As European naval powers decline rapidly and the U.S. Navy diminishes quantitatively, China is going to sea. This ends a great historical trend that began six centuries ago, in which China withdrew inward and European naval expansion spread Western influence worldwide.
Now, for the first time in history, a robust and enduring debate pervades Beijing: Is China a continental power, a maritime power, or both? To what extent will its persisting political and strategic geography and the continentalist strategic culture it helped to form constrain its development as a maritime power?
The ancient Persians lacked a maritime tradition, but their leaders were open to new ideas. Initially viewing the sea as a barrier, they came to see it as a communications highway and developed extensive naval experience. By devoting major financial resources, they were subsequently able to build the first truly substantial navy in history. The scale and economic dynamism of these efforts suggest parallels to China.
The Ottoman Empire had significant resources but also insuperable continentalist limitations. Ottoman land frontiers continued to pose a threat, consuming attention and resources. Ottoman use of oared galleys to transport ground forces was suitable for the Mediterranean, but not for the much larger and less land-constrained Indian Ocean. Unable to keep up with economic globalization, the Ottomans forfeited their chance to dominate the first global market.
As the center of naval competition moved into the Atlantic and beyond during the modern era, several major continental powers made earnest attempts at maritime transformation, with limited success. France, for example, made four major attempts at maritime transformation and failed each time. Weakness and disorganization in the central government were chronic problems; anti-commercial and anti-imperial attitudes were widespread among the elite; a weak financial system hobbled naval construction and supply; and relations between the navy and the army were consistently poor or nonexistent.
The French case may be particularly relevant to China. It suggests that internal consolidation is a prerequisite for maritime focus. Like France, China enjoys good ports and ready access to the sea, but also an inland capital and a system of inland waterways that lessened the nation’s dependence on seagoing commerce. Like France, China has three relatively distinct maritime frontiers, and a history of suboptimal coordination between fleets stationed in each, facilitating defeat in battle. Both nations share a history of fitful naval development together with skepticism or outright hostility toward naval power or maritime expansion among important elements of their elites. The most compelling explanation for that continentalism: long-standing elite preoccupation with threats to—or opportunities afforded by—the land frontier.
Imperial Germany’s access to the oceans was handicapped by chokepoints controlled by unfriendly powers. Unlike Russia, Germany overextended itself by attempting to use naval transformation to obviate, not complement, land power. The navy simply could not compensate for Germany’s two-front continental challenge.
The German case has several parallels to China, and one major difference. Both had ancient maritime traditions, but were geopolitical latecomers. Both used comprehensive (economic, technological, and educational) means to assist maritime transformation. At the center was government-led industrialization supported by a capitalist maritime economy. But thus far, drawing in part on historical lessons, China has avoided precipitating disastrous great-power war.
Historians have exaggerated Chinese neglect of the sea. The Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) had Hangzhou, a seaport on the Yangtze River, as its capital. Large shipyards supported a significant naval force, which the Mongols inherited when their Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) overthrew the Song. The Mongols launched (albeit unsuccessfully) the largest amphibious operations of the Middle Ages—against Japan, Vietnam, and Java. In the 1300s, the Chinese made cutting-edge innovations in shipbuilding and naval armaments, and invented the magnetic compass.
The Ming Dynasty had a strong naval element from start to finish. It first established itself by defeating its rivals in southern China largely through the use of naval power. Larger than all but a few sea battles in history, the decisive battle of Lake Poyang in 1363 involved hundreds of warships on both sides.
The peak of Ming maritime accomplishment came with the seven voyages of eunuch admiral Zheng He (1405–33). Supported by Emperor Yongle, Zheng commanded expeditions of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men on history’s largest wooden ships, some perhaps more than 440 feet long and displacing 20,000 tons. These voyages nurtured trade, (re)opened relations with tributary kingdoms, demonstrated hard and soft power, and brought the Ming flag through the Strait of Malacca across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and East Africa. But Zheng’s costly voyages brought few tangible benefits to the empire, the imperial bureaucracy opposed them as risky and wasteful, and he made just one voyage after Emperor Yongle’s death.
In the 1500s, harsh but unevenly enforced imperial edicts discouraged long-distance maritime commerce and drove Chinese and foreign merchants into piracy. Though still a formidable sea power in aggregate capabilities and trade, Ming China lost its lead in nautical technology and took years to rescind prohibitions and dissipate piracy along its own coast, which flourished during the Wokou Raids of the 1540s–80s.
Qing China’s (1644–1912) geostrategic orientation was the subject of major debate between Li Hongzhang, head of the Beiyang Navy; and Zuo Zongtang, leader of the expeditionary force to recover Xinjiang. The Qing chose land power, and both General Li and the nation suffered the consequences.
In addition to existing internal political problems, the Qing were suddenly confronted with the threat of rising British, French, and Japanese naval power in Asia. Qing China proved incapable of meeting the maritime challenge posed by the modern navies of the Western powers. In the First Opium War (1839–42), a British fleet penetrating to the heart of China’s riverine network threatened to shut down the country’s internal commerce, thus forcing the regime to sue for peace; Britain acquired Hong Kong.
The Qing eventually purchased ships from abroad but had neither the reliable infrastructure nor the professional navy to operate them effectively in battle, with disastrous results. In the 1880s, defeat of China’s nascent fleet at the hands of the French sealed the end of its traditional influence in Indochina. By the last decade of the century, in spite of their acquisition of significant naval capabilities, the Chinese proved no match for their rapidly modernizing island neighbor and suffered humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, leading to the loss of Taiwan and to a Japanese protectorate in Korea.
Pressed by the Russians from the north as well as by the Western maritime powers, the imperial court was forced to accede to rising demands for commercial and territorial concessions. In 1905, China suffered terribly but without recourse as the Russo-Japanese War was waged on its land territory and in nearby waters, in part over access to strategically located Port Arthur.
All of these developments would fatally weaken the foundations of the dynasty and indeed the legitimacy of the empire itself. The fall of the Qing in 1911 led to a long period of internal instability. Qing China’s maritime defeats thus stemmed from its failure to wholeheartedly embrace Western naval techniques following the first Opium War—in sharp contrast to its rival Japan.
Land-Centric Cold War
During the Cold War, China’s naval development was constrained by U.S. dominance of maritime East Asia and later by internal policy debacles and deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union. China’s navy primarily supported ground forces, and did not even have its own strategy until around 1988.
The outlook of Chinese Communist Party elites was formed by the experience of land warfare; few of the party’s leading commanders knew anything about naval warfare or the advanced technologies critical to modern naval (or air) combat. Though Mao Zedong initiated plans for an invasion of Taiwan in 1949–50, it was quickly discovered that this lay well beyond the current or foreseeable capabilities of the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese involvement in the Korean War diverted resources and the leadership’s attention to ground combat. The border war against India in 1962, in which the Chinese performed well (but against an unprepared Indian Army in uniquely difficult terrain), was another example of Maoist China’s continental focus. What progress Beijing was able to make in building up a modern navy virtually from scratch was only possible with technical assistance provided by the Soviet Union, which ended in 1960.
It became clear in the course of the 1960s that the greatest security threat to China was in fact that posed by the Soviet Union itself. In 1969, the two nuclear-armed communist powers carried on a series of border skirmishes in Siberia that might well have sparked a larger conflict (the Soviets at this time appear to have contemplated a preemptive attack on China’s nuclear forces and facilities). By the end of the Cold War, both countries maintained substantial conventional forces along their common border. Given the severe underdevelopment of the Chinese economy, China’s military resources were sharply constrained; and its ground forces had to be accorded top priority.
A third factor was Beijing’s functional entente with the United States during this period, which may have allowed the People’s Republic to take a more relaxed view of the not inconsiderable potential threat posed by the Soviet Navy in Asian waters than might otherwise have been the case.
Turning a Corner at Last . . .
Looking to the Deng era and beyond, then, is China finally overcoming its historical difficulties to achieve enduring maritime development? China’s commercial maritime trajectory suggests that this may indeed be the case. It is led by an exceedingly dynamic commercial maritime and shipbuilding sector, which is in turn creating ample synergies for naval development—thereby offering a sound basis for transformation that was frequently lacking in other land powers that went to sea.
Unlike the shipbuilding industries of such land powers as Germany and Russia, China’s is driven by the “pull” of commercial interests rather than the “push” of the state. China is gradually surpassing South Korea as the world’s foremost shipbuilder in gross tonnage, and commands roughly 50 percent of the world market by that metric. But China is still far from emulating such great maritime powers as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States—all of which dominated all levels of commercial shipbuilding in their rise to global power. To reach this level, China would have to increase not only its market share, but also its personnel quality and innovation ability—although the globalization of the shipbuilding industry offers new opportunities for technological progress.
For the first time in centuries, China is developing a truly operational modern navy, the product of three decades of favorable conditions. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, China no longer faced an existential threat on its inner Asian frontier. Instead, its primary security concerns were clearly in the process of shifting to the maritime domain. In the first instance, territorial disputes in offshore waters with various regional states assumed increasing salience, beginning with the PRC’s clash with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in 1974. Second, the evolution of Taiwan’s domestic politics in a democratic direction was threatening to move the Republic of China away from its long-standing “One China” policy toward de facto and even de jure independence. At the same time, the apparent willingness of the United States to act as Taiwan’s protector, particularly during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, forced China to face the eventual prospect of engaging the U.S. Navy in a conflict in East Asian waters. Finally, the rapid growth of China’s economy as a result of the bold reforms instituted by Deng and pursued by his successors made comprehensive modernization of China’s naval forces a feasible objective of Chinese Communist military policy for the first time ever.
In the naval realm, China is becoming a regional naval power with formidable anti-access capabilities. But it has not yet invested the resources and manpower necessary to achieve high-end warfighting capabilities substantially beyond its immediate maritime periphery. This is still “a tale of two navies.”
Studying the attempts of China and other continental powers to go to sea offers enduring lessons. First, geography matters—even amid technological advances. “Continentalist” powers have generally been disadvantaged by their geographic situation. The more severely disadvantaged powers have sometimes engaged in ambitious strategic projects designed to change the stubborn facts of geography in their favor (China built the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and Three Gorges Dam, and is now constructing an oil pipeline through Burma). China has reasonable ocean access in many respects, but retains unsettled maritime claims with all its maritime neighbors. It remains hemmed in by “island chains” in the view of many of its strategic thinkers. Land borders represent a greater potential challenge. China has settled all save with India and Bhutan, but has fought substantial wars with India and Vietnam, and could face future discord with Russia. At the core of potential for continentalist distraction are ongoing ethnic autonomy/separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Second, maritime transformation is a difficult and treacherous process that no modern land power has fully accomplished. The opportunity costs are many, and the potential to unnerve other powers is great. The only cases in the entire historical record of successful and enduring maritime transformations are Persia and Rome. Even in those cases, however, the empires retained their original continentalist imprint—“once a land power, always a land power”—at least to some extent. It would be difficult to argue that a maritime transformation was fully realized. The Persians never really used their navy as an offensive instrument; rather, they specialized in what today would be called joint maritime operations, in which their fleet provided logistic support and flank protection for large Persian armies advancing along an enemy’s coast. The Romans were also slow to establish permanent fleets (this occurred only under the empire) and a regime of maritime policing; one result was the persistence of a serious piracy threat in the western Mediterranean down to the first century B.C.
Third, the geostrategic outlook of great powers is shaped not only by geography proper but by economic factors. The aggregate wealth created by natural resources and production sustains a certain level of population, which (in combination with financial resources and industrial technology) translates into military capability. As the ancient Persians were the first to demonstrate, large revenues can buy large navies. China has the resources, and increasingly the technology, to make such an investment. Unlike the Soviet Union or other continentalist predecessors, China truly has comprehensive national power, with a strong economic component. Its measured, long-term approach to naval development is economically rational. The question is whether acquisition of such capabilities by China would in fact be wise given other pressing demands as well as possible adverse international repercussions.
A fourth critical factor is a state’s strategic outlook. This is shaped by international and domestic considerations, primarily regime survival. It is frequently difficult for states to balance and prioritize strategic objectives when they pose multiple and potentially conflicting challenges. In China’s case, an ongoing continentalist preoccupation with internal stability is increasingly balanced by concern for economic development and great-power status to erase the “Century of Humiliation” and return China to its rightful position.
Fifth, leadership is perhaps the most critical factor enabling (or frustrating) maritime transformations. It enabled Zheng He, and frustrated Qing reformers. Admiral Liu Huaqing, with Deng’s support, directed a gradual but limited rise in the PLA Navy’s status. China’s leadership clearly appreciates Alfed Thayer Mahan’s ideas concerning commerce protection and the importance of sea lines of communication. The overall climate of opinion in China today is more favorable to maritime transformation than at any time in its long history. But countervailing factors remain.
Unique Characteristics, Rare Transformation
A successful transformation ultimately is shaped by naval strategy and operational art. Continental powers typically cannot match maritime powers, and employ a different approach. The Ottomans used amphibious and littoral-warfare operations to seize offshore islands in the Mediterranean. This parallels China’s own campaigns (1949–55) that expelled the Nationalists from all offshore islands save Taiwan, the Penghus, Jinmen, and Mazu. Chinese short/medium-range ballistic-missile development (e.g., of the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile) represents in part an updated version of this approach—“using the land to control the sea.” China has ongoing limitations that give its naval development unique Chinese characteristics, but they are no longer fatal to it. Chinese naval warfare may look very different from that of the United States, but may be no less successful when applied to China’s own situation.
The experience of land powers that have previously attempted to become sea powers has generally been negative. China is thus sailing into a strategic headwind. The very extent to which China should attempt such a transformation remains under debate in Beijing. Yet China is clearly going to sea. It enjoys several advantages that its predecessors have generally lacked:
• A robust maritime economy
• A dynamic shipbuilding industry
• Settled borders with nearly all its continental neighbors
• A leadership that supports maritime development as a natural phenomenon and does not attempt to “decree” it.
China has very likely turned the corner on a genuine maritime transformation. If that proves indeed to be the case, it would be a remarkable—if not singular—event in the history of the last two millennia. China will have learned the lessons of history, but will not have been condemned to repeat them.
Dr. Goldstein is the founding director of CMSI and has worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Goldstein and Erickson are co-editors of, and contributors to, the Naval Institute Press Studies in Chinese Maritime Development series.
Dr. Lord, professor of military and naval strategy at the Naval War College, is director of the Naval War College Press and editor of the Naval War College Review. This article draws on the three authors’ co-edited volume China Goes to Sea (Naval Institute Press, 2009).