As tensions grow in the South China Sea, two key questions remain unanswered: just what is China’s maritime strategy and do its actions represent the execution of a coherent approach to the maritime domain?

As set out in this review, originally published in the journal Frontiers (Xueshu Qianyan), Chinese maritime thought has become progressively more sophisticated. It has also become more comprehensive, as demonstrated by this document from the PRC's State Office Information Council. Yet much of China's efforts, and the Western critique of the same, have been focused upon concepts of sea denial (or anti-access) and/or power projection, with less priority to a third element, the protection of sea communications. Although this in part derives from many strategic thinkers’ schooling in both the East and West in continental perspectives and issues of territorial domination, there are other causes. These include China’s military and economic heritage and its experience of the dark side of the maritime global trading system. 

The Middle Kingdom’s continued requirement over thousands of years to protect itself from external threats inevitably created a fortress mentality, but over millennia China also possessed a largely self-sufficient economy. Even at the height of the Silk Road and Chinese involvement in maritime Southeast Asia, the heartland was never dependent upon external commerce. When other nations began to exploit the maritime environment to achieve economic benefit and dominion, China quickly became one of the major victims, most notably of the British during the Opium Wars, and through the opium trade itself. Other nations soon followed. Much of China’s naval experience in this era was in disastrous defensive encounters, as a result of which China was progressively weakened.

This heritage means the Chinese tend to apply not only ‘continental’ but ‘Middle Kingdom’ thinking to maritime matters, which creates two problems.

Firstly, many view the sea as an extension of the land, typified by China’s claims, however ambiguous, to vast areas of the South China Sea. Both here and in the concept of the ‘First and Second Island Chains’, lies the idea of a territory within a ‘maritime Great Wall’. This is borne out by the massive development of artificial islands in the Spratlys, described by Admiral Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet as a 'great wall of sand'.

The second problem is more subtle, with the sea being viewed primarily as a means by which China may be threatened, rather than a freeway [i.e. free to all] for its benefit. This is at odds with the new reality. China is reconnected with the global trading system and dependent upon it. It relies not only on imported raw materials and manufactured components, but on export markets. Unfortunately the aspect of trade which has the greater priority in some Chinese security thinking appears to be securing resources. What needs more prominence is the modern truth that China’s growth and prosperity depend upon the stability and security of the maritime transport system itself.

The world’s interests will be best served by a China active within the maritime domain; a China that has acknowledged its responsibilities to protect global communications and the rules-based order on which it too depends, and a China that prioritises trade flows over the creation of an extended maritime fortress. Western leaders and experts can help by acknowledging that China’s acquisition of sea control capabilities is logical, inevitable and most importantly beneficial, as long as those capabilities are used to support the global system. The message must be that benefits are shared and mutual, and that the mature globalised system both respects national sovereignties and relies upon free access to the sea.

The maritime system must be described not in terms of colonies but, rather, in terms of cooperation in order to remove the ‘imperialist-capitalist’ baggage of modern-era maritime strategy which is so unattractive to China.

The narrative needs to give 'sea control' much more emphasis and to give thought to what level of capability is legitimate for a rising sea-dependent power, like China, to ensure its own security and to contribute to global security. The US eventually understood that it had to move beyond the Monroe Doctrine to take up the burden of leading the protection of the global system from the UK, and there is an analogy here with China’s situation. To be fair to the maritime strategists Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) and Julian Corbett (1854-1922), much of what they wrote, particularly in their mature years, touched on this point. Mahan recognised the global maritime trading system and the US’ vital interests in its maintenance, as well as its emerging responsibilities. Corbett time and again emphasised that maritime strategy is fundamentally about the use of the sea as a means for transportation, which, in the end, is what we all depend upon.

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