The great British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder wrote that great statesmanship requires “geographical capacity” and “an insight into the minds of other nations.” He explained geographical capacity as a “mind which flits easily over the globe, which thinks in terms of the map, which quickly clothes the map with meaning, which correctly and intuitively places the commercial, historical, or political drama on its stage.”
American statesmen who want to develop these qualities to approach the 21st century world are well advised to consult the new edition of Red Star Over the Pacific recently published by the US Naval Institute Press. Written by Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and James Holmes of the Naval War College (full disclosure, I know both authors), this book combines brilliant geopolitical insight, a careful review of Chinese naval writings, and a thorough knowledge of both Chinese and American naval weapons systems, tactics, and strategies, historical and contemporary.
The statesmen and peoples of the Asia-Pacific can also gain insights from this book about how an important segment of the US policymaking community thinks about China’s rise, the regional and global geopolitical impacts of that rise, and how the US should react.
Yoshihara and Holmes have mined the relevant Chinese naval and political sources to support their argument that China’s turn to the sea is a “permanent … factor in Asian affairs” that cannot be wished away and that poses a regional and potentially global geopolitical challenge to the United States. The authors build on their earlier work, Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan (2008), to demonstrate that Chinese naval strategists have studied and profited from the writings of the American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, especially his The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) and The Problem of Asia (1904).
Mahan’s writings, for all the dated details, provide for a timeless understanding of what Yoshihara and Holmes call the “logic of sea power”, which they note comprises a “trinity of commerce, political willpower, and military force.” Chinese leaders beginning with Deng Xiaoping have understood the Mahanian notion that “Commerce generates wealth and power, supplying the means to achieve larger national objectives.” Naval power is only one component of a much broader Chinese “maritime strategy” that “conscript[s] all elements of national power, including economic, diplomatic, cultural, and legal means.” And all of this is shaped by geography.
Yoshihara and Holmes show that “China’s economic destiny is now inextricably tied to the seas.” Their chapter on China’s economic geography analyzes China’s three major economic zones (Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta, and Bohai Rim) and its major seaports (Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo-Zhoushan, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Yianjin, Dalian, Tangshan, Suzhou, Rizhao, Qinhuangdao, and Xiamen) situated along its 14,500-kilometer coastline. These “peacetime elements of sea power”, the authors write, “constitute essential sources of Chinese prosperity, spurring economic growth that has powered China’s rise to regional and world eminence.”
China’s coastline and the lands and islands abutting the East and South China Seas constitute what the authors call the “strategic geography” of China’s sea power. Chinese naval writings and their aggressive actions and posture in the South China Sea reveal that China views the islands immediately offshore (the so-called “first island chain”) as a geopolitical barrier to the Pacific. This island chain includes Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Chinese leaders view this barrier as an American defense perimeter designed to contain China regionally and globally. Many American military strategists since 1949, including General Douglas MacArthur, have viewed it similarly.
Yoshihara and Holmes note that Taiwan is the central link in the first island chain. China’s goal of reunification, the authors note, is not limited to claims of national dignity and sovereignty. “Taiwan’s return to mainland rule,” they write,
would buttress China’s strategic position, broaden access to resources and trade, and brighten prospects for restoring China’s rightful standing in Asia.
China’s “rightful standing in Asia” is part of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”.
But the authors are convinced that reunification with Taiwan would not sate China’s regional or global ambitions: “Occupying Taiwan … would break the island chain while guaranteeing the PLA Navy access to the western Pacific,” they write, but it
is very doubtful that China would terminate its seaward quest after a successful opening gambit. Rupturing the island-chain barrier constitutes Beijing’s immediate goal, not its ultimate goal.
What is China’s ultimate goal? Here the authors admit they are “looking through a glass darkly into the future.” Broadly, the China Dream is about having China, after a “century of humiliation”, take its rightful place as the preeminent Asian power and as a global power. Yoshihara and Holmes see both sinister and benign aspects to the China Dream. They are quite sanguine about China’s Belt and Road Initiative—perhaps too sanguine—calling it at worst innocuous and at best beneficial to Eurasia. They even suggest that it may result in an economic and diplomatic over-extension and diversion from China’s push for maritime supremacy in the western Pacific.
The concerning aspect, in their view, is China’s bid to replace the United States as the commanding maritime power in the region and perhaps beyond. Here, they advise US policymakers and naval strategists to “temper the sinister aspects of China’s bid for greatness without quashing its benign aspects.” China’s bid for greatness, they write, need not result in war with the United States. There is nothing inevitable about the Thucydides trap.
The authors note that China does not now face a land power challenge in Asia, which enables it to devote more resources to its maritime power. This puts China in a better position than the Soviet Union was when it unsuccessfully challenged US sea power during the Cold War. One possible option for US policymakers is to seek better relations with competing Asian land powers (eg, India or Russia) in a Nixonian attempt to add continental distractions to US maritime containment, but the authors are surprisingly silent about this prospect. China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s Eurasia component may be China’s effort to forestall such a development?
China has other advantages vis-à-vis the US in vying for command of its adjacent seas. First, in battles in the seas offshore its coastline, China can bring its whole naval power plus shore-based weapons to bear, whereas the US with its global responsibilities would be limited to using only the portion of its fleet situated in the region. Second, China has developed surface, subsurface and aerial threats to effectuate sea denial in and around its adjacent seas, including long-range shore-based and ship-based antiship missiles. The authors note that such missiles pose a very real threat to US Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers, and thereby threaten the integrity of US carrier task forces. Chinese naval writings include discussions of saturation missile attacks “designed to overpower modern sea-based air and missile defenses.” Such weapons and tactics, the authors fear, could enable a numerically inferior Chinese navy to defeat a superior US navy in offshore battles within and beyond the first island chain.
How should the US respond to China’s maritime rise? Yoshihara and Holmes write that the first element of any US response is to recognize that China is a peer competitor. “Effective strategy,” they write,
requires a threat. A menace concentrates minds while handling strategists a yardstick to judge their endeavors’ efficacy.
The end of the Cold War temporarily deprived the US of an adversary to plan against. Americans need to recognize that “there will always be a next contender, just as there always has been.” China is that next contender, therefore, US maritime strategy must be geared toward China’s threat.
In that context, the authors recommend a Mahanian maritime strategy, reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s strategy in the 1980s that was promoted and overseen by Navy Secretary John Lehman. The United States, they write, must be prepared to “wage a new Cold War in Asia” and formulate and implement “a coherent maritime strategy” to achieve success. The goal of US policy is to prevent China from displacing the US as the regional maritime hegemon.
Such a strategy, the authors suggest, would require the build-up and reallocation of naval resources to the Asia-Pacific, putting meat on the bones of the rhetorical “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia. It would also include strengthening US alliances in the region, especially with Japan. The authors also recommend the emplacement of US ground forces along the first island chain, including ground-based missile units, to act as force multipliers and tripwires that would risk full-scale retaliation in the event of an attack by Chinese forces. Finally, the authors urge American naval commanders to engage in “wholesale material and cultural reform” to re-instill “enterprise and derring-do” in the Navy.
Yoshihara and Holmes end on a high note, reminiscent of George Kennan’s famous “X” article that articulated the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Chinese leaders, they write, are rational competitors that understand costs and benefits, and can be deterred. “Steadfast, firm, patient pushback” (what Kennan called “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment”)
… could induce Beijing to postpone its ambitions. And if it postpones them long enough, internal change could engender more healthful attitudes toward regional politics
(in Kennan’s terms, containment would result in “the gradual break-up or mellowing of Soviet power”). This book has the potential, if accepted by Washington’s policymakers, to influence the 21st century’s “new Cold War in Asia” the way Kennan’s “X” article influenced the 20th century’s Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Red Star Over the Pacific should be read and studied not just by American policymakers and the American public, but also by the statesmen and people of the Asia-Pacific region, including those in China. Several of the region’s smaller powers look to the US to counterbalance China’s rise and would benefit from a better understanding of the practicalities involved from an informed US viewpoint. The Chinese, who undoubtedly see continued US naval hegemony in the region as unreasonable, would nevertheless gain a better understanding of American strategic choices and tradeoffs in their efforts to maintain naval supremacy. Transparency and what the authors call “plainspoken diplomacy” may help both sides avoid the kind of misunderstandings that can lead to conflict.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.