06 April 2010

“China Sets Sail” Published in The American Interest

Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, “China Sets Sail,” The American Interest 5.5 (Summer, May/June 2010): 27-34.

It’s not easy for a traditional land power to go to sea, but China is trying.

China has been undergoing an historic shift in emphasis from land to naval power. Is its maritime buildup a strategic necessity or an ill-conceived diversion?

The People’s Republic of China is in the process of an astonishing, multifaceted transformation. If the explosive growth of China’s industrial economy over the past several decades is the most obvious component of that transformation, no less remarkable is China’s turn to the sea. With its stunning advance in global shipbuilding markets, its vast and expanding merchant marine, the wide reach of its offshore energy and minerals exploration, its growing fishing fleet, and not least, its rapidly modernizing navy, China is fast becoming an outward-looking maritime state. At a time when the U.S. Navy continues to shrink in numbers if not relative capability, while the traditional naval powers of Europe are in sharp decline, this is a development that deserves careful consideration by students of contemporary global affairs.

With but one notable exception, China’s rulers throughout history have traditionally emphasized land power over sea power. Of course, ordinary Chinese living on the country’s extensive coastline have always taken to the sea for their livelihood, but the economy of China has always been fundamentally rooted in its soil. To the extent that the Chinese engaged in commercial activities over the centuries, they did so primarily with a view to their large and largely self-sufficient internal market, readily accessible through China’s great navigable river systems as well as its many seaward ports. Moreover, prior to 1840, the Chinese faced virtually no sustained security threats on their ocean flank. Historically, the security threat that preoccupied China’s leaders was exposure to raiding or invasion by the steppe nomads of Inner Asia. This threat was always latent and sometimes lethal: More than one Chinese dynasty succumbed to the horsemen of the north. The strategic culture formed by this history and political geography was therefore a profoundly continentalist one.

Throughout most of the past two centuries, this strategic culture retained its power. In the 19th century, Qing China proved incapable of meeting the maritime challenge posed by the Western powers, even as it conquered vast new territories on its inner Asian periphery. In the First Opium War (1839–42), a British fleet penetrating to the heart of China’s riverine network threatened to shut down China’s internal commerce, forcing the regime to sue for peace; it was at this time that Britain acquired Hong Kong. In the 1880s, defeat of a Chinese fleet at the hands of the French sealed the end of China’s traditional influence in Indochina. By the last decade of the century, despite their acquisition of significant naval capabilities, the Chinese proved no match for their rapidly modernizing island neighbor. Humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 led to a Japanese protectorate in Korea and the loss of Taiwan. …

This article draws on Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, eds., China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, July 2009).