Security Studies Program Seminar

Chinese Views of Regional Sea Powers

Toshi Yoshihara
Strategy and Policy Department
U.S. Naval War College

February 18, 2009

Speaker’s Presentation:


Question & Answer Session:

Q. Where are the neo-Mahanians situated in comparison to the wider Chinese debate about strategy?

A. The neo-Mahanians are a minority in the overall policy discourse.  No evidence their perspective has filtered into the higher policy priorities.  Their language has filtered into various reports but it is unclear whether their priorities are part of what is reflected in practice or not.  Also, there are some neo-Mackinder types who say continental defense should be the priority.  The emphasis is still on offshore defense, though

Q. Does that mean an emphasis on defense or the offense?

A. It’s a mix - an offensive defense, which they also believe the Japanese are pursuing.  It certainly looks more offensive than how the Chinese describe it.

Q. What are the more authoritative sources for studying this topic?  What role does commerce play in Chinese interpretations of Mahan?  What does mercantilist victory look like?

A. Finding reliable sources are a huge methodological problem.  Modern Navy, Modern Ships are popular journals.  Modern Navy, for example, is underwritten by the PLAN political department, although it may be too divorced from military logistics.  Also, there are scholarly journals out of academic publishers.  These are mostly focused on the higher levels of grand strategy, including what China’s longer term force priorities should be.  Other journals come out of places such as NDU but are less reliable.  They contain some useful points but are useful for highlighting the contradictions within the prevailing thinking.  Also, there are technical journals, such as Guided Missile; these all describe technologies, but only some describe scenarios under which they should and should not be used.  And I need to then check findings with logistical experts to find out what’s feasible.  The problem is not a dearth of literature in China – the problem is finding out which of it is good and which of it is not.

Q. What do you anticipate about Chinese behavior in multilateral settings?

A. China is still figuring out their standard operation procedures in these situations.  For example, they have set a red line not to violate Somali sovereign waters even though the UN told them they had the right to do so.  It is still being worked out.

Q. First, many of your juicy quotes are from popular magazines rather than professional journals.  How can we know this Mahanian turn is central to the real naval debate or simply parallel to it?  Second, do you see any changes in the definition of what offshore defense means over time?

A. We tend to be skeptical about some of the writing that occurs in our journals as well.  We just need to be judicious about what importance we accord to particular sources.  It’s a high attrition rate, but you still find material even if you apply high, credible standards.  My experience with the Chinese debate about informationalized warfare follows a similar pattern, which is that it started in the popular publications but then by 2003 that language got picked up at the highest levels, including by Jiang Zemin.  Offshore defense was actually a really expansive concept even in its earliest days under Deng.

Q. What about the internal politics of the Chinese navy?  Where does it fit in terms of competition for resources and prestige?

A. The navy was a merely supporting service from Mao and beyond, including in its force structure.  Only in the 1990s did allocations shift in its favor.  Now they have much more clout.

Q. Is it in U.S. interests to guarantee freedom of the seas to China?  What about Chinese expansion in terms of basing and area of operations?  What about Chinese aircraft carriers?

A. I’m skeptical that China’s “string of pearls” strategy is something to worry about.  It is not clear to me how reliable Chinese partners such as Pakistan or Burma.  And their investments in these regards are really token investments at best.  Also, Chinese naval aviation is at very rudimentary stages right now, and it will take many years until they get there.

Q. So what is the Chinese conception of victory in maritime competitions?

A. The whole pattern of Chinese investment in Africa and elsewhere does not seem to fit a coherent grand strategy per se.  It seems as though the central government is simply along for the ride as state-owned enterprises make investments overseas.  I think the end-state they are looking for – at least for the decade or so – is to prevent a far-off blockade of the Chinese coast, through the Straits of Malacca, for example.  While they may show force in the Indian Ocean, their main priority is that first island chain periphery.

Q. You said China infers Japanese intent from their procurement decisions.  Do they recognize that Japan may do the same in looking at China?  Also, is there any reading of German history in all of this?

A. The China Maritime Studies Institute has a lessons-learned work coming out that looks at the Soviet attempt at being a sea power, but I haven’t seen anything yet looking at the imperial German naval failure.  On the second point, I think there is a mirror imaging pattern between China and Japan.  Conservative Japanese commentators definitely infer Chinese threats from increases in Chinese capabilities.  There is certainly a competitive interactive dynamic there.  They recognize the mirror image dynamic in China but don’t think there is much they can do to mitigate it so they might as well focus on preparing for those threats.

Q. Is there a direct link between these debates and policy?

A. No, but there is certainly a process by which these debates get picked up over time by interested policymakers.  It hasn’t happened yet with regard to the neo-Mahanians but I expect it to sometime soon.  There is certainly some debate over it, however, where some suggest that China should remain a predominant mainland power and not try challenging the U.S. at sea.

Q. Are there any immediate Chinese plans to militarily contest a possible U.S. strike on Iran?

A. I don’t think the Chinese have the military capacity to contest what they U.S. is doing in the Persian Gulf region, and I think the Chinese are fully cognizant of that.

Q. Should we try to steer China in the direction of being a civil power?

A. There are definitely merits to having military-to-military contacts and cooperation in order to create the mechanisms for crisis management at sea and greater mutual understanding.  However, my understanding is that PACOM has not yet understood how to cope with a crisis in the other side of the triangle – i.e. a hot maritime crisis between China and our ally Japan.  That having been said, it is important to recognize that there are limits on how far we can influence internal Chinese views about their foreign policy priorities and national interests.

Q. Japanese papers report that the PLAN is considering building two nuclear-powered carriers, which would be a major challenge to current U.S. naval hegemony.  Do you foresee this happening?

A.  As I said before, given what China is willing to invest in the navy, I doubt it.  That having been said, putting carriers to sea plays directly to U.S. strengths because we can take those out and therefore would need to worry less about the relative risk of asymmetric warfare.  We have much more reason to be concerned about area-denial efforts by Chinese naval forces, including all the way out to the second island chain.

Q. Does China consider learning from the U.S. by actually seeking out these mil-to-mil relationships?

A. They want to, but they are concerned about being able to plug-and-play into U.S. cooperation with appropriate levels of seniority and dignity.  I think this is why they remain reluctant to join the Proliferation Security Initiative and also why they made the mistake of sitting out during the U.S. tsunami relief in Asia.


Rapporteur: David A. Weinberg

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2009