Mao's 'Active Defense' Is Turning Offensive

By James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara

In short, a forward deployment to the Indian Ocean is becoming conceivable for Chinese rulers for the first time since the Ming Dynasty six centuries ago. To all appearances Beijing understands the magnitude of such a project, its perils, and its potential for lost opportunities in East Asia. Should China’s leadership siphon off forces to the Indian Ocean, that is, it must accept greater risk in regional trouble spots like the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. Those waters wash against homeland coasts, concentrating the attention of officialdom in a way few distant challenges can. And the near seas constitute China’s historic maritime periphery, engaging national honor and prestige.

The remoteness of the Indian Ocean, coupled with unfinished business close to home, will apply a brake on Chinese strategy. On the other hand, advances in military technology—in particular an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) purportedly capable of striking throughout the China seas and into the Indian Ocean basin—promise to ease such constraints. If the PLA Navy can rely on shore-based fire support over vast distances, naval commanders might get by with fewer resources, not only in China’s near seas but in remote theaters like South Asia. The capacity to mount an economy-of-force deployment backed by long-range fire support would reduce risk in the near seas—making the decision easier for Beijing to send the ships forth. While technology is not everything, it does carry strategic import.

Inside, Outside

Strategic geography helps illuminate the promise and perils an Indian Ocean presence holds for China. Milan Vego relates the concepts of interior and exterior lines—concepts derived from land warfare—to the sea. Writing a century ago, Alfred Thayer Mahan likened the sea to a featureless plain. Where better to apply geometric concepts than on the open sea, a medium traversed using nautical charts and maneuvering boards? Explains Vego:

A force moves along interior lines when it runs between those of the enemy’s lines of operations. Interior lines always originate from a central position. They are formed from a central position prolonged in one or more directions or they can also be understood as a series of central positions linked with one another. Interior lines in general allow concentration of one’s forces against one part of the enemy force, while holding the other in check with a force distinctly inferior in strength. 1

China is accustomed to operating along interior lines. During the 1920s, Mao’s Red Army confronted a series of “encirclement and suppression” campaigns through which Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army drove the Chinese Communist Party to the brink of extinction. Japan invaded the mainland during the 1930s, also along exterior lines.

The United States and its allies prosecuted a successful “containment” strategy during the Cold War, using naval and air forces based along the offshore island chain to impede Chinese and Soviet naval movement. Since then the United States has preserved its strategic position through its alliance with Japan and bases on Pacific islands such as Guam and Hawaii.

Now, as before, China holds the central position with all the advantages it entails, notably nearby bases and forces, agile movement in space, and short lines of communication aided by vastly improved national highways and railways. If the interior position offers the advantages Vego spotlights, how can an exterior power prevail?

The Strategy of Lincoln

Look no further than the words of Abraham Lincoln, America’s self-educated strategist-President. He grasped that the Confederacy held the interior lines against Union forces that seldom coordinated their attacks on the Southern states. And he grasped this dimension of the conflict sooner than battlefield commanders did. President Lincoln framed his vision of wartime strategy in terms of interior and exterior lines. Writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson:

No one explained this strategic concept better than Lincoln himself. . . .“I state my general idea of this war,” wrote the commander in chief, “that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating upon points of collision.” Union forces could not succeed “unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and that if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.” 2

For Lincoln, the Confederates could concentrate in space along the periphery, balking Union attacks that took place in uncoordinated fashion. But Union armies commanded superior numbers and resources. They simply needed to apply those resources simultaneously. As McPherson puts it, Southern “concentration in space could be overcome only if the Union employed its greater numbers . . . to attack on two or more fronts at once—concentration in time .” 3 That concentration evidently demands superior physical might, the ability to project that power into an adversary’s backyard, and the ability to coordinate multiple actions across multiple points of contact—fixing and overwhelming resistance from an interior power exploiting its home-field advantage.

This is an exacting standard, yet one that an exterior power must meet to prevail in faraway theaters. Consider the U.S. forces’ dual-pronged thrust across the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Concurrent Central and Southwest Pacific drives forced Tokyo to defend along two main fronts, preventing Japanese forces from concentrating in space.

Yet this campaign plan proved highly resource-intensive and time-consuming, taxing even the industrial might of the United States. China will encounter similar role reversal as it ventures into a region inhabited by India, which occupies a central position and entertains maritime ambitions of its own. How successful an exterior strategy Beijing can prosecute remains unclear.

Balancing among Theaters

Lincoln had actual hostilities in mind, but his logic of concentration in space and time applies equally to peacetime competition, when perceptions of relative naval strength are what count. Displaying impressive capabilities and the competence to use them forms the essence of “naval suasion” for scholar Edward Luttwak. The outcomes of peacetime naval encounters, that is, depend on how observers estimate a wartime clash of arms would have turned out. 4

China must project meaningful military power into the Indian Ocean to tap into naval suasion. It must accumulate enough sea power in the region—manifest in oceangoing forces and forward bases—to convince observers that the PLA has achieved superiority over India within India’s natural sphere of primacy. And to complicate matters, Beijing must pull this off in strategic surroundings where the United States has pledged to stage “credible combat power,” both in the Western Pacific, where China remains on interior lines and can concentrate in space, and in the Indian Ocean, where China must concentrate in time to get its way. 5 Grasping this, Chinese analysts are wary of the U.S. military presence in Diego Garcia, from which the United States can radiate naval and air power throughout the region. 6

Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz sketched a pithy algorithm for balancing priorities among primary and secondary theaters. His logic will likely discomfit Beijing. Clausewitz urged commanders to strike at the enemy “center of gravity” repeatedly, landing “blow after blow” against this “hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.” This represents “the point against which all our energies should be directed. . . .” 7 Focus is paramount. Like all rules, however, his rule of concentrated effort has an exception:

The principle of aiming everything at the enemy’s center of gravity admits of only one exception—that is, when secondary operations look exceptionally rewarding . But we must repeat that only decisive superiority can justify diverting strength without risking too much in the principal theater [his emphasis]. 8

While Chinese theorist Sun Tzu recommended diverting resources into indirect or “extraordinary” operations to keep an enemy off balance, he too urged commanders to husband resources. Neither theorist countenanced wanton dispersal of force. But as Chinese leaders survey their surroundings, numerous contingencies—not just one or two—beckon their attention. If Chinese commanders try to do everything with finite resources, they may find themselves doing little at any given point on the map.

From north to south, a partial list of controversies includes a mercurial North Korea, competition with Japan over East China Sea gas fields and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the impasse across the Taiwan Strait, maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the prospect that pirates, seagoing terrorists, or some great-power rival will interrupt shipping through the Strait of Malacca. These contingencies all demand substantial diplomatic energy and military resources. Setting priorities among theaters, then, ranks as one of the foremost challenges confronting Beijing.

Think about it. Which of China’s near seas constitutes the principal theater in Clausewitzian parlance? Does China stand to gain anything in the Indian Ocean that qualifies as exceptionally rewarding? And does the PLA hold decisive superiority in any—let alone all—of the East Asian theaters? Whether Beijing can spare forces for South Asia depends on how it answers these questions.

The ‘Fortress Fleet’ Comes of Age

Technology could offset the Clausewitzian dilemmas besetting Chinese strategists. The debate over the prospects for a Chinese antiship ballistic missile has been waged largely in the pages of Proceedings . The authors here remain agnostic about the ASBM. But suppose the PLA fields a working missile, and suppose it fulfills the potential that Pentagon and Chinese strategists foresee. Successive Defense Department reports on Chinese military power contain a map showing which seas would fall within range of ASBMs with a maximum effective firing range of just less than 1,250 miles, assuming mobile launchers were stationed all along China’s land frontiers.

The firing arc, therefore, parallels the Chinese border, depicting the outermost coverage for PLA fire support. From border sites, Chinese rocketeers could target ships under way throughout the entire Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea, and Strait of Malacca. They could strike throughout the Bay of Bengal along the Indian east coast. They could even reach into the northern Arabian Sea. 9 This is a sobering visual. In a sense, arid, landlocked provinces like Tibet and Xinjiang now form part of China’s maritime frontier. From there, the PLA could loft ASBMs toward adversary fleets.

That shore-based defenses enjoy a marked edge over men-of-war that venture within range is nothing new. Prudent skippers generally keep their distance. Captain William Bainbridge brought the USS George Washington to anchor under the guns of Algiers in 1800, whereupon the dey—boasting superior firepower—made Bainbridge an offer he couldn’t refuse. His gunners outmatched by the fort’s batteries, Bainbridge acted as an involuntary emissary to the Ottoman Porte.

The George Washington sailed for Constantinople under the Algerian flag—a humiliating testament to the primacy of shore gunnery. A century later, the redoubtable Admiral T?g? Heihachir? declined to risk his Imperial Japanese Navy fleet in the opening stages of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, owing in part to the fierce bombardment he expected from Russian artillery at Port Arthur.

What’s different today are the lethal precision and sheer combat reach a working ASBM would provide. If the ASBM lives up to its hype, the PLA may soon boast the world’s first effective “fortress fleet,” making good on a concept that fell into disrepute long ago. In his postmortem on the Russo-Japanese War, Mahan deplored the Russian commanders’ habit of keeping squadrons safely within range of shore-based fire support.

This “radically erroneous” brand of fleet tactics ostensibly protected the city from T?g?’s fleet cruising offshore. In reality, declared Mahan, it foreshortened the Russian Navy’s combat radius to a few miles of Port Arthur. And it bred timidity among Russian commanders, inducing them to shelter under protective gunfire from the port.

This was a telling critique for Mahan’s day, but what if Port Arthur’s guns had sported ranges measured not in a few but in hundreds of miles? Russian gunners could have largely cleared the seas of Japanese warships while menacing the stronger Imperial Japanese Navy in homeports such as Sasebo. Meanwhile, the Russian Navy could have roamed waters cleared of the enemy with impunity. No longer would the range of shore gunnery have limited commanders’ boldness or liberty of action. 10 Similarly, an operational ASBM would enable the PLA Second Artillery Corps to deliver fire support across massive swaths of maritime Asia, defending PLA Navy task forces—a Chinese fortress fleet—against stronger competitors.

Should Beijing opt to erect a base network in South Asia, furthermore, ASBMs—particularly if forward-deployed to the region, expanding their threat envelope even more—would let the PLA defend these bases against the Indian Navy, the U.S. Navy, or some other antagonist. Chinese naval forces could do more with less, even while operating far from home on exterior lines. Mobile ASBM batteries positioned in southwestern China, then, would let the PLA mount a flanking action to offset difficult strategic geography. Imaginative use of ASBMs with forward-deployed PLA Navy submarines and surface ships would ease the strain of projecting power into the Indian Ocean, helping Beijing fulfill its goal of effective naval suasion.

Groundwork without Commitment

Beijing, it appears, is laying the groundwork for a standing naval presence in the Indian Ocean without wholly—and perhaps prematurely—committing itself to such a presence. This represents prudent diplomacy. On the strategic level, extended-range artillery may temporarily obviate the need for a major fleet-building program that China’s neighbors in East and South Asia would find unduly provocative. There is no substitute for the physical presence of ships at sea as an implement of statecraft. Nevertheless, a missile force backed by a formidable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance architecture may offer China a gap-filler, a kind of virtual presence in the Indian Ocean basin.

An ASBM thus promises to lower the operational barrier to entry into the Indian Ocean, holding down the perceived cost of exterior-line operations there and making such a presence plausible in Clausewitzian cost/benefit terms. No longer must Beijing fear sacrificing interests along its periphery for the sake of geographically remote—yet economically acute—interests in the Indian Ocean.

Because such a forward deployment would depend so heavily on a panoply of missile technologies, however, it would be vulnerable to Indian or American countermeasures that blunt the ASBM’s effectiveness. Doubts linger over the PLA’s capacity to detect enemy fleets at long ranges, cue Second Artillery Corps missile launchers, and accurately guide warheads onto moving seaborne targets in pinpoint fashion. Hence our agnosticism.

The likely outcome is a seesaw dynamic between offense and defense, challenge and reply in maritime Asia. Clausewitz likens warfare to a collision of living forces, or to wrestlers grappling for operational and strategic advantage. Just as the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Aegis combat system swung the pendulum toward the Fleet during the 1980s, restoring the potential of the offensive, technological progress now threatens to revolutionize shore fire support in favor of the defender. It’s up to scientists, engineers, and tacticians to start swinging the pendulum back toward the U.S. Navy and its allies.

1. Milan N. Vego, Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas , 2d ed., rev. (London: Frank Cass, 2003), pp. 85–86.

2. James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin, 2008), pp. 70-71.

3. Ibid., p. 70.

4. For an extended treatment of naval suasion, see Edward N. Luttwak, The Political Uses of Sea Power (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 6–21.

5. U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower , October 2007, U.S. Navy Web site, <>.

6. Andrew S. Erickson, Walter C. Ladwig III, and Justin D. Mikolay, “Diego Garcia and the United States’ Emerging Indian Ocean Strategy,” Asian Security 6, no. 3 (Autumn 2010), pp. 214–37.

7. Carl von Clausewitz, On War , ed., trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 595–596.

8. Ibid., p. 618.

9. “Conventional Anti-Access Capabilities,” in U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010 , p. 32, U.S. Defense Department Web site, <http://> .

10. For a fuller analysis of the ASBM, see James R. Holmes, “A ‘Fortress Fleet’ for China,” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations 11, no. 2 (summer/fall 2010), pp. 19–31.


Dr. Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Dr. Yoshihara is also an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College, where he holds the Van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies.


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.

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