China is gathering the rudiments of a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, a vital source of seaborne imports to fuel that nation’s swiftly developing economy. In so doing, it is venturing into unmarked territory, assuming an offensive stance unprecedented in modern Chinese history.
The basic assumption propelling Chinese strategy since the Opium Wars of the 1840s—which demonstrated the backwardness of Chinese forces against seafaring Western conquerors—is that China will start any conflict as the weaker belligerent. Chinese forces resort to the defensive so they can buy the time they need to turn the tables and prosecute a devastating counteroffensive. Indeed, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong founded his strategy of “active defense”—the concept that inspires and lends its name to China’s near-seas defense strategy—on this axiom of its contemporary statecraft.