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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Is China a Mahanian Sea Power?

China's First Aircraft Carrier
Members of the People's Liberation Army navy are seen on board China's aircraft carrier Liaoning as it sails into Hong Kong, China July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

It wasn’t that long ago that suggesting that China is enamored of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s ideas about sea power was a laugh line. Nowadays it’s common sense. Nor is this some radical notion. Ideas about politics and strategy matter—and they can be imported from other ages, countries, or civilizations. Heck, Mahan was an importer himself. This sea captain and Naval War College president ransacked the European age of sail for inspiration. He beseeched fin de siècle America to pattern itself on Great Britain, the gold standard for seafaring societies in his day. Accordingly, he devoted much of his hefty body of work to exploring how a small island state off the European coast had come to rule the waves, and what British accomplishments could teach an American republic commencing its ascent to regional and world power.

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Mahan’s writings were wildly popular overseas, in particular among rising powers that entertained high-seas ambitions. Kaiser Wilhelm II reported trying to memorize the historian’s masterwork, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. Imperial Japan was likewise a fervent aspirant to Mahanian sea power. Late in life Mahan recalled that his writings had brought him into “pleasant correspondence with several Japanese officials and translators, than whom none . . . have shown closer or more interested attention to the general subject, how fruitfully, has been demonstrated both by their preparation and their accomplishments in the recent war.”

The “recent war” was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, a conflict that had culminated in the Battle of Tsushima, a resounding victory for the Imperial Japanese Navy over the rival Russian Navy. Along with victory in the Sino-Japanese War a decade before, Tsushima seemed to ratify Mahan’s concepts, especially those relating to maritime command—“overbearing power upon the sea”—and fleet design. Unsurprisingly, then, Mahan reported that “more of my works have been done into Japanese than into any other one tongue.”

But there was more to Japanese plaudits than translations. The Meiji emperor and crown prince received copies of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and evidently bestowed their approval on it. That was quite the endorsement. The naval and army staff colleges adopted it as a textbook. And so forth. In fact, historian George Baer contends that “Japan’s naval strategy was more Mahanian than America’s.”

Maybe. And yet imperial Japan ended up doing things that would have horrified Mahan. The historian wrote not for a middling-sized, resource-poor island state in East Asia but for the United States, a geographically blessed, continent-spanning industrial republic rich in natural resources. He would have blanched at the notion that Japan would try to make the Western Pacific into a Japanese preserve, as it did during World War II.

That’s an enormous amount of geographic space for an excellent but compact force like the Imperial Japanese Navy to police—especially in the face of resistance from a potential foe like the United States, which boasted nine to ten times’ Japan’s economic and industrial potential.

Few coastal states boast the right stuff to rule the sea. The lineaments of Japanese sea power were frail by contrast with rival seagoing powers. Tokyo missed the warning implicit in Mahan’s writings by reducing his ideas to an obsession with massed fleets of capital ships dueling for maritime command. Forsaking his pointed observations about the economic, material, and demographic foundations of sea power while fixating on his ideas about fleet actions left Japanese navalists with a partial, superficial, and perilous understanding of maritime strategy.

So Japanese strategists were faithful to Mahan’s works in spirit yet estranged from them in practice. It’s worth reviewing why, now that Mahanian ideas have returned to vogue in the Western Pacific. Gauging how the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army may interpret his teachings and adapt them to China’s unique strategic circumstances is a matter of considerable moment for regional peace and security. Reviewing the Japanese encounter with Mahan back then could let us glimpse East Asia’s future.

Why did Japanese Mahanians flout Mahan?

First of all, many Japanese learned from Mahan secondhand. The late Professor Sadao Asada affirms that Mahan’s writings were “canon” for the Imperial Japanese Navy, but he also questions the extent to which naval officers actually read them. His observation should come as little shock. Students at U.S. professional military education institutions routinely complain about Mahan’s stilted writing, and most of them are native English speakers! As Asada puts it, Mahan’s “convoluted prose” threw a barrier in the way of Japanese readers. Even after a Japanese translation became available, “written in florid and long-winded prose,” it was “hardly readable.”

Reading about someone’s writings rather than actually reading them impedes comprehension. Doing so in translation compounds the problem.

Because of stylistic and linguistic impediments, most Japanese officers absorbed Mahanian ideas from secondary sources such as lecturers and writers who had come under Mahan’s spell—not from the master himself. Asada notes that no Japanese theorist of high repute, such as Saneyuki Akiyama or Satō Tetsutarō, was “Mahan’s understudy” or direct protégé. Instead these experts brought “their own individual and national perspectives to bear on their commentaries on sea power.” Wittingly or not, interpretations of Mahan diverged from his canonical ideas—blurring the wisdom Japanese officials and officers might have divined from his works.

Second, Japanese navalists filtered ideas from Mahan’s works through their own recent history. In 1905, far from seeking out the enemy fleet on the high seas for a decisive Mahanian engagement, Imperial Japanese Navy commanders directed the Combined Fleet to take a defensive position in the Tsushima Strait and allow the antagonist—a Russian Baltic Fleet wearied by an epic journey through the Atlantic and Indian oceans and the China seas—to come to them. The Battle of Tsushima was one of history’s landmark naval victories, and it came through not adhering strictly to Mahanian doctrine. That a lesser Japanese navy could overcome a stronger but faraway rival came to seem self-evident after 1905.

In fact, staging a repeat of Tsushima vis-à-vis the U.S. Navy was Japan’s game plan until 1941, when Tokyo scrapped it for the strike on Pearl Harbor.

It seems Mahan wasn’t so sacrosanct after all. An oversimplified understanding of Mahan reinforced by perceived lessons of history prodded Japanese officialdom to take inflexible and ultimately self-defeating positions during the interwar decades. What Asada terms “neo-Mahanian economic determinism,” for instance, induced Japanese leaders to believe that U.S. commercial activity in China portended war between America and Japan. They regarded war as predestined.

Ideas about fleet design likewise calcified into dogma. In 1907 the Meiji emperor approved a defense policy and strategy directive designating the U.S. Navy as the major hypothetical enemy, making it the yardstick for fleet design. The document instructed the Imperial Japanese Navy to maintain a fleet 70 percent the size of the U.S. fleet, and to configure the fleet around eight battleships and eight battlecruisers—a so-called “8-8” fleet. Because such an armada would be defending Asian waters, and because the U.S. Navy was fragmented between the Pacific and Atlantic, Japanese war planners calculated that a 70 percent ratio would let the imperial navy fight from a position of parity—if not better—in the Western Pacific.

Some Japanese naval officers were pliant about the ratio. Other considered the imperial edict fixed and nonnegotiable, and they were vehement in the extreme about their views.

Unfortunately for naval hardliners, negotiations at the Washington Naval Conference (1921-1922) imposed a 60 percent ratio on Japan’s navy relative to the U.S. Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy. The treaty incensed Japanese officers, in part because the lower figure upset their strategic and operational calculations, in part because they took it as a slight to Japan’s dignity and marine prowess. Naval arms control ignited bitter factional feuding within the navy. Assassination came to be a weapon of intraservice strife.

In this hothouse environment, Japanese delegates to the London Naval Conference (1930) bluntly refused to give way on 70 percent, despite guidance from home. The conference struck a compromise formula giving hardliners their way for a few years. By 1935, though, Tokyo denounced arms control altogether. And a naval race Japan couldn’t win was on.

As Mahan might have prophesied, Japanese efforts to seize permanent command of the Western Pacific came to ruin. A frenzied U.S. naval buildup was already in progress by the time the blow fell at Pearl Harbor in 1941, under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. Under this measure Congress authorized a rough doubling of the U.S. Navy’s fleet strength, both in ship count and technological sophistication. Pearl Harbor enraged the American populace, goading the U.S. government to tap the nation’s colossal industrial potential and hurl part of the two-ocean juggernaut against Japan—with fateful consequences.

Japan’s nautical hegemony proved short-lived, as did the empire’s existence.

In short, imperial Japan’s encounter with Alfred Thayer Mahan constitutes a cautionary tale for friends of Western Pacific peace and security, and for China itself. Now, Communist China is not imperial Japan. For example, it doesn’t suffer from the grave civil-military disconnect that pitted the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army against each other in a bureaucratic death match and allowed the armed forces to make policy for the civil government. Chinese maritime strategy cannot escape from the grip of Chinese Communist Party chieftains.

Even so, many of the factors that diverted Japanese officialdom from an accurate understanding of sea-power theory and deformed Japanese maritime strategy could afflict China today. The language barrier, the tendency to learn about Mahan rather than read and absorb his concepts, the influence of national history and strategic traditions, the filters imposed by Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy—these factors and more could send China, like Japan of yore, careening off on a non-Mahanian trajectory despite its fealty to Mahan. That’s a grim prospect.

Is China a Mahanian sea power? Yes—and maybe No.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Commentar

    January 8, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    China is no seapower, has no possession of poseidon-class underwater drones, although it has developed or is developing its own underwater drones.

    Many, or most of its ‘modern’ warships carry only one or two gatling guns. Which is totally laughable.

    Its navy won’t last the first two hours in any actual real combat with the Pacific forces.

    But china is fast learning the ropes despite the big turdhead still desperately clinging to the post of paramount leader.

    China in the last two years has launched FOBS craft and also unmanned spaceplanes.

    Those two can challenge and defeat any navy in the world.

    We live in a dangerous, very dangerous, very crazily dangerous world today.

    We have enlightened men eager beaver ready to wage war against nuclear-armed nations, right at their front doorstep.

    To fight such threats, nations must develop FOBS and fleets of spaceplanes to ward off the loving embrace of warmongering entities.

    Spaceplanes are particularly vital, when orbiting the Earth at 17,000+ mph, ready to unleash decapitation blows on Genghis and co.

    Nations must deploy them on ‘permanent duty’ or on ‘sentinel duty’ in space in order to preserve peace on Earth. AMEN.

  2. Alan Ford

    January 9, 2023 at 4:45 am

    Capt. Mahan used a lot about how the Royal Navy contributed to England’s rise and dominance. Perhaps that’s why his works appealed to the Japanese Navy. The Kaiser is a different story.

    I had the pleasure of attending a few short courses and wargames several years ago. I’ve read some about war plan orange, so walking he halls (and maybe being in the room where wargames were played) meant a lot to me.

    Fair Winds and Following Seas!

  3. Commentar

    January 9, 2023 at 5:00 am

    That warship depicted in the Reuters photo represents derelict technology.

    Fortunately, china can afford to waste money on derelicts.

    That aside, the country has also been able to smartly invest in spaceplane & space glider technology.

    Its csshq (roughly equivalent to x-37B) spaceplane has flown twice; once in sep 2020 and later in Aug 2022.

    Other than the csshq, it has tested a mysterious sub-orbital craft, on July 16 2021 & again on Aug 26 2022.

    But most interesting is the two ultra secret FOBS tests, made on July 27 2021 and again on Aug 13 2021.

    That FOBS craft or glider, made one complete circular trip around the Earth flight lasting about 90 minutes. It spooked some people in high places.

  4. David Chang

    January 9, 2023 at 5:45 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Common strategic research report is that political scientist believe that the war between socialism China and other countries is caused by animal instinct without political reasons.

    The sort of their strategy reports is the psychological research report which Kissinger oppose, and it is also the sociological research report by the philosophy of Karl Marx .

    Although Mahan’s sea power theory do not elaborate on the political reasons for naval warfare, nor do he comment on the impact of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto on naval warfare, we could understand the Fate and Strategy of USN by Mahan’s sea power theory and Karl Marx’s international revolution theory.

    This is not science or prophecy, but life experience and constitution thought.

    Mahan explain that the Navy’s first political mission is to protect the free market, the commerce that supplies the needs of the people of this country. “Navies exist for the protection of commerce” is related to “THE DIVISION OF LABOUR IS LIMITED BY THE EXTENT OF THE MARKET”.

    Although Mahan’s sea power theory imply morality occasionally, he never tell about the sin, nor state in any paper whether he obey Ten Commandments, at least we can read his moral judgment on war.

    But many Japan people never know right political thought. After the Meiji Restoration, they are educated with atheism and learned the Communist Manifesto, socialism, evolution. Therefore, the constitution thought they learn is that the country is the complex of people. The government leader is the brain of country, every person is a part of country, and waging war is the necessary act to keep the country alive. So the constitution thought of Japan is survival of the fittest.

    God bless America.

  5. Yrral

    January 9, 2023 at 7:37 am

    Why Ukrainain cannot be trusted, Ukrainain are asking for military aid,when they merchant of death sold their weapon supply to every rogue dictator in the world,even China,China did not have an aircraft carrier,so Ukrainain sold them one in the guise it will be a floating casino Google Ukrainain China Floating Casino

  6. Jack

    January 9, 2023 at 11:34 am

    I don’t think China is following Mahan’s theories. Their navy doesn’t have the range. According to Peter Zeihan, 90% of their ships have a range <1000 NM going slow in a straight line with no one shooting at them. A short ranged fleet with a missile umbrella looks a lot more like Corbett's strategy than Mahan's. Also, I think China made a big mistake with their Belt and Road Initiative rather than building a long range navy to ensure the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz are open if they get into a fight. Moving overland is 12x the cost of seaborne transport. Both straits are very easy for India to block, and there is very little China can do about it. And 85% of their oil comes through that way…

  7. GhostTomahawk

    January 9, 2023 at 1:24 pm

    China is not a sea power. Outside the US who really is though? China has a lot of ships but lacks a blue water navy. They’re locked into their sphere of influence at the China Sea region. Their aircraft carriers are knock off Russian carrier designs. Their planes are too. We have seen these originals in action and its comedy. We’ve seen Russian land based equipment in action too and it’s no different. Being that China uses Russian land based designed equipment as well.. it’s fair to say their military is complete garbage.

    China is easy to defeat. Their economy is 100% dependent upon export and their food supply is 100% import.



  8. Steven

    January 9, 2023 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks Ghost, my thoughts exactly. Not to mention the US has cyberwar and classified abilities which are never taken into account in the “war games”.

  9. Laurent Bourgey

    January 10, 2023 at 3:35 am

    Very interesting article.
    But it completely misses the points from its title. Although imperial Japan’s misreading of Mahan doctrine is fascinating, it cannot alone answer the question whether China is a Mahanian sea power and why.

  10. David Chang

    January 10, 2023 at 4:57 am

    God bless people in the world.

    The strategy of CCP Navy is not to be a maritime hegemony as AEI, NAS, CSIS, Ivy League, Brookings, and Syndicate say. But CCP Navy is luring US military into A2/AD, then destroy US Western Pacific Fleet. Therefore, CCP Navy’s building plan is different from USN CVG or CSG, and they don’t worry about blue-water combat and world war, because PLA is in charge of Asia, and people who believe atheism help Communist Party to carry out socialism warfare.

    If CCP destroy U.S. Western Pacific Fleet, U.S. Central Command will be in danger, then Africa Command will be, Russia and CCP will make U.S. Atlantic Fleet struggle with difficult choices.

    U.S. UCP is exterior lines, the UCP plan of Soviet Union, CCP, North Korea, Iran, and Afghan is Interior lines.

    So General Secretary Xi visit to OPEC, is to promote socialism in the Arab countries, and make U.S. military to disperse. Moreover, CCP make people in Africa to believe socialism, and their propaganda of liberation theology in Southeast Asia also cause more socialism warfare, like the liberation Buddhist party murder Rohingya tribes. So the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road is part of Socialism Warfare.

    God bless America.

  11. Bob B.

    January 10, 2023 at 4:04 pm

    Mahan’s ideas on fleets are very plastic, they can mean whatever the observer feels at that moment. He actually opposed the new dreadnoughts, they were TOO big, and not because of air power but because of their cost. He favored a fleet of numerous cruisers. In the early 21st century, that actually is a pretty good idea.

  12. Pleiades

    January 14, 2023 at 5:07 pm

    David Chang: Try writing in English rather than gibberish.

  13. Karl

    January 15, 2023 at 2:18 pm

    The Silk Road Economic Belt has been shown to be a failure to the point that China has been backing off of it’s plans. I also think that many people fail to understand the economic issues that China is having internally.

  14. Omega 13

    January 16, 2023 at 3:09 pm

    China is nothing more than a brown water navy.

  15. ONTIME

    January 23, 2023 at 2:56 pm

    China is making headway around the globe and the Pacific is the 1st area of concentration, underestimating them is a huge mistake in all categories of warfare and weaponry…Remember, they have done a very successful job of cybertheft, espionage, subversion and infiltration….I would not let arrogance get in our way and I would respond in kind to all threats and fundamental economics from this determined force…..They have the money, they also have a billion hungry mouths they fear at home…

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