A friend asks: Is the United States competing at a disadvantage with China because it does not have a maritime strategy and China does? The first impulse is to guffaw. That is because the question’s premise—that the United States has no maritime strategy—is false. Right? After all, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps leaders published a Maritime Strategy in the pages of Proceedings in 1986, unveiled a post–Cold War successor titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower in 2007, and “refreshed” the Cooperative Strategy for in 2015. Most recently, Sea Service leaders issued a triservice maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, in 2020, adding the Coast Guard to the mix for the first time. And that list overlooks 1990s’ strategic directives bearing such titles as . . . From the Sea and Forward . . . from the Sea. Many of these documents antedate China’s rise to great sea power.
Far from being at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China, the United States is awash in maritime strategies. Its lead in the paperwork arms race is insurmountable!
Or so it seems. But on second thought, the answer to my friend’s question is Yes. China does boast an advantage. It has a genuine maritime strategy whereas the United States calls many documents maritime strategies but really has none. The contender that knows what it wants, conceives a clear strategy to get it, and prosecutes that strategy with zeal enjoys an advantage over a rudderless opponent. This describes contemporary China to a T.
Naval vs. Maritime Strategy
Now, this may sound like a conversation about semantics, but semantics make a difference in this case. It would be more accurate to brand U.S. documents labeled maritime strategies as naval strategies. They are solid on the whole but limited in authority and impact. They explain what the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—forces the 2020 triservice strategy groups into a single “Naval Service”—will do to fulfill U.S. strategic and political goals in the saltwater realm. This is all well and good, but maritime strategy encompasses more than seafaring armed services. The triservice strategy acknowledges this, observing that the Sea Services comprise part of a much broader military, governmental, industrial, and societal endeavor:
The Naval Service does not compete, deter, or fight alone. We are an integral part of the Joint Force and work closely with allies, partners, and other government agencies. We are also part of America’s broader maritime enterprise, which includes commercial ships, merchant mariners, port infrastructure, and shipbuilders.
Fittingly, the framers of the 2020 strategy profess a larger perspective on maritime affairs, which includes everything from pleasure boating to fishing to high-seas combat. And yet, neither the triservice strategy nor its predecessors are joint—let alone interagency—documents. Regional combatant commanders—the chief overseers of U.S. military operations—are not bound by directives drawn up by the Sea Services. Nor are the Army, Air Force, or Space Force. Nor are nonmilitary institutions such as the State Department, the prime executor of U.S. foreign policy—including foreign policy relating to the sea.
Bottom line, the semantic distinction between naval and maritime matters a great deal. A truly maritime strategy orchestrates the efforts of all government bodies able to shape events at sea, not just the institutions that operate oceangoing ships. Maritime strategy thus implies supervision from the top of the political hierarchy.
Chinese Communist Party leaders understand this. They have taken a whole-of-government approach to China’s seaward enterprise and done so with aplomb. Party magnates such as President Xi Jinping have taken a keen personal interest in naval and military affairs. They have superintended the growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy into the world’s most numerous naval fighting force, consolidated a hodgepodge of maritime enforcement services into the world’s largest coast guard, and overseen the efforts of a maritime militia embedded within China’s fishing fleet to coerce China’s neighbors. Meanwhile, Beijing wages “three warfares” on a 24/7/365 basis, deploying legal, media, and psychological measures to bend opinion—including opinion about nautical controversies—in China’s favor.
China has a coherent, single-minded, all-encompassing maritime strategy energized by top political leaders.
This is unsurprising. Chinese strategists are avid students of the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the godfather of U.S. maritime strategy and probably history’s foremost proponent of high-seas exploits. Though he does not use the phrase, which is of more recent coinage, Mahan depicts maritime strategy as a variety of “grand strategy.” And he is right. Grand strategy is the art and science of choreographing the use of every tool in the policy toolbox to accomplish national goals. Tools relevant to seaward undertakings include not just naval and military might but diplomacy, information, economic coercion or inducements, and so on. Whatever helps mold events at sea is an implement of maritime strategy.
In other words, grand strategy stands above military strategy, which stands above naval strategy. Naval strategy is a subset of military strategy, which is a subset of grand strategy.
It is essential, then, to widen the purview of documents that are billed as maritime strategies but which are actually naval strategies. Commerce is king for disciples of Mahan, including China. A Mahanian maritime strategy nurtures industrial production and shipbuilding at home. Abroad, it aims to open commercial, diplomatic, and military access—in that order of precedence—to important trading regions. Armed might, writes Mahan, is “simply accessory and subordinate to the other greater interests, economical and commercial.” He espies a virtuous cycle: overseas trade and commerce beget prosperity, prosperity sluices tax revenue into the national treasury, and the government reinvests some of that revenue in a navy to protect merchantmen hauling raw materials or finished goods along maritime thoroughfares from sellers to buyers. Seaborne trade and commerce fund their own guardian. This cycle between commerce and naval power profited Great Britain during its imperial heyday, it has served the United States well for more than a century, and it is working for a China captivated by its marine ambitions.
Xi and company are true believers in the Mahanian formula.
A True U.S. Maritime Strategy
If the United States needs a maritime strategy, how should it devise one? By taking a page from China’s playbook—and in turn from America’s playbook during the age of Mahan. If maritime strategy is a grand strategy, then it is up to the stewards of U.S. grand strategy to take charge of the country’s seaward enterprise. Neither the Sea Services nor the Pentagon have the authority to direct fellow government agencies. Responsibility, then, falls to those in charge of U.S. foreign policy—namely, the White House and Congress. These are the institutions that design strategies, fashion policy instruments to carry them out, and either conduct them or oversee those who do.
A true U.S. maritime strategy must come from the top.
Two quick points. First, the Sea Services have an educational project in front of them. They need to instill a culture. Sea Service officers and officials must do their utmost to cultivate saltwater-minded leadership within the Pentagon, the administration, and Congress. Fluency in marine affairs is a must for this senior cohort. However, they should work toward something more profound than mere knowledge about seaborne commerce, diplomacy, and military efforts. Knowledge can be a pallid thing. Simply knowing a mass of facts about something may not kindle passion for it. To borrow from sci-fi master Robert Heinlein, the goal must be to get officials and lawmakers to grok the importance of maritime strategy. If they feel its importance in their bones, they may muster the sense of urgency that America’s seagoing destiny demands.
If they rouse themselves, they will craft a maritime strategy that lets the United States escape its competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis China.
Second, it takes a whole-of-government directive to implement a whole-of-government strategy. Documents promulgated by subsidiary agencies such as the Department of the Navy will not cut it. One inspiration for a Mahanian U.S. maritime strategy might be NSC-68, the national security blueprint for containing and outlasting Soviet communism during the Cold War. Compiled at the State Department and endorsed by the Truman administration in 1950, NSC-68 went into effect during the Korean War. It provided a north star for U.S. grand strategy for the ensuing 40 years of great power competition, spanning presidencies from both parties. This document has impressive prescience, longevity, and bipartisan appeal. And it came from the top.
An NSC-68 for the oceans, anyone?