10 June 2011

China Goes to Sea Reviewed in “Naval Books of the Year,” Warship 2011

Conrad Waters, author, Seaforth World Naval Review 2012; review of 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) in “Naval Books of the Year,” John Jordan and Stephen Dent, eds., Warship 2011 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, June 2011), 184-85.

The third in a series of books studying Chinese maritime development, China Goes to Sea comprises a series of essays which aims to place the current prospects for the maritime expansion of Asia’s leading continental power in a broader context. Largely the work of a group of leading naval academics, its scholarly, closely-formatted text, dense notes and limited visual distractions suggest that it is not a book to be embarked upon by the faint-hearted or casual reader. Equally, however, the breadth and quality of the various contributions mean that it has relevance to a much more extensive readership than the dedicated follower of Chinese naval strategy.

The book is divided into four main parts. The first two of these examine previous attempts by land-based powers to replicate their continental ascendancy in the maritime domain during, respectively, the pre-modern and modern eras. A wide range of examples ranging from Sparta’s spectacular but short-lived emergence as a naval force around the time of the Peloponnesian War to Imperial Germany’s ultimately doomed global aspirations illustrate the significant challenges faced in accomplishing these ambitions. The broad conclusion is that, with the partial exceptions of Persia and Rome, ‘…the historical record has not been kind to powers attempting maritime transformations.’

The final two sections, comprising the latter half of the book, focus more directly on China. Part III, sub-titled ‘Chinese Maritime Transformations’, continues the historical theme. The Ming dynasty’s decision to adopt a defensive, continental focus during the fifteenth century, the subsequent disastrous results of the Qing’s failure to create a modern, professional navy in the concluding decades of the nineteenth century and the evolution of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) as a supporting arm of a land-based military during the Cold War are all described in some detail. The final part has a more contemporary flavour, assessing the rise of China as a commercial shipbuilding force, examining the country’s ‘blue water’ naval ambitions and attempting to draw some overall conclusions. A particularly interesting chapter contributed by Messrs Erickson and Goldstein analyses the findings of the Chinese government’s own recent study entitled The Rise of Great Powers. Examining the factors which enabled the leading European nations and the United States to gain global influence, it quite reasonably concludes that ‘…national power stems from economic development fuelled by foreign trade, which can in turn be furthered by a strong navy.’

The wide-ranging nature of the collection of studies set out in China Goes to Sea means that it can sometimes be quite difficult to draw direct parallels between the situations they describe and the recent growth of China’s sea-power. This is particularly the case with some of the comparative historical studies, which often leave it to the reader to draw inferences as to their relevance to twenty-first century Chinese maritime strategy. However, many strands are drawn together in Carnes Lord’s concluding chapter. This provides both a clear summing up of the many hurdles land-based powers face when they embark on a maritime transformation, and a well-reasoned assessment of the point China has reached in its own voyage to the sea. His final conclusion that China has achieved a remarkable historical feat in achieving a genuine maritime transformation seems somewhat premature given a situation that continues to evolve. However, what does seem clear is that China’s turn towards the sea will be one of the more significant influences on the history of the current century.