Mahan's Lingering Ghost

By James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara

Debates over access take place mainly on the operational, tactical, and force-structure levels. This is understandable. Antiaccess strategy is the most direct way China might attempt to shut America out of its maritime environs, and it is dramatic. For Americans, the image of a flattop engulfed in flames conjures up memories of World War II, the last time U.S. Navy carrier task forces found themselves in mortal jeopardy. (See Proceedings , May 2009.) This concentrates minds.

From an operational standpoint, access equates to the ability to force entry into the region despite stubborn resistance. One RAND Corporation study depicts access denial as combined military and nonmilitary measures that delay U.S. and allied forces' arrival in-theater, hinder or prevent those forces from using bases in the region, and keep power-projection assets as far away as possible. 3 This is a working definition of how China might bar entry to its offshore "contested zone," exploiting nearby assets, manpower, and the myriad advantages enjoyed by the home team. 4

In short, imaginative strategy could let Beijing defy U.S. forces operating far from home, even while PLAN forces remain second-rate. Easy access to Asia can no longer be taken for granted.

Maritime Strategy Beyond Taiwan

Western commentary on China's capacity to refuse access to maritime Asia—and especially to the waters and skies adjoining Taiwan—has taken on a bleak timbre. The island's fate is seldom far from the minds of analysts like Thomas Ehrhard and Robert Work (current Under Secretary of the Navy), who prophesy that, " For the first time since the late 1980s, and for only the second time since the end of World War II, U.S. carrier strike forces will soon face a major land-based threat that outranges them " (their emphasis). 5

In other words, they rate the Chinese threat as comparable to that posed by the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan, the last to challenge the United States for command of Far Eastern waters. Robert Ross, who once pronounced the U.S. Navy unbeatable, now despairs of America's ability to defend Taiwan. 6 Washington policy-makers heed such warnings and, predictably, have come to see Chinese sea power almost wholly in terms of military access denial in the Taiwan Strait.

But this misreads Chinese strategy. Assume Beijing is indeed building up access-denial capacity to return Taiwan to mainland rule. Keeping Washington from reprising its 1995-96 intervention in the strait is clearly one touchstone for Chinese antiaccess strategy. China's leadership in effect vowed never again to allow such an act after seeing the Clinton administration dispatch two carrier task forces to the island's vicinity with the Chinese military powerless to do anything about it—or even to detect the intervening forces.

A China intent solely on planting the Chinese communist flag in Taipei, however, would presumably curtail its seagoing endeavors once the island was safely under control. It would have little reason to expend precious resources on sea power, siphoning them from economic development, Beijing's top priority. A satiated China would turn inward on the "day after Taiwan," therefore, having retrieved the last parcel of lost Chinese territory and burnished its national dignity.

The United States would have little choice but to acquiesce in the new normal across the Taiwan Strait. On the bright side, Asia would revert to the uneasy equilibrium between China, Asia's foremost land power, and the United States, its dominant sea power. In such a future, neither could overcome the other's comparative geostrategic advantages; neither would have much reason to try. Stable coexistence would resume, and the system of free navigation superintended by the U.S. Navy since 1945 would endure into the indefinite future—benefiting America and the region. Only independence-minded Taiwanese would be worse off than before.

Such a benign outcome is neither inevitable nor probable. For example, the Chinese economy now depends on natural-resource imports from the Middle East and Africa. Assuring safe passage for merchantmen bearing energy supplies from the Indian Ocean has come to obsess Beijing. This is an intrinsically naval mission, and the commercial interests driving it will not subside, no matter how favorably China resolves the Taiwan impasse. Clearly, there is more to Chinese strategy than regaining Taiwan.

Invincible or Inoffensive?

Taiwan, then, transfixes many pundits. Interpreting China's rise in purely military terms also constricts Westerners' field of view, and with it their ability to envisage how Chinese maritime strategy will unfold and how to respond to it. That China is accumulating the means to project power in a post-unification future is no longer conjecture. Military assets under development to support access denial represent the precursor to a durable Chinese presence in Asian waters.

But hardware does not tell the whole story. How Beijing might establish an offshore preserve remains in question. It is safe to say that China is not some seagoing juggernaut, destined to rule the Asian seas as some analysts would have it. Nor is it a peaceful great power whose neighbors have nothing to fear despite Beijing's efforts to portray it as such. Expert commentary tends to project either an invincible or an inoffensive China, depending on the commentator. The reasonable guess for Sea-Service professionals is that China's future lies somewhere between these extremes.

Fixation on the Asian military balance impoverishes the study of access while skewing Western appraisals of China's maritime prospects. Military access denial is a single, albeit critically important, element of a broad, sustained challenge to the United States—a challenge predicated on trade, commerce, and political interests. Analysts and practitioners of Asian affairs must widen their vision of access beyond the use of force, embracing its nonmilitary imperatives.

They must also acknowledge that antiaccess cuts both ways. If the United States worries about being shut out of maritime Asia, Chinese strategists entertain similar fears. They fret that the U.S. Navy might essay some access denial of its own, closing the sea lanes to shipping vital to Chinese prosperity. To Chinese eyes, breaking this latter-day variant of containment demands a sustained naval presence in regional seas, well beyond the day after Taiwan. Access now constitutes the prime mover for Chinese—as for American—maritime strategy.

Mahan and Clausewitz

Alfred Thayer Mahan can offer help tracking China's maritime ascent. For him, the sea represented a "wide common, over which men may pass in all directions." 7 "Communications," or safe passage through this aquatic commons, was "the most important single element in strategy, political or military." 8 The "eminence of sea power," declared Mahan, lay in its control of vital sea lanes, along with geographic features—islands, coastal seaports—from which warships could safeguard or interdict seaborne traffic. 9

Indeed, to interrupt a nation's sea communications by naval action was to strike at "the very root" of its national vigor. 10 But there is more to Mahan than battle. His theories are pitched on two levels. Carl von Clausewitz helps clarify the dual character of sea-power theory, postulating that "war is only a branch of political activity; that is in no sense autonomous." He refutes the common idea that nonviolent intercourse among nations halts at the outbreak of war, asking:

Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged? Is war not just another expression of their thoughts, another form of speech or writing? Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic. 11

By this, Clausewitz means two things pertinent to access. First, war is the pursuit of national policy with the admixture of military means. It differs from peacetime diplomacy and commerce by virtue of chance and uncertainty, the dark passions it fires, and countless other factors. Second, political interchange between belligerents does not stop when gunfire starts. Nonmilitary instruments like diplomacy and economic pressure or incentives play some part, even in wartime.

Now apply this to sea power. It is commonplace nowadays to reduce Mahan to battleships and fleet actions—in effect, to tactics and ship design—and to sweep him into history's dustbin. 12 Battleships are obsolete, goes the thinking; no fleet action has occurred since Leyte Gulf; therefore, Mahanian theory no longer matters. This is shortsighted. Mahan's logic of sea power infuses meaning into the grammar of marine combat. Slighting it limits and distorts our understanding of sea power, obscuring insights of enduring value. 13

Far from yearning for armed encounters, Mahan pronounced "military or political force" an "alien element," an unwelcome intruder in affairs of state. 14 True, he urged commanders to take the offensive should war be thrust upon them, but he never espoused naval rivalry for its own sake. In today's parlance, he urged governments to "hedge" against military conflict, keeping open the option of fleet engagements. But he also went Clausewitz one better, carrying his logic/grammar construct beyond the battlefield into the domain of peacetime diplomacy.

Naval strategy differed from military strategy, wrote Mahan, because it strove "to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war , the sea power of a country" (our emphasis). 15 Acquiring strategic geographic features—"points of vantage," as Mahan's confidant Theodore Roosevelt called them—was one way to bolster sea power in peacetime, as were efforts to gain access to markets and bases. Seafaring nations are perpetually on the offensive, in times of war and peace alike. Great Britain prosecuted a strategic offensive lasting centuries, assembling the largest maritime empire known to history. 16

The True Path

Naval preparedness is the sharp edge of maritime strategy, then, but it is only a means to an end. For Mahan, commerce was the true path to affluence and national greatness: "War has ceased to be the natural, or even normal, condition of nations, and military considerations are simply accessory and subordinate to the other greater interests" they serve. 17 Prosperity took precedence. The "starting point and foundation" for comprehending sea power was "the necessity to secure commerce, by political measures conducive to military, or naval strength. This order is that of actual relative importance to the nation of the three elements-commercial, political, military " (our emphasis). 18

This is why nations covet access to faraway regions like Asia. In essence, commerce is about unfettered access to the means for producing wealth and national power. Reliable access is impossible without the military means to protect it, and to keep others from denying it. Mahan thus advances a tripartite concept, which we call his first "trident" of sea power. Access to sources of economic well-being—foreign trade, commerce, and natural resources—ranks first within the Mahanian trident, military access third. This cuts against the usual, military-centric understanding of Mahan.

The second plane on which sea-power theory functions, its grammar, is martial and operational in nature. In his most influential work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 , the historian depicted sea power as founded on production, merchant and naval shipping, and overseas markets and bases. 19 This is Mahan's second trident. But even here, he assigns commerce pride of place, exploring the mechanics of defending it.

Indeed, all three tines of Mahan's second trident relate directly to commerce, namely domestic industrial production, the merchant marine, and foreign markets. He designated the "tendency to trade, involving of necessity the production of something to trade with . . . the national characteristic most important to the development of sea power." 20 Two relate to navies, namely forward naval stations and the battle fleet itself. But trade and commerce form the interface between the grammar and the logic of sea power.

Mahanian logic, then, impels governments to search out access for commercial reasons; his grammar means upholding access through force of arms. "Command of the sea," maintained Mahan, was "that overbearing power on the sea, 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." 21 Overbearing power, manifest in warships, naval weaponry, and battle efficiency, embodies the martial grammar of sea power.

Both tridents must remain sharp for either to do its work. Both Mahan's logic and his grammar of sea power call for securing access to locations like seaports and bases, and to physical goods such as trade commodities and natural resources. The logic and grammar advance the same goals, but Mahanian logic governs the geopolitical and strategic aspects of sea power, while grammar supplies the rules for naval preparedness and warfare.

Defined in Mahanian terms, incorporating both economic and political logic and military grammar, access is a broad concept indeed. Confining the question of access to the Taiwan imbroglio misjudges the logic of Chinese sea power, discounting the Chinese economy's need for seaborne oil and gas resources from the Middle East and Africa. Construing access entirely as military access excludes the primary drivers behind sea power. If strategists only look at part of a phenomenon, they are apt to issue faulty policy and strategic recommendations.

Nor, again, is access solely an American prerogative, meaning the U.S. military's liberty to project power along the Asian seaboard. Chinese leaders and commanders voice anxiety that the United States will deploy superior naval might to deny China access to the commons, retaliating for some perceived Chinese transgression. Assuring physical freedom of movement across the commons is central to economic and military endeavors China deems crucial to its economic vitality, national power, and prestige.

Still Relevant

However dated Mahan's doctrines of the capital ship and the major fleet action, his logic and operational grammar are as germane to 21st-century China as to 19th-century America. The American Sea Services can look to their intellectual forefather for help deciphering developments in China and fashioning strategy that comports with new realities. So long as China remains an enterprising nation intent on economic development, Beijing will brandish Mahan's two tridents. Settling the Taiwan impasse will only liberate China to turn its full attention to interests elsewhere in the Asian seas.

If Washington is wise, it will examine strategy in a similar light, accepting the reality that China represents a permanent complicating factor—regardless of whether Sino-American maritime relations tend toward teamwork, antagonism, or indifference. Mahan's ghost must be smiling at the lasting relevance of his works. 

1. U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, October 2007.

2. The ASBM's range, reported at 2,500 kilometers, means U.S. naval forces could be struck as they crossed the "second island chain," which extends from northern Japan through Papua New Guinea. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, "On the Verge of a Game-Changer," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2009.

3. Roger Cliff et. al., Entering the Dragon's Lair: Chinese Antiaccess Strategies and Their Implications for the United States (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007), p. 11.

4. Barry Posen, "Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony," International Security, Summer 2003, pp. 5-46.

5. Thomas P. Ehrhard and Robert O. Work, Range, Persistence, Stealth, and Networking: The Case For a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat System (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2008), pp. 137-138, 195.

6. Robert Ross, "For China, How to Manage Taiwan?" Forbes, 27 October 2007.

7. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890; repr., New York: Dover, 1987), p. 25.

8. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Problem of Asia (1900; repr., Port Washington: Kennikat, 1970), p. 124.

9. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897; repr., Freeport: Books for Libraries, 1970), pp. 65-83, 277-92.

10. Mahan, Problem of Asia, p. 124.

11. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed., trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 605.

12. Typical of the genre is R. B. Watts, "The End of Sea Power," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 2009.

13. James R. Holmes, "China's Way of Naval War: Mahan's Logic, Mao's Grammar," Comparative Strategy, 2009, pp. 1-27.

14. Mahan, Problem of Asia, p. 33.

15. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, pp. 22-23.

16. Wolfgang Wegener, The Naval Strategy of the World War (1929; repr., Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), p. 103.

17. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Retrospect & Prospect (Boston: Little, Brown, 1902), p. 246.

18. Mahan, Retrospect & Prospect, p. 246.

19. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, p. 71.

20. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, p. 53.

21. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, p. 138.

Dr. Holmes and Dr. Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the Naval War College. They are the co-authors of Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan (Routledge, 2007).



James R. Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He holds a hold PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

More by this Author

Essential reading as part of the Chief of Naval Operation's Professional Reading Program!... Read More

Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing
4:30pm, Patuxent Partnership & The Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College... Read More
Meet the Authors & Book Signings
11 - 13 Feb., U.S. Naval Institute Booth #930, 2014 WEST Conference & Exposition, San Diego... Read More
Meet the Authors & Book Signing
USNI's "2013 WEST Conference & Exposition," San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA ~ Check... Read More
Meet the Authors & Book Signing
USNI's "2013 WEST Conference & Exposition," San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA ~ Check... Read More


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2015-03-13

Please join us for a Maritime Security Dialogue event:A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower:Forward, Engaged, Ready A...

2015 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership