Essays & Reviews

Mahan’s Influence on the Chinese National Security Debate

Three members of the Naval War College faculty and staff — Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein and Carnes Lord – have edited a book, China Goes to Sea (Naval Institute Press, 2009), which includes chapters that deal with historical efforts of previous continental powers to develop a major maritime presence and capability.  The editors, writing in the May-June issue of The American Interest, note that the strategic culture formed by China’s history and political geography is a profoundly continentalist one.  Looking at China’s current maritime transformation in a longer historical perspective, though, it is possible to overstate the extent to which Chinese strategic culture over the centuries has been strictly continentalist.   The critical contemporary question is whether China’s traditional continentalist strategic culture will constrain the country’s development as a maritime power.  The Chinese themselves are not entirely of one mind about this. Indeed, for the first time there is a robust debate within the Chinese national security community concerning the meaning and limits of China’s turn to the sea.  In this debate, according to the Naval War College editors, Chinese navalists have become avid students of Mahan.


Writing at the dawn of the modern American Navy in the late 19th century, Mahan preached the gospel of sea power as an unappreciated yet essential factor in the rise of great powers and as a vital safeguard of their overseas commercial interests. Mahan pointed to the importance of protecting sea lines of communication to markets abroad, and contended that sea-faring nations needed to establish a network of overseas bases or refueling stations to enable their navies to perform this function effectively. He argued that maritime powers must field a powerful fleet of capital ships capable of maintaining command of the sea, ultimately achieved through defeat of the adversary’s navy in a climactic confrontation. While the Chinese government has not officially embraced such views, many prominent PRC military writers and academics espouse them, and they seem to exercise some influence over China’s naval planning.  


According to the Naval War College editors, Mahan’s ideas concerning commerce protection and the importance of sea lines of communication clearly resonate with the Chinese leadership. As China has become more dependent on seaborne oil imports from the Persian Gulf and Africa in recent years—a dependence that no amount of overland pipeline construction is likely to reduce anytime soon—it is plainly worried about a potential threat to its oil tankers in transit through the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. In good Mahanian fashion, China appears to be in the process of helping to develop facilities and infrastructure of various kinds (most notably, the deep-water port at Gwadar in Pakistan) in friendly countries throughout this region.  Chinese intentions with regard to this so-called “string of pearls” strategy have been the subject of much speculation, but it is still unclear whether or to what extent China will shape its future naval planning around the projection of Chinese naval power toward the Middle East. The least that can be said is that evidence of permanent maritime infrastructure of this sort would be a strong sign that China’s maritime transformation is here to stay.