Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) was one of the greatest theorists of naval power. He conducted a cost benefit analysis of imperial expansion by integrating commercial, naval and political aspects. How does a nation expand its power at the lowest possible cost? He concluded that commerce was of paramount importance. War was to be a last resort, he stressed. In other words, the goal was expansion by stealth.There are two main schools of thought about naval power. One posits that the largest and most powerful navy should be assembled and then used to defend and expand power. Battleships and aircraft carriers are of key importance. The other regards the huge expenditure and servicing of such a navy as a needless waste of national resources. The main concern should be to protect and expand trade. This involves securing strategic bases in strategic regions. Do not develop a navy which is perceived as a growing threat to one’s neighbours and competitors. In other words, do not get involved in a naval arms race.
Mahan’s most famous work is The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, published in 1890. In it he attempted to elucidate the reasons for the rise and fall of empires and great states. He deduced that the secret of Great Britain’s success was sea power. This was the critical factor in the defeat of Napoleonic France when Britain was able to blockade French ports and hence neutralise the French navy. His other writings could not explain the rise of Bismarckian Germany. However, he was vindicated in 1918 when a major factor in the defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany was the weakness of its navy.
Mahan’s writings were closely studied by the Imperial Japanese Navy, amid many others. It would now appear that the People’s Republic of China is devoting intensive study to his publications. Nineteenth century America and present day China have much in common. How should Beijing expand its navy without provoking other powers to respond?
China’s demand for hydrocarbons and raw materials has forced it to sail the seven seas in pursuit of these sinews of industry. Almost accidentally it has acquired a worldwide reach. Since its imports are strategically important it needs a navy capable of protecting the sea lanes. The last time China had a navy which sailed into such distant waters was 600 years ago. It has a lot of catching up to do to become as professional as other navies.
Chinese naval writings emphasise the link between commerce and naval power. A goal is to command strategic passages, such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, vital to Chinese trade.
Of primary importance is Taiwan. If the Middle Kingdom were to take control over it, China would have a gateway to the western Pacific. The Chinese talk of the First Island Chain which runs from Japan to Indonesia. The declared goal is to expand to the Second Island Chain which would make China potentially master of the western Pacific. Hence Beijing will do its upmost to prevent Taiwan becoming independent. Should Taipei become independent Beijing’s dream of becoming a great Pacific and world sea power would never be realised.
The Chinese agree enthusiastically with Mahan’s claim that a nation cannot be great without sea power. China is perceived to be an ‘oceanic nation’ endowed with a long coastline, many islands and a huge sea area under its control. China is building aircraft carriers, probably because it can see how the U.S. uses them to project power.
However, Mahan warned that ‘commerce thrives by peace and suffers by war’. He claimed that peace was the ‘superior interest’ of seagoing powers. Hence he did not advocate a race to build the biggest battle fleet. Some Chinese writers appear to have taken this to heart and advocate restricting China’s sea power to the First Island Chain. China’s navy should not be seen as a threat to anyone and its function is to defend the national interest. Others, of course, would like China to expand its influence several hundred miles from its shoreline.
If the Chinese leadership decide to learn from Mahan the world will be a safer place.