Correcting Ancient Blunders: China Rediscovers Sea Power

On November 8 Dr. Trifkovic presented a paper on China’s geostrategy and U.S. response at a major conference in Budapest, New Dimensions and Generational Leap in Warfare, which was organized by the Hungarian Defense Forces General Staff Scientific Research Centre. The event was attented by several general officers from NATO countries, over a hundred Hungarian officers of various ranks, as well as civilian academic experts. We bring you a slightly abbreviated version of our foreign affairs editor’s presentation.

Avoiding the Trap— A key question of our time—the question, in fact—is whether the U.S. and China can manage their relations, in the years and decades to come, without a war. This was the theme of Graham Allison’s 2017 important book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap. His thesis was that major wars result from the confrontation between a status-quo power and a rising challenger.

In our own time, the remarkable rise of China’s power is comparable to the United States eclipsing Great Britain between the 1870s and 1914. The key issue is whether, in the years ahead, it will be possible (1) for the Chinese to rationalize a cosmology in which they are not the only rightful and inherently superior center of the civilized world, and/or (2) for the U.S. to accept that it will have to live with another, and possibly superior superpower.

We need to look at the outline of China’s traditional grand strategy before searching for some clues. Its key contours have been remarkably constant over the centuries. They were little affected by the cyclic changes of dynasties, or by the central authority’s periods of strength or weakness. That grand-strategic focus had been fivefold:

1. Protection of the demographic and economic core of the state—the Han heartland—defined by the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze in the south;
2. Sustained defense of the exposed northern frontier.
3. Gradual, cautious expansion of the state, in accordance with its ability to absorb and homogenize newly acquired lands and subjects.
4. Maintenance of buffer zones, with various degrees of control or influence over the surrounding periphery.
5. Judicious use of force, based on the pragmatic cost-benefit assessment.

China Abdicates Sea Power— In the early 1400s, China owned the greatest seagoing fleet in the world, with up to 3,500 ships. Zheng He’s epic Seven Voyages made China an ocean-faring power, sailing around the Subcontinent and Arabia to eastern Africa. After 1433, however, her Treasure Fleet was destroyed—by Imperial decree! Even the maps and naval charts were burned. Forward bases were abandoned, including the major one at Malacca.

A long period of geopolitical decline was the price of strategic shortsightedness. It had a parallel in the decline of the Byzantine Empire, after it neglected the navy for budgetary reasons in the 10th century, but China’s abdication of sea power in the 1430s was strikingly at odds with the historical experience of other nations. Major states seek to compensate their weakness on land with the focus on an intensive development of the sea power, and vice versa.

• In the Persian War the Greeks compensated their overall weakness and numeric inferiority on land with their superior seamanship.
• In the Peloponnesian War Sparta finally won the long conflict when it built a fleet, thus altering for the first time its traditional (tellurocratic) grand strategy.
• The Roman Republic developed its own sea power very quickly in the First Punic War, hastily copying Carthaginian shipbuilding blueprints.
• Hannibal raised a large land army of the kind which the thalassocratic Carthage had never possessed.
• A century after the first wave of Islamic conquests, the desert-born Arabian land warriors learned to sail,  and became notorious as Barbary pirates.
•  In the 15th century the Venetian republic, a typical thalassocracy, expanded deep into northern Italy’s heartland, as far as Bergamo.
• Great Britain, when faced with Continental challengers, readily projected her land power: Blenheim, Waterloo, Balaklava, the Great War.
• Catherine had a squadron in the Mediterranean just 50 years after Peter built Russia’s first navy.
•  A mere 40 years after Perry sailed into the Bay of Tokyo, Japan’s navy destroyed the Chinese one, and in 1905 routed the Russians.

As these examples from different eras and latitudes indicate, the “dominant culture of the elite” is no obstacle to the strategic necessity. There is still no consensus among historians on what caused the Ming to turn their back on the sea so drastically and so suddenly. It created an opening for European sailors, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, to establish profitable trade routes—not only between Asia and Europe, but also within the region. It eventually resulted in the loss of China’s great power status. The final consequence was the dark trauma of the Century of Humiliation. It prompted Xi Jinping to remark in 2012, "If one is always afraid of the sea he will get drowned in the ocean sooner or later."

China Returns to the Sea— For almost six centuries China had had no navy capable of facing a major adversary. After the Communist victory in 1949 it developed a large army, which intervened decisively in Korea in 1950, but until the early 21st century the PLA navy remained an insignificant green-water force.

A new strategy has developed over the past decade, followed by an unprecedentedly intense program of ship building. A seminal moment came in 2009, when the China attached the nine-dash line map to an official diplomatic document for the first time. The ascension of Xi Jinping in 2012 was a turning point for the development of the PRC maritime strategy. The goal of turning China into a “maritime great power” was stated at 18 Party Congress in 2012, and reaffirmed at the 19th in 2017.

There is some tension between advancing China’s claims and avoiding military escalation, which the Party dialecticians call “unity of defense rights and stability maintenance.” The core position, however, is categorically unyielding: there will be “no acceptance, no participation, no recognition, and no implementation” of any international arbitration based on the UNCLOS. The rationale behind the Chinese position is still inspired by Mao Zedong’s 1959 quote:

“Why and with what reason the Americans from so far away came to the West Pacific countries, using their military, political, economic, and cultural power, to control these countries? Actually, it has no basis in reason. Therefore, one day, sooner or later, America will let go of the West Pacific and withdraw back home.”

The new approach, heralded at the 2012 CCP Congress, was reinforced in the 2015 Defense White Paper: “Traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” This position was forcefully reiterated in April 2018, when President Xi Jinping said that “the task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today.”

China’s return to the sea is geopolitically feasible because her land borders are now more secure than at any time in history. Unlike the 1400s, when protecting the vulnerable northern Limes against the Mongols took precedence over the sea, today’s China faces no real threat along her 10,000-mile continental perimeter. The collapse of the USSR was the seminal moment.

China’s regional objectives are both traditional and realist: enhancing and securing influence, increasing access to resources, and reducing the ability of the U.S. to constrain it geographically. This means breaking out of the Island Chains Conundrum and relying on an ever-growing Navy. There will be no formal alliance with the regional powers due to China’s preference for bilateral deals, but her growing economic and diplomatic influence will serve to undercut U.S. influence in the region. That process is well under way.

China’s Current Grand Strategy China has announced urbi et orbi that it is striving for the attainment of full great-power status by 2035. No grand strategy of the People’s Republic is stated in a formal policy document, but its contours are nevertheless both clearly discernible and remarkably consistent with the imperial past:

1. Maintaining the Han unity, order, and prosperity.
2. Breaking beyond the First Island Chain.
3. Controlling peripheral buffer regions.
4. Strengthening global “Belt and Road” networks.

Grand-strategic continuity with the imperial era is additionally discernible in the disinclination to use military force, or to adopt high-risk strategies. The focus on naval strength is new, and a key operational ingredient. To wit, China’s latest missiles may yet make aircraft carriers as obsolete as the battleships were rendered obsolete by the naval air arm in the Second World War.

The rise of China as a peer competitor to the U.S. is the most far-reaching geopolitical development of our time. China seeks to restore what it sees as its rightful sphere of undisputed influence and “harmonious co-existence” in Asia. At the same time, the network of U.S. bases in the region is unsupported by a coherent, long-term strategic doctrine. Historical experience confirms that it is self-defeating for a status quo power to resist geopolitical adjustments that reflect the realities of a new distribution of power. Britain grasped this in relation to the rise of the United States.

Responding to the challenge of China without fighting a major war requires boldness and imagination. There are four war-avoiding U.S. strategies, according to Allison:

• Accommodation (not appeasement), a conscious effort to adapt to a new balance of power by adjusting relations with the competitor without resorting to military means; this would entail recognizing a de facto Chinese sphere of influence around its borders and coasts;
• Undermining the regime, or fomenting its change through a concentrated effort to accentuate the contradictions at the core of CCP ideology, thus creating domestic troubles for the Party;
• Negotiating a long peace a la détente with its SALT and ABM treaties and the Helsinki Accords, whereby the U.S. and China link issues to reach deals that give each more of what it values most;
• Redefining the relationship, which would focus on defining common interests, such as avoiding a mutually destructive war, preventing nuclear anarchy, fighting terrorism and global warming.

It is essential for U.S. policy makers to prioritize global interests, and decide: (1) Is maintaining open-ended primacy in the Asia-Pacific area a vital national interest? Specifically, (2) Would America risk war to prevent regional power adjustments, e.g. China’s reintegration of Taiwan?

Open-ended regional status quo maintenance (or ad-hoc responses to crises), decoupled from the clear list of grand-strategic priorities, is bound to fail. The ambition to maintain permanent full-spectrum dominance everywhere and at all times is unsustainable and irrational. Eventually (and inevitably) it leads to imperial overstretch, optional wars, and the decline of the hegemon.

Conclusion— America’s war with China is unnecessary and avoidable. The U.S. is still the most powerful state in the world, uniquely safe from direct threats by foreign state actors. Two oceans separate it from hotspots on other continents; its land neighbors are harmless. The “challenge” America faces from China is therefore entirely dependent on the definition of her interests and on the understanding of her grand-strategic objectives. It is 100% in the eye of the beholder.

That “challenge” is seen as significant primarily due to the tendency of the bipartisan “foreign policy community” in Washington DC to reject any traditionally structured hierarchy of U.S. interests. The resulting quest for hegemonistic full-spectrum dominance rests on ideological assumptions which are as inimical to America’s tradition as they are unsupportable by her material resources and human will. President Donald Trump understands this, intuitively perhaps rather than rationally. His “America First” is not a triumphalist slogan, but a call for the return to pragmatic, interest-based foreign policy-making, free from his predecessors’ exceptionalist hubris, ideological blinkers about “the right side of history,” and global-imperial delusions.

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

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