Here's What You Need to Remember: Shipping and aircraft on which China’s economic and geopolitical fortunes depend must pass under the shadow of hostile armed forces whenever they leave or return home. Strategic geography encumbers China’s ambitions to a degree unique among great powers.
The Pentagon released two appraisals of China in swift succession. The first, issued by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), goes by the title China Military Power and is patterned on the old-school Soviet Military Power tomes beloved by those of us of a vintage to have battled godless communism during the 1980s.
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) specialists will find little new or eye-popping in China’s Military Power, but it does make a worthy refresher for oldtimers and primer for newcomers to the field. Read the whole thing.
If the DIA report gauges Chinese power, the second Pentagon document, awkwardly titled “Assessment on U.S. Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access,” explores the purposes for which Beijing harnesses power. It evaluates Chinese “grand strategy,” in other words, even though the phrase never appears in the document.
This one’s worth your time as well. And it’s short!
English soldier-scribe B. H. Liddell coined the phrase “grand strategy” in his masterwork Strategy (1954). In Liddell Hart’s telling, grand strategy is the art and science of choreographing the use of diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military implements of power to improve the “state of peace” for one’s country—preferably without resort to arms. Grand strategists take the long view from thirty thousand feet.
The framers of “China’s Global Access” are right to accent the word “access.” They deploy it dozens of times. Chinese grand strategy is indeed a strategy premised on negotiating or wresting open access to distant seas and shores. Like other trading nations, China depends on waterborne transport to move bulk goods hither and yon. Its merchant fleet needs ready admission to harbors overseas to unload cargo for sale or load raw materials to carry back home.
Hence the nautical tinge Chinese strategy has taken on in recent decades. After all, maritime strategy is the saltwater variety of grand strategy.
For Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of the godfathers of Chinese maritime strategy, access is both the goal of and the prime mover driving any maritime strategy worth the name. America’s sea-power evangelist contends that commercial, political, and military access to important trading regions—in that order of importance—constitutes the aim of maritime strategy.
Commerce is king for Mahan. Seafaring governments seek diplomatic access to facilitate commercial access, while military access is necessary to facilitate diplomatic and thence commercial access. Access sets a cycle in motion. Domestic manufacturers sell goods overseas, paying tariffs and thus generating revenue adequate to fund a navy. The navy safeguards those goods during seaborne transit or closes the sea lanes to hostile powers.
Grand strategy relating to the sea involves starting and perpetuating this virtuous cycle among industrial, diplomatic, and military enterprises. Beijing knows this in its marrow.
Access came easy to Mahan’s America by contrast with China. Then as now, political geography exempted the United States from domineering neighbors able to menace its access from Atlantic and Pacific seaports to the high seas. Geography cursed China where it blessed America. Beijing must fret about access from the time a ship casts off lines in Shanghai or Tianjin until it moors at the far end of its voyage.
Why? Because to exit the China seas or return from faraway ports of call, vessels must cross through the “first island chain,” a string of islands undulating from southern Japan through Taiwan, the Philippine Islands, and the Indonesian archipelago. The island chain plays host to powerful U.S. naval and air forces. Its occupants are allies or friends of the United States—meaning they are potential foes of China.
In other words, shipping and aircraft on which China’s economic and geopolitical fortunes depend must pass under the shadow of hostile armed forces whenever they leave or return home. Strategic geography encumbers China’s ambitions to a degree unique among great powers.
Small wonder Chinese strategists from PLA Navy founding father Admiral Liu Huaqing onward have dubbed the first island chain a “metal chain” that China must burst to fulfill its destiny—its “China Dream,” as President Xi Jinping likes to call it. Fracturing the island chain—by seizing part of it, such as Taiwan, or by wooing U.S. allies away from Washington’s embrace through diplomacy—is crucial to strategic success.
Access begets success. This Mahanian idea courses through “China’s Global Access” even though the Pentagon authors do not couch their reportage in grand-strategic parlance.
Historians of colonialism often ask whether the flag followed trade or trade followed the flag for some empire or another. Did mercantile interests obtain access to new trading regions, requiring diplomatic and military protection—the “flag”—or did diplomats and military folk lay a beachhead, making it safe for commerce to follow?
Mahan seems to envisage doing it all at once. He exhorted the United States to build up industry and commerce, lay down merchant and naval fleets, and seek access to distant seaports. He likened commerce, ships, and bases to three “links” in a sea-power “chain.” And he wanted to cast all three links at the same time.
Deliberately or not, the report’s authors intimate that China has departed from strict adherence to the Mahanian script. Beijing is pursuing diplomacy and economic statecraft to gain access to the wider world, but military access tends to trail behind these efforts. For instance, the PLA Navy has maintained a squadron in the Gulf of Aden for a decade and put in appearances elsewhere. Apart from the western Indian Ocean, though, China’s navy has yet to establish a standing presence outside home waters.
Nonmilitary tools represent the vanguard of Chinese grand strategy outside East Asia—for now.
This pattern is probably another product of geography. China can accomplish little in “far seas” such as the Indian Ocean or Mediterranean Sea unless its merchant or naval fleets can get there from the “near seas” washing against mainland shores. Thus far-seas endeavors refocus strategists and practitioners on guaranteeing access from the China seas to the Western Pacific.
Now as in the lifetime of Admiral Liu, the contest for access starts at home.
Intriguingly, though, “China’s Global Access” doesn’t depict the U.S. strategic response as a quest to assure and deny access. But it should, shouldn’t it? Commercial, political, and military access to the Eurasian rimlands has been central to U.S. grand strategy since the days of Mahan—as indeed Mahan said it should be.
That access is now in peril as China, Russia, and other coastal competitors festoon their shorelines with “anti-access” and “area-denial” weaponry reputedly able to hold U.S. naval forces at a distance. America has no meaningful strategic position in the Far East without access to bases in Japan and elsewhere along the island chain.
You’d think the imperative to preserve access would rank uppermost in American military minds.
Meanwhile the Pentagon should fashion access- and area-denial strategies of its own. PLA and Chinese Communist Party thinkers and practitioners obsess over maritime access for a reason: access deniers along the island chain could cut China off from the trading world.
To channel Mahan, sealing the straits permitting passage through the island chain would be like cutting the roots of a plant. It would deny the Chinese merchant fleet and PLA Navy access to the oceanic thoroughfare on which they rely to ply their trades. China’s import and export traffic—crucial to its prosperity, and thus to fulfilling the China Dream—could shrivel and die.
Its geopolitical standing could wilt in the process.
A U.S. access-denial strategy, then, would impose a hard fate on China. Which is the point. Threatening fearful consequences could deter Beijing from aggression tomorrow morning, and the next. If Xi Jinping & Co. wake up and choose forbearance enough days in a row, who knows? China, Asia, and the world could learn to coexist over time.
Lions need not lie down with lambs. Uneasy peace will do. Rediscovering the pivotal role of access will illumine the way.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (new in print last month), and author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy (forthcoming this November). The views voiced here are his alone.