Mao, then, felt compelled to postpone China’s high-seas destiny pending more auspicious times. Yet he foresaw, if not longed, for the age of an oceangoing PLA Navy—an age such as now. After decades of reform and opening to the globalized world, China has attained an economic and military standing comparable to Roosevelt’s America, whose navy remained outnumbered but could afford a battle fleet able to contend for local superiority or even supremacy. China’s leadership, accordingly, can now embrace sea-power logic reminiscent of Roosevelt’s.
Destinies converge. China has come a long way since 1949. Roosevelt’s America was a power on the rise, vying with stronger empires bestriding its neighborhood. China is now a power on the make, contending with a stronger empire—the informal empire administered from Washington—that dominates its neighborhood. Small wonder patriotic statesmen on each shore of the Pacific Ocean alighted on similar strategies for managing their saltwater environs. There are only so many ways for the weak to overcome the strong. Make yourself strong and your antagonists weak, and you may go far.
And to be sure, under Mao’s successors China’s Maoist strategic thought has started merging with the Mahanian vision Roosevelt prescribed. But China can do Roosevelt, Mahan, and other oldtimers one better. The state of military technology has vaulted ahead over the past century. The PLA can employ land-based armaments not only to defend seaports, but also to hoist a protective aegis over the PLA Navy battle fleet while it cruises the briny main far from port.
Tactical aircraft and shore missile emplacements can rain supporting fire on hostile fleets scores if not hundreds of miles offshore—supplementing PLA Navy firepower with that furnished by the PLA Air Force and Strategic Rocket Force, alongside super-empowered coastal-defense craft that would be instantly recognizable to Mao. Latter-day coastal artillery constitutes a difference-maker for an outgunned Chinese fleet—an option not open to Roosevelt’s navy, fettered as it was by rudimentary weapons and fire-control technology.
What Mahan once branded a “radically erroneous” mode of sea combat—keeping a battle fleet under protective shelter from shore fire support—is swiftly coming of age.
If Fortress China’s coastal-defense-on-steroids pans out, it can accomplish the goal Roosevelt envisioned for shore gunnery—shielding China’s coastlines on a grand scale while freeing the fleet for expeditionary endeavors in remote seas. China will have deployed a genuinely free-range fleet without placing homeland security in jeopardy. Mao’s ghost will approve.
So we can generalize from comparing two unlike but like-minded strategists hailing from different times, civilizations and political philosophies. A competitor poised for greatness can countenance offensive-minded “Mahanian” strategies predicated on seeking out an enemy main force for battle. The margin separating it from stronger rivals is narrower. Bridging it is thinkable.
The feebler a contender relative to powerful antagonists, however, the more “Maoist” its methods appear. Unable to fight on equal terms, a drastically outmatched contender has little recourse except to harass or jab at the foe while it taps manpower and material resources. With sufficient patience, administrative skill and tactical moxie, however, the lesser pugilist stands a chance of wearing down the stronger over time—reversing the military balance while positioning itself to seize the counteroffensive.
Roosevelt and Mao, then, aren’t as odd a couple as you might think. Human minds run in grooves toward similar destinations. That’s why, according to the late, great Naval War College professor Michael Handel, it’s possible to form Clausewitzian habits of mind without ever reading Carl von Clausewitz’s monumental treatise On War. Heck, some strategists were Clausewitzian before the Prussian scribe lived. George Washington and his right-hand man, General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, lusted for decisive Clausewitzian victories until battlefield reverses forced them into a Maoist strategy of the weak. History abounds with such parallelism.
Necessity makes strange bedfellows—bedfellows like a Bull Moose and a Great Helmsman.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming 2018). He recently deployed to the Pacific with Carrier Strike Group 9, embarked in USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The views voiced here are his alone.