China's Navy: A Turn to Corbett?

A Star is (Re)born

Corbett is poised to make a comeback in Asia a century hence. Indeed, while Mahan’s writings still dominate Chinese academic and strategic discourses on sea power, mounting evidence suggests that China’s thinkers are widening their gaze to incorporate the Englishman’s works. In-depth assessments of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy , historiographies of Corbett, and comparisons with Mahan have appeared in Chinese military literature with growing frequency since 2008. Analysts find Corbett highly relevant to China’s seafaring project. Fu Zhengnan of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Foreign Language Institute concludes an exhaustive survey of Some Principles by prophesying that “absorbing and drawing lessons from the essence of Corbett’s theories would have tremendous theoretical meaning for our nation’s naval development.” 3

While crediting Mahan for providing a “guide” and a “basic framework” for Chinese sea power, Shi Xiaoqin, a researcher at the prestigious Academy of Military Science, bluntly warns that “only knowing Mahan is dangerous.” Concurring with Fu, she asserts that “learning Corbett’s sea power theory not only advances our understanding of the strategic thought of the great maritime powers, but it can also help us discern the basic themes of sea power theory, thus providing a rich academic foundation for China’s research on sea power theory.” 4

High praise, indeed. If China’s voluminous reflections on Mahan are any indication, industrious Chinese scholars will pore over Corbett’s theories, composing imaginative, analytically sophisticated works that apply directly to Chinese naval strategy. What such commentators learn may tell us a great deal about the future employment of the Chinese navy and its sister services. Beijing’s foray into Western strategic thought may yield insight into China’s high-seas future.

Corbett will supplement—not replace—Mahan among China’s pantheon of strategic theorists. At the Naval War College we often ask students whether they consider themselves Mahanian or Corbettian. While this makes for lively debate, one without the other is a dubious choice. By taking the best from each thinker—and by acknowledging that their works are compatible on many questions—strategists can fuse Mahanian and Corbettian precepts into a grand theory of sea power and naval warfare. Should the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) embrace Corbett, its operations and tactics could take on a different complexion than one would expect from a navy beguiled by Mahan. This warrants American scrutiny.

A Maritime Theorist a Land Power Can Love

That Corbett fits with the traditions of a great continental power like China—despite hailing from the British Isles, an epicenter of sea power—is abundantly clear. There is much in a name. Consider the formal name of China’s navy: the People’s Liberation Army Navy is the navy of a great army. For Mahan it was a “fundamental truth, warranted by history” that sea power is “chief among the merely material elements in the power and prosperity of nations.” 5 Corbett found little in this claim to quarrel with, but he insisted that

Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided—except in the rarest cases—either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do. 6

Accordingly, maritime strategy was the art of determining “the mutual relations of your army and navy in a plan of war.” The navy’s purpose was to control vital sea routes, not cover itself in glory. Corbett decried battles fought for their own sake. Such “sea heresies” scarcely endeared him to a Royal Navy establishment reared on the lore of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. 7

Like Mahan, Corbett maintained that proper strategy involved seeking out the opponent for decisive combat at the outset of war. Or rather, this was “sound and applicable” nine times out of ten. But he also beseeched the Royal Navy to restrain its “battle faith” in the “doctrine of overthrow.” 8 He dwelt on the remaining one-tenth of cases in Some Principles . Absolute sea control of the kind extolled by Mahan—“overbearing power” that expelled enemy shipping from important waters, more or less permanently, or at most allowed it to appear “as a fugitive”—was seldom if ever attainable in Corbett’s view. 9 An uncommanded sea was the normal state of things. Nor did command automatically pass to one belligerent if the other lost it. The British scholar, furthermore, applied his energies to espousing the naval defensive and the “fleet-in-being.” A navy resorted to the defensive as a temporary expedient, postponing a major engagement “by strategical or tactical activity, so as to keep our fleet in being till the situation develops in our favor.” 10

While such concepts were anathema to a Royal Navy that bestrode the world, they will apply to the PLAN as long as it remains inferior to the combined forces of the U.S. Navy and its Asian allies. Over the past decade, influential Chinese strategists have conveyed similar ideas about the ambiguous nature of command of the sea. Rear Admiral Huang Jiang, the former dean of the Naval Command College and deputy commander of the PLAN’s East Sea Fleet, trenchantly counsels:

Seizing command of the sea is not a zero-sum interaction. In sea battle, the loss of our freedom of movement does not necessarily mean that the enemy has gained freedom of movement. Similarly, preventing the enemy from attaining freedom of movement does not mean that we possess freedom of movement. It is only when one side not only immobilizes enemy freedom of movement at sea, but also enjoys unfettered ability to maneuver at sea that command of the sea has been grasped. Otherwise, command of the sea remains in a contested state, belonging to neither side. 11

In a similar vein, the official PLAN encyclopedia definition of “command of the sea” proclaims that local command is attainable in generally contested waters. Under such conditions, declare the authors, “each side must assume significant risk to operate [at sea], requiring effective sea control within a limited sea area and limited timeframe to conduct certain naval operations.” 12 This is precisely what Corbett meant by “command in dispute,” which the Englishman describes as the “most important [stage of naval warfare] for practical strategy, since it is the normal condition, at least in the early stages of the war, and frequently all through it.” 13

Active Defense = Superior Offense

These sober—and very Corbettian—Chinese pronouncements are a far cry from neo-Mahanian assertions that China can and should seek absolute command. In practical terms, this more realistic appraisal conforms to China’s offshore-defense strategy, which seeks to assert sea control for a finite time up to several hundred miles off the mainland’s coast. Corbett doubtless would have approved.

Indeed, Corbett’s language of nautical “active defense” presaged Mao Zedong’s famous works on protracted war years before the Chinese Communist Party chairman wrote them. For Corbett, offense constituted the essence of active defense. Command of the sea—or, as he called it with greater precision, “permanent general control”—remained the paramount goal. But it need not be the lesser fleet’s immediate goal if an unfavorable balance of forces augured disaster. “True Defensive,” he proclaimed, “means waiting for a chance to strike,” whether by launching “minor counterattacks” with asymmetric means or at asymmetric sites, inducing the foe to waste his strength, or augmenting one’s own strength at sea. 14

As Corbett’s hero Carl von Clausewitz pointed out, “the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive.” 15 An inferior but savvy fleet could play defense, overextending an antagonist’s communications, exploiting familiar ground, and harassing a retreating foe. If commanders were unable to win sequentially—that is, in an orderly process by which they cleared the sea of enemy fleets before exercising command—options still remained. Military logic dictated sequential operations, admitted Corbett, but war

is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice . . . . owing to the special conditions of naval warfare, extraneous necessities intrude themselves which make it inevitable that operations for exercising command should accompany as well as follow operations for securing command. 16

An inferior fleet could exercise control before obtaining it. Audacity was the soul of the naval defensive. Defense could never deliver positive goals, but it could frustrate an adversary:

That such an attitude in itself cannot lead to any positive result at sea goes without saying, but nevertheless even over prolonged periods it can prevent an enemy securing positive results, and so give time for the other belligerent to dominate the situation by securing his ends ashore. 17

Corbett recalled that Lord Torrington had prevented a superior French fleet from landing forces in Ireland in 1690, despite his fleet’s inferiority. Unable to win a decisive engagement, the Royal Navy fleet shadowed the French, posing a threat to French landing operations. Merely disputing command helped the English commander realize his chief goal: King William III consummated his land victory without external interference. Torrington won strategically, despite coming up short tactically. 18

For Mahan, concentrating the fleet for battle was crucial. Only thus could commanders avoid piecemeal defeat as enemies fell on individual detachments. As in other matters, Corbett took a more supple view, arguing that the purpose of naval concentration was

to cover the widest possible area, and to preserve at the same time elastic cohesion, so as to secure rapid condensations of any two or more of the parts of the organism, and in any part of the area to be covered, at the will of the controlling mind; and above all, a sure and rapid condensation of the whole at the strategical center. 19

Elastic cohesion fits with China’s extended coastline, which lets PLAN commanders mass forces rapidly from different sites. It also fits with Chinese strategic preferences for attacks dispersed in space and time. 20 So long as the PLA contents itself with fighting in China’s extended neighborhood, keeping forces dispersed along the mainland seaboard and condensing them for battle only makes sense. It is worth noting that most unresolved territorial disputes along the Chinese maritime periphery involve islands. The list of challenges includes not just Taiwan but outlying Taiwanese islands such as Kinmen, Matsu, and the Penghu Islands. Beijing claims the many islands that dot the South China Sea. And PLAN egress into the Western Pacific depends on safe passage through the Ryukyu island chain, which runs from Okinawa through northern Taiwan. Wresting one or more of the Ryukyus from Japan would guarantee access to vital waters in times of strife. In short, Corbett’s writings could help the PLA yoke naval power to amphibious operations along the periphery.

Certain things have changed over the past century, but those pose few problems for Chinese thinkers looking to Corbett. The English writer could scarcely conceive of “using the land to control the sea,” or using shore-based aircraft and antiship missiles to hold off rival navies. In all likelihood, however, his silence on such matters was a function not of theoretical quibbles but of technological change. 21 Shore-based gunnery could reach only a few miles offshore in the days of Mahan and Corbett—a far cry from antiship cruise missiles boasting ranges measured in scores of miles and, potentially, an antiship ballistic missile able to strike at targets under way hundreds of miles distant. 22

Living in an age when the torpedo remained a promising but unproven innovation, Corbett could not imagine land forces boasting today’s reach and lethality. But if the purpose of maritime forces is to influence the outcome on land, land forces ought to help ward off hostile men-of-war while allowing friendly fleets into important coastal waters to project power ashore. Corbett would certainly have smiled on close interactions between land and sea operations.

Sir Julian Lands in Asia

A Corbettian PLAN acting on Mahanian logic would prove more nimble, more resilient, and more formidable than a Mahanian fleet obsessed with absolute sea control. Consequently, it behooves the U.S. Navy to monitor Chinese strategic commentary for further signs of a turn to Corbett, and to foresee the likely composition and practices of such a fleet should one take to the Asian seas. A logical next step for Chinese strategists would be to explore the writings of British Army Colonel Charles E. Callwell, another contemporary of Corbett and a fellow enthusiast for naval support to land operations. 23 Callwell too appears to fit with Chinese needs and interests.

U.S. naval officers and leaders should strive to be as intellectually curious and innovative as the Chinese, lest they one day find themselves caught flat-footed. They must also rethink the long-standing assumption that command of the commons belongs to the U.S. military. It does not. To their credit, the framers of the nascent AirSea Battle Doctrine seem to be of a Corbettian frame of mind. They understand that access is something that could be lost—and for which the armed forces must fight. Corbett is leaving his mark not only on Asian thinkers but also, apparently, on their counterparts in the West.

1. For a rundown on Mahanian “logic” and “grammar,” see James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “Mahan’s Lingering Ghost,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , Vol. 135, No. 12 (December 2009), pp. 40–45.

2. Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), pp. 203, 217–222.

3. Fu Zhengnan, “On the Maritime Strategic Perspective of Julian Corbett,” International Politics Quarterly , No. 4 (2008), p. 130.

4. Shi Xiaoqin, “Another Path to Understanding Sea Power: On Julian Corbett’s Sea Power Theory and Its Practical Meaning,” Peace and Development , No. 1 (February 2010), p. 62.

5. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown, 1897), pp. 51–52.

6. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy , intro. Eric J. Grove (1911; repr., Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), p. 16.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., pp. 323-324, 164.

9. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890; repr., New York: Dover, 1987), p. 138.

10. Corbett, Some Principles , p. 211.

11. Huang Jiang, “On Modern Command of the Sea,” China Military Science , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2003), p. 25.

12. Editorial Board of the Chinese Navy Encyclopedia, Chinese Navy Encyclopedia (Beijing: Haichao Publishers, 1999), p. 1929.

13. Corbett, Some Principles , p. 319.

14. Ibid., p. 165, pp. 310–311.

15. Carl von Clausewitz, On War , ed., trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 357–358.

16. Corbett, Some Principles , p. 234.

17. Ibid., p. 209.

18. Ibid., pp. 212–219.

19. Ibid., p. 132.

20. James R. Holmes, “China’s Way of Naval War: Mahan’s Logic, Mao’s Grammar,” Comparative Strategy , Vol. 28, No. 3 (2009), pp. 217–243.

21. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review , Vol 62, No. 4 (Autumn 2009), pp. 53–86.

22. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “On the Verge of a Game-Changer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , Vol. 135, No. 5 (May 2009), pp. 26–32.

23. Charles E. Callwell, Military Operations and Maritime Preponderance: Their Relations and Interdependence (1905; repr., Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996).


Dr. Holmes and Dr. Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the Naval War College and coauthors, most recently, of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 2010).


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