It is no coincidence that the officers of the Chinese navy have taken to studying the writings of American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and in particular his 1890 opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1773. That Mahan’s thesis – that countries with greater naval power will have greater global influence – strikes a chord with these officers is understandable: China’s navy has been the nation’s junior service since long before the revolution, and the Sino-sailors would probably like that to end. (The official name of the force alone is testament to the naval arm’s third-class status: “People’s Liberation Army Navy.” Cue sympathetic cringe.)
But there is more to this than inter-service rivalry. What makes their fascination important to note is that it reflects a much deeper change in China. Mahan’s focus on control of commerce by sea is cut to fit a nation that is increasingly dependent on inputs from abroad and manufactured exports. Consider the facts:
- China’s most developed regions lie on or near the coast or its major riverine arteries. In an age of standoff weapons, defending those shores needs to take place far from shore.
- Despite huge investments in domestic road, air, and rail transport, coastwise shipping still carries a huge percentage of China’s internal trade. Unlike the US, China faces other nations across its coastal seas, some of which are latently hostile;
- Fishing and aquaculture are becoming more important to the nation’s effort to feed itself, but the defilement of coastal fisheries by pollution and toxic runoff has forced the nation’s fishing fleet to range well beyond coastal waters;
- China can no longer feed itself, finding itself thus increasingly dependent on the flow of foodstuffs arriving by sea from Canada, Australia, Africa, and the U.S.
- China is becoming increasingly dependent on energy from abroad. While a good portion of that is from Eurasia (think Iran and Iraq,) regional instability makes overland shipment impractical.
- Many of China’s key industries are reliant on from inputs from abroad. Some comes by air, but minerals and commodities flow in by sea.
Look at that list carefully, and you realize that as the PRC emerges from its underdevelopment and its generation-long stint as the world’s factory floor, it has become something different. It is now looking more like the US in the late 19th century and Japan in the early-mid 20th century than many of us recognize. China is now a mercantilist economy.
Xi Jinping gets the implications. Zach Keck at The Diplomat quotes Chinese state media summarizing part of one of the president’s recent speeches in a tone that nearly apes Mahan word-for-word: “In the 21st Century, oceans and seas have and seas have an increasingly important role to play in a country’s economic development and opening up to the outside world.”
China has been – and remains – a continental power focused on its long land frontiers. It is across those borders that have come nearly all of its historic enemies, with the notable exception of the European powers during the declining days of the Qing empire. But that history is not destiny. China is more dependent on the outside world today than it ever has been, and that realization cannot but focus the minds of China’s leaders and defenders as they start to understand the new importance of coastal defense, sea frontiers, and protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs).
Recognizing necessity, The PRC has set itself on the course to become a maritime power. The last Asian nation to set itself on a Mahanian course was Japan. Anyone interested in understanding where China and Asia are headed could do worse than read Mahan, if not his books, than his more readable journal articles.
- Sunday Book Review: 21st Century Mahan (lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com)
- Top China general orders navy to speed improvement (bigstory.ap.org)
- PLA Navy begins West Pacific exercise (nzweek.com)