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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Is China a Mahanian Sea Power?

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. 

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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.”