When some Chinese naval officers crossed the Pacific to visit the Naval War College here on an Atlantic-lapped island, they gazed reverently at a desk used by Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). This compliment to America’s preeminent naval strategist has scholars here wondering whether Mahan’s Chinese readers are taking from him lessons similar to those Theodore Roosevelt derived.
How could they not? Mahan did not make TR bellicose; nature did that, immoderately. But Mahan supplied a theory for Roosevelt’s metabolic urge to throw around his nation’s rapidly growing weight.
Mahan and Roosevelt met in 1887, when Mahan was president of the college and the future president — an amateur naval historian and general know-it-all — was a guest lecturer in his late 20s. From Mahan’s 1890 book, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783,” Roosevelt learned that a powerful navy is indispensable to a nation with great commercial interests and an interest in geopolitical greatness.
China certainly has the former. Does it have the latter?
China may not forever be a “Blanche DuBois nation,” akin to the woman in “A Streetcar Named Desire” who said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Today, Americans are the strangers. Their Navy — “today’s naval hegemon,” in Chinese parlance — is the constabulary that patrols what Mahan called “the great common” — the ocean highways of the trade on which China’s growth, and hence its stability and geopolitical weight, depends.
America’s cheerful assumption has been that although its ships are not as numerous as they recently were — 286 now, down from 594 in 1987 — there actually is a 1,000-ship Navy. That comforting figure aggregates all the navies of nations that have no agendas beyond keeping the great common orderly.
China is deploying new submarines at an impressive rate — three a year. They are suited to pushing back U.S. power projection in the Western Pacific. China’s much-discussed ballistic and cruise missiles also seem designed to keep U.S. surface forces far from China’s soil. And China seems increasingly inclined to define the oceans off its shores as extensions of the shores — territory to be owned and controlled like “blue national soil.” This concept is incompatible with the idea of the oceans as a “common.”
This includes the “near seas” — the Yellow, South China and East China seas. But such “far seas” as the Indian Ocean also are crucial to China’s global commercial reach as a hyperactive importer and exporter. Disciples of Mahan want a national capacity to protect their nation’s interests there.
In “Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy,” Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, both on the War College faculty, remind readers that Mahan defined “command of the sea” as “overbearing power on the sea.” And that, he said, means power “which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and fro from the enemy’s shores.”
When Mao reigned, say Yoshihara and Holmes, Mahan was “reviled” as “an apostle of imperialism and colonialism.” Now, they report, at major international conferences Chinese analysts have cited Mahan’s bellicose definition of command of the sea to emphasize “the value of sea power for China.”
Even with its reduced numbers, the U.S. Navy may have such command — as long as no rival power covets command. But Mahan’s writings, say Yoshihara and Holmes, encourage “zero-sum thinking.” In the Social Darwinian spirit of his day, Mahan wrote: “Growth is a property of healthful life” and implies a “right to insure by just means whatsoever contributes to national progress, and correlatively to combat injurious action taken by an outside agency, if the latter overpass its own lawful sphere.” Concerning China’s thinking about lawful spheres, see above: “blue national soil.”
Extraordinarily dependent on sea lanes because of what one Chinese intellectual calls its “outward-leaning economy,” and now largely free from land threats, China has the opportunity and incentive to project power beyond the Asian continent. In Mahan, it has an excuse.
In his Navy career, Mahan seemed to heed Gilbert and Sullivan’s advice in the 1878 operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore”: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea/ And you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navee!” Ships Mahan commanded tended to collide with ships and other things. Ashore, however, he was a force to be reckoned with. It seems he still may be.