05 December 2010

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “China’s Navy: A Turn to Corbett?”

James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, China’s Navy: A Turn to Corbett? U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 136, No. 12 (December 2010).

Chinese navalists have been mixing some Sir Julian Corbett into their Mahanian cocktails lately. That is wise on their part, and something that bears American scrutiny.

Some years ago, as China cast about for sea-power theories to guide its naval rise, its attention alighted on the works of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the second president of the U.S. Naval War College and the author of influential works such as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 and The Problem of Asia. Mahan exhorted nations to amass international commerce, forward bases, and merchant and naval fleets in order to gain commercial, political, and military access to key theaters like East Asia.

Mahan’s overarching “logic” of sea power remains compelling for many Chinese naval advocates. But in Asia as in the West, his strategic “grammar” of armadas battling for “command of the sea” has an antiquarian feel to it. Progress in naval technology has overtaken much of his “theory of naval strategy and defense,” predicated as it was on armored dreadnoughts and other fin de siècle armaments.

Concepts from land warfare, most notably Mao Zedong’s doctrine of “active defense,” can infuse contemporary meaning into Mahan’s logic of commerce, bases, and ships. Staying close to base areas, seizing opportunities for local tactical engagements, and wearying a superior foe over time were staples of Maoist warfighting doctrine. A vast nation like China, rich in manpower and resources, could play for time to tap its material superiority. And another Western maritime theorist’s writings fit ideally with China’s largely defensive operational needs: British historian Sir Julian Corbett, Mahan’s nemesis and the author of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. This renowned treatise appeared precisely 100 years ago, during the waning days of the British Empire and its Royal Navy. …

Certain things have changed over the past century, but those pose few problems for Chinese thinkers looking to Corbett. The English writer could scarcely conceive of “using the land to control the sea,” or using shore-based aircraft and antiship missiles to hold off rival navies. In all likelihood, however, his silence on such matters was a function not of theoretical quibbles but of technological change. Shore-based gunnery could reach only a few miles offshore in the days of Mahan and Corbett—a far cry from antiship cruise missiles boasting ranges measured in scores of miles and, potentially, an antiship ballistic missile able to strike at targets under way hundreds of miles distant.