitions, and interests.
There is a martial component to this project. Xi has spoken of a “strong-army dream” or “strong-military dream” that he believes should propel military modernization and reform. Strong ground, air, and naval forces represent the long arm of foreign policy—for China as for other ambitious nations. Military power advances national purposes. Military power also certifies China’s rising stature in the pecking order of international politics. In November 2012, while addressing the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, outgoing president (and Xi’s immediate predecessor) Hu Jintao proclaimed that “building strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests is a strategic task of China’s modernization drive.” Last but not least, there is a cultural and historical component to the Chinese Dream. If proponents call for rejuvenating or renewing something, they are admitting tacitly that it has fallen into decay. Those who long for a Chinese restoration blame outsiders for the nation’s decay. But by making itself prosperous and influential, China could banish painful memories of its “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors. It could regain lost stature and perhaps even resurrect the Sinocentric order that once prevailed in Asia. Honor and dignity would be satisfied. In essence, then, China aspires to national greatness. Xi Jinping embodies the Chinese Dream’s rhetorical and leadership components. His credo constitutes as clear a statement of political purpose as any leader could make.
President Xi further codified his Chinese Dream at the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017. The all-important congress marked the end of Xi’s first five-year term while providing a forum to chart China’s course for Xi’s second term in office. In a speech that ran for nearly three and a half hours, Xi delivered a progress report while spelling out his ambitious vision. The tenor of his “work report” to the congress was strikingly bold. Xi couched his long-term aims repeatedly as the Chinese Dream. He used the phrase “great reju- venation of the Chinese nation” no fewer than twenty-seven times while referring to China as a great power (强国) or big power (大国) on many other occasions.
The president reminded the party rank and file of their nation’s century of humiliation. Beginning with the 1840 Opium War, “China was plunged into the darkness of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression; its people were ravaged by wars, saw their homeland torn, and lived in poverty and despair.” It was the CCP, he insisted, that “shouldered the historic mission of national rejuvenation” and led China out of darkness. “Today,” Xi declared,“we are closer, more confident, and more capable than ever before of making the goal of national rejuvenation a reality.”
Xi then set a timetable for China to turn aspirations into real- ity. By 2020, he prophesied, China will be a “moderately prosperous society,” having raised its per capita GDP, worked toward greater urbanization, alleviated poverty, undertaken new investments in research and development, improved environmental protection, and bolstered its industrial base. Between 2020 and 2035 China will strive toward “socialist modernization,” taking station at the forefront of world economic and technological power. Thus, he accelerated the program by fifteen years beyond earlier plans that envisioned socialist modernization by 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic. Xi went on to forecast that China will have transformed itself into a “great modern socialist country” by midcentury. By then it will have made itself a “global leader in comprehensive national power and international influence.”
In the meantime China will prosecute “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” defending its interests forcefully. Xi assured the congress that “China will never sacrifice other countries’ interests as the price for its own development. But it will never abandon its own legitimate rights and interests. No one should be deluded into thinking that China would swallow the bitter fruit of harming its own interests.” To put power behind Chinese foreign policy Xi pledged to build a potent military. He exhorted the citizenry to “work together to create a mighty force for realizing the Chinese Dream and the dream of building a powerful military.” His formula suggests that military strength is integral to the Chinese Dream. Here, too, Xi set a timetable: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have made itself into a mod- ern force by 2035, and by midcentury it will be “fully transformed into world-class forces.”
The Chinese Dream, then, means orchestrating China’s rise to regain its historically rightful place—in Asia and beyond. This renaissance, maintain party potentates, will wash away a century of dishonor, generate great wealth and power, endow Beijing with new diplomatic influence, and help China assume a leading position in global military affairs.
These grand ambitions represent the context within which China’s bid for sea power progresses. Outsiders attempting to comprehend and respond to China’s seaward enterprise must discern how implements of maritime strategy help China fulfill its dream. They must ask how naval power and strategy—the strictly military element of sea power—fit into this larger scheme. And they must divine whether sea power and the naval instrument align with China’s larger national mission. Historian and U.S. Navy captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s conception of sea power opens a window into these essential questions. Many nowadays view Mahan as a relic, but he was ahead of his time in depicting maritime strategy as a variety of grand strategy—which is doubtless why so many Chinese strategists consult his works so avidly. He is a kindred spirit.
CCP leaders, in short, regard sea power as an essential component of statecraft for realizing the Chinese Dream. Maritime commerce, political will to the seas, and naval power are indispensable to rejuvenating China. Under this rubric Beijing will strive to amass wealth and ever-increasing economic productivity through seagoing commerce. The commercial imperative manifests itself in China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, to name one example. One Belt, One Road programs connect China to markets across Eurasia by rail and by sea. Wealth harvested from interconnectedness in turn generates revenue, resources, and technological innovation, empowering Beijing to develop the political, diplomatic, economic, and military means to defend economic interests that are proliferating around the world.
As its ongoing naval buildup attests, Beijing feels compelled to construct a blue-water navy augmented with an array of power- projection tools to safeguard far-flung investments and trade routes.
At the same time, CCP leaders are hard at work persuading citizens that China’s destiny lies at sea and that the nation must devote substantial resources to maritime exploits. This interaction between commerce, national will, and military prowess impels Chinese sea power.
Our argument is straightforward: China’s seaward turn constitutes a permanent complicating factor in Asian affairs. China’s maritime presence and activism are permanent because the forces impelling it to the seas are structural in nature. They are basic to contemporary China. A thoroughgoing socioeconomic transformation has reoriented the nation toward the seas since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched his reform and opening project four decades ago. After decades of integration into the global economic order— defined as it is by marine commerce—the Chinese state and society have come to depend on free access to and free use of the seas for their well-being and even their survival. That reliance has compelled Beijing to develop durable commercial and military means to nurture and protect the nautical sources of China’s wealth and power.
At the same time, some of the most consequential threats to Beijing’s vital national interests—or as the Chinese call them, “core interests”—lie at sea. From territorial disputes roiling the East and South China Seas to sea-lane security to the U.S.-led alliance system in Asia, China confronts an array of maritime security challenges that could disrupt its ascent or even topple the ruling regime. Potentially mortal dangers demand credible, long-lasting instruments of national power to deter conflict, to win a war at sea should deterrence fail, to enforce maritime claims, and to police the seas in peacetime. Maritime Asia is seeing the regional balance of naval power shift as China puts to sea new classes of submarines, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, not to mention aircraft carriers. China has also commissioned the largest maritime law enforcement fleet in Asia. Taken together these naval and paramilitary vessels augur an enduring Chinese presence in the maritime domain.
China’s quest for sea power also promises to disturb the existing order because of how Beijing perceives its nautical surroundings. Its perceptions prompt it to marshal national resources in a certain way to defend its interests. Beijing routinely assures foreigners that it seeks only “win-win cooperation” and “mutual benefit” in global affairs, but the leadership perceives a world filled with malign forces bent on frustrating China’s dream. Beijing feels surrounded by a potentially hostile U.S.-led grouping of maritime neighbors stretch- ing from Northeast to Southeast Asia. In particular China’s leaders fear and distrust the post–World War II edifice of American power in Asia. They decry the U.S. alliance system as an artifact of the Cold War and openly wish to do away with it. The result is that China’s leadership believes it bears a special responsibility to right historical wrongs visited on the nation during its century of dis- grace. Consequently, Beijing believes it must stand up to foreign encroachment, provocations, and even minor slights at sea lest domestic and international audiences alike sense weakness—and new disgraces follow.
This hypersensitive attitude, however, coexists with mounting self-assurance. China’s ascent to great power has infused new confidence into its outlook on and conduct within the saltwater domain. Since assuming power Xi Jinping has repeatedly referred to China as a “major country”—or, translated more accurately, a “great power”— with a right to the respect and deference befitting a great power. China’s newfound confidence also predisposes Beijing to unapologetically defend national honor and interests as the leadership construes them. This represents a sharp departure from Xi’s predecessors, who contented themselves with a lower profile in international relations. In his 2017 New Year’s address to the nation, for instance, President Xi declared that China adheres to peaceful development yet will “resolutely safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. The Chinese people will never allow anyone to get away with making a great fuss about [our rights and interests].”
In August 2017, further attesting to this confidence, the government-run broadcaster China Central Television aired a six-part series titled Great Power Diplomacy to considerable fanfare. The propaganda documentary showcased Xi Jinping’s diplomatic achievements during his first five years in office. The moviemakers touted China’s defense of its maritime rights and interests and its deployment of naval flotillas to rescue Chinese nationals from war-torn Libya and Yemen among Xi’s many feats. According to the China Central Television website, more than 300 million viewers had watched the series by the time it ended in September. More than 500 million followed it on a microblogging website.
This contradictory mix of insecurity and swagger promises to remain a defining feature of China’s seaward turn. The former sentiment conditions Chinese leaders to respond with vigor to nautical challenges and perhaps even overreact to them. The latter emboldens China to assert its prerogatives more openly and forcefully than in the past. These attitudes have been on display for at least a decade.
In this book we push back against competing hypotheses that explain or predict the course of China’s maritime ascent. We con- tend, for example, that Chinese sea power is no mere by-product of nationalism or the whims of political leaders. Nationalism plays a powerful role in advancing China’s quest for sea power, but it is not the cause of China’s march to the seas. Rather, Chinese leaders have tapped into a deep and preexisting reserve of national willpower to pursue China’s open-ocean destiny.
We maintain, furthermore, that Chinese sea power is not intrinsically at odds with China’s strategic traditions. While continental ways of thinking are clearly integral to Beijing’s worldview, the notion that China’s landward priorities will inhibit if not thwart its maritime project reeks of determinism. The resolve and resourcefulness Chinese political and military leaders have shown over the course of decades and the track record they have compiled thus far suggest it would be imprudent to disparage China’s quest for sea power. Indeed, ample evidence documented here demonstrates that China is not fated to fail at sea.
Skepticism and even hostility greeted this argument when we advanced it in the first edition of this volume. It is a testament to how far Chinese sea power has come that our central idea about China’s seaward turn no longer occasions controversy. Stories detailing Chinese exploits at sea, including construction of islands at the heart of the South China Sea, now appear regularly on the front pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Events have borne out our hypothesis. Nevertheless, the sources and implications of Chinese sea power are still hotly debated. In other words, there remains plenty of analytical space to fill. We believe this new edition carries forward and adds to the discourse about China’s maritime rise and its potential impact on security in Asia and beyond. To reiterate, we believe a coherent and powerful logic animates China’s bid for sea power. It derives from economic, geographic, political, diplomatic, and strategic imperatives. Our goal is to break down and examine that logic to demonstrate that this is no passing fancy for a seafaring China. It is a reality that fellow mariners ignore at their peril.
Structure of the Argument:
If the interplay among commerce, national willpower, and martial prowess defines Chinese sea power while imparting direction to Chinese maritime strategy, it makes sense to structure this book around commerce, strategic will to the sea, and the military implement. Chapter 1, “Mahan’s Lingering Ghost,” uses Mahan’s works to fashion an analytical device for evaluating the present state and future direction of Chinese maritime strategy. We then spend the balance of the book applying that device to appraise the commercial, political, and military facets of Chinese sea power.
Mahan’s works are no reliquaries for outdated ideas. America’s “Copernicus” of sea power, we find, proposes both a durable “logic” of political purpose and grand strategy toward the sea and a durable “grammar” of saltwater military strategy.13 The logic of maritime strategy enjoins political leaders and senior commanders to pry open and sustain commercial access to important trading regions, while the grammar of naval warfare instructs naval commanders to seize “command” of waters necessary to guarantee commercial and diplomatic access. Commerce comes first on both the plane of grand-strategic logic and the plane of martial grammar.
Chapter 2, “Economic Geography of Chinese Sea Power,” and chapter 3, “Strategic Geography of Chinese Sea Power,” employ geography as a prism for refracting the commercial and strategic imperatives shaping China’s seaward enterprise. If mercantile and naval endeavors both depend on reliable use of the same seaways, it makes sense that practitioners and analysts of commerce and naval warfare would regard the sea in similar ways. Chapter 2 points out that the web of trading relationships that China has spun since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening movement has beckoned China permanently to the seas. Businesses and citizens are crowding the main- land’s coastal zones, giving rise to socioeconomic upheavals that will leave their imprint on Chinese maritime strategy. Indeed, it is doubtful that China will ever revert to being a wholly continental state. Its grand strategy will have a saltwater flavor from now on.
Geography molds grand and military strategy as well as commercial undertakings. Chapter 3 investigates how Chinese political and military leaders interpret the“first island chain,” the series of islands that runs from Japan through Taiwan through the Philippines and perhaps beyond.While some commentators believe China interprets the island chain in purely operational terms as a defense perimeter or a line demarcating where the PLA Navy will operate, we will show that this is a feature infused with grand-strategic import for Beijing. How China views the island chain will shape PLA warfighting strategy, to be sure, but it will also shape how CCP leaders promote commercial and diplomatic outreach bringing the nation closer to its Chinese Dream.
Chapter 4, “China’s Strategic Will to the Sea,” examines an intangible yet no less essential element of Chinese sea power. Over successive generations of leadership—going back as far as Mao Zedong during the Chinese Civil War’s endgame—China’s political and military leaders have sought to harden their nation’s resolve to pursue sea power. We demonstrate that each generation artic- ulated a powerful rationale, tailored to conditions prevailing at the moment, to justify seaward endeavors. The campaign gathered momentum after Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world and has accelerated to breathtaking speed in recent years. Combined with the geographical imperatives outlined in chapters 2 and 3, national willpower drives China to master its nautical environs.
Chapters 5 and 6 explore how China has gone about assembling a powerful fleet and how it might deploy that fleet in action. In Chapter 5, “Fleet Building with Chinese Characteristics,” we take a retrospective look at past continental societies that entertained salt- water ambitions and conclude that such societies can go down to the sea in ships given adequate resources and strategic moxie. China has taken an experimental approach to fleet design. Chinese shipwrights build a few variants of a ship type, then PLA Navy crews take each variant to sea to learn its good and bad design features. These field trials feed into future improvements. A design goes into mass production once the PLAN leadership is satisfied with its performance. Fleet experimentation has helped Beijing field an impressive navy in short order without incurring undue risk of technological failure. We also point out that sea power involves far more than the navy for China. Shore-based fire support augments the fleet’s innate firepower so long as the fleet operates within reach of fire-support weaponry. But China’s all-encompassing approach to sea power goes further than that, harnessing not strictly military implements of maritime might. The China Coast Guard has become the leading defender of China’s claims to sovereignty over sea, sky, and land features in the China seas. A maritime militia is embedded within the fishing fleet, meaning that fishermen constitute an unofficial auxiliary for law enforcement and naval endeavors, as they have for many years. Beijing’s holistic approach to nautical affairs is some- thing Americans and their Asian partners must fathom and figure out how to counter.
In chapter 6, “Fleet Tactics with Chinese Characteristics,” we examine the tactics whereby the PLAN will fight alongside the land- based arm of sea power. The PLAN, like its fellow services, will put Maoist “active defense” into effect during sea fights in the China seas or western Pacific. In all likelihood Chinese commanders will aim attacks at the U.S. Pacific Fleet as it approaches from Hawaii or the North American west coast in hopes of enfeebling the fleet as it comes. We forecast that these attacks will disperse forces in space yet concentrate them on top of their targets simultaneously to saturate American defenses. Many different weapons will arrive from many different axes at the same time, overloading U.S. Navy defenders. How to rebuff such tactics represents a pressing question for American tacticians.
In chapter 7, “Chinese Sea Power in the Missile Age,” we focus tightly on antiship missiles as the final material ingredient of Chinese sea power. We survey extensive Chinese literature describing the history, technical evolution, and latest tactical developments relating to ship-killing armaments to gain insight into how the PLAN and its sister services may employ missiles in a war at sea. We show that Chinese scholars and military officers, along with engineers from topflight universities and research institutions, have formulated concepts and doctrines aimed at deterring and, failing that, defeat- ing their nation’s most consequential military threat—the U.S. Navy. If the writings and predictions of these experts are any indication, sea combat this century will be as violent and lethal as the titanic battles that constituted World War II in the Pacific. The intellectual energy and imagination these thinkers and theorists have invested to develop ideas for missile campaigns suggest that the United States and its allies must take the Chinese missile threat with utmost seriousness.
Chapter 8, “U.S. Maritime Strategy in Asia,” presents a retrospective on U.S. maritime strategy making in recent decades. We posit that U.S. naval history oscillates between major conflicts and more tranquil interludes and that the focal point of U.S. maritime strategy changes with the times. After winning big against a “peer” antago- nist, as in World War II or the Cold War, the American sea services reconfigure themselves for the less daunting constabulary missions they expect to perform when no great-power rival is in view. Having grown accustomed to constabulary duty, they find it hard to rein- vent themselves for high-intensity combat when a peer challenger does come into sight. That constitutes the challenge before the sea services today. We postulate that the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are attempting to remake themselves to meet the China challenge—and that this is a task of grave moment for America’s strategic position in Asia.
Toshi Yoshihara is a Senior Fellow at CSBA. He held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College where he taught strategy for over a decade. He was also an affiliate member of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the war college. Dr. Yoshihara has been a visiting professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University since 2012.
James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991.