China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, is attempting to take the principles of four great Western strategic theorists and turn them on their heads.
To summarize all too briefly, Carl von Clausewitz viewed land war as the ultimate expression of international politics. Alfred T. Mahan felt that competitions between great powers were played out decisively in great ship battles at sea. Julian Corbet attempted to bridge the gap between the first two and declared that naval forces existed to aid and assist land forces engaged in decisive operations ashore. Lastly, Halford Mackinder, the great geographer-strategist, advanced his “heartland” theory, asserting that land geography and territorial resources determined the outcomes of great-power competitions.
China has recast the sea as the new global “heartland” and as the arena of a great-power competition that can be fought and won from land. It should not come as a surprise to those familiar with China, with its many “great walls” built over a 3,000-year recorded history, that it is attempting to create a technological wall across the sea. It is also seeking to re-create its unique vision of itself in the world.
China instinctively views itself as the only legitimate nation-state. In much the same way that many in the United States feel that they are an “exceptional” people who were led by a “special Providence” to settle and govern the North American continent, the Chinese have a historical conception of themselves as the geographic and political “Middle Kingdom.” All other nations are viewed as subordinates existing along China’s periphery. In addition, the ancient Chinese foreign-policy philosophy of “All under heaven” carries a vision of China as the central hegemonic power and legitimizer of all other, lesser states.
For much of its history, China’s strategic focus was first on territorial expansion and then on the construction of barriers or walls to keep marauding outsiders at bay. The walls, however, included gates that allowed Chinese forces to go forth to subdue outsiders, expanding the periphery of territory under China’s control while extending order to “all under heaven.” But heaven did not include the sea. For most of its history, China has had very little interest in the oceans. The lone exceptions were the voyages of Zheng He during the Ming Dynasty. In the early 15th century, Admiral Zheng made seven voyages from China to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East and along the eastern coast of Africa. After his death, however, China turned its back on oceanic exploration and became deeply introspective in its foreign policy.
Recent historical events have forced a change of heart. First, China, after what it termed its “century of humiliation” (during which European powers occupied and divided up the Middle Kingdom against its will), now commits itself to emerging once again as a great power, if not as the great power. It was enabled and driven in this pursuit by its emergence in the early 1990s as a major economic power, but one that increasingly depended on foreign supplies of energy and raw mineral resources to fuel its industrial base. More often than not, these supplies came by sea, owing to poor overland logistics lines, and China was more than uncomfortably aware that such resources could be cut off suddenly by foreign maritime powers.
This discomfort grew in 1990 and 1991 as China watched with interest and alarm as the United States used its advanced stealth aircraft, precision-strike weapons, and global positioning systems to rapidly eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. If the Desert Storm example wasn’t enough, in 1995 and 1996 the lessons of sea power were driven home as the U.S. Navy responded to a series of Chinese missile launches over the Taiwan Strait meant to discourage the independence movement in Taiwan. President Bill Clinton dispatched two American supercarriers, the nuclear-powered Nimitz and the conventionally powered Independence, and one light amphibious assault carrier, the Belleau Wood, to the region. Once there, the Independence stood off to the east of Taiwan while the Nimitz and the Belleau Wood, along with their cruiser and destroyer escorts, transited the strait that separates Taiwan from the mainland, humiliating the Chinese government.
These events stimulated the Chinese to begin investing in a larger, more modern, and more capable navy. Most obvious was China’s purchase of the former Soviet carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998. China spent ten years studying and rebuilding the Varyag before formally recommissioning it as the Liaoning in 2012. Since then the Liaoning has served as a test and experimentation platform for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy and accompanying air forces. Meanwhile, leveraging what it learned from studying the former Soviet carrier, China recently launched its first indigenously built carrier, demonstrating again its unique penchant for reverse-engineering products in order to produce its own versions. It also made large investments in advanced air-search radars on par with American SPY-1D Aegis sensors, as well as longer-range and increasingly lethal surface-to-air missiles. This allowed China’s navy to operate farther from shore in the deep “blue water” regions of the ocean, far from the protective cover of land, with a credible ability to defend itself against modern threats. Lastly, China made a significant investment in modernizing and quieting its submarine force. Its new Type-95 fast-attack submarines are substantially quieter, and their modern suite of passive and active sensors and robust inventory of modern weapons make them ideal escorts for China’s new carriers.
But China’s most significant reaction to America’s ability to project power was its investment in a new series of capabilities that have since been called “anti-access/area-denial” weapons systems. These systems, a combination of anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and new advanced long-range fighter-interceptors, were designed to push American forces back from China’s shores, mitigating America’s ability to project power onto land and effect regime change. While developing these systems, China realized that it was also developing a potential solution to its other problem, ensuring the safe passage of energy and mineral resources required to keep the Chinese economy humming.
In all this, China, especially under Xi, has positioned itself to upend centuries of military strategy.
Karl von Clausewitz and Halford Mackinder advanced the ideas that land war was preeminent and that the central-Eurasian plain represented the key geographical “pivot” point of global competition. Xi’s China believes otherwise and advances the idea that the sea, because of its role in the transportation of goods from afar and the vast resources that lie beneath its surface, has taken on the position of greatest importance in geostrategic considerations.
Alfred Mahan advanced the idea that decisive battle between fleets on the high seas would decide future wars. Julian Corbett disagreed, arguing that naval power existed to support the operations and objectives of armies on land. China reverses both theorists, advancing the theory that decisive battle must occur at sea, far from valuable economic centers ashore, but that it can be won by land-based systems projecting their power and lethality against fragile, sinkable ships.
In 2005, the phrase “string of pearls” emerged to describe what was ostensibly a commercial phenomenon in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. China, through civilian ventures, was investing significantly in a series of ports that began in the South China Sea and wrapped around the Asian landmass into the neighboring ocean. Ports in the Spratly Islands, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, and Pakistan received significant investments, including new piers, cranes, and warehouses. It was intended that merchant ships would use these ports while moving raw resources from Africa and the Middle East to China, but the ports are also capable of providing maintenance support to the Chinese navy ships increasingly operating in the area. These naval operations were largely justified by China’s growing participation in a United Nations–sanctioned counter-piracy task force in the gulfs of Aden and Oman. Analysts have noted that the size of the new warehouses and the mass movement of shipping containers could allow China to infiltrate advanced anti-access/area-denial weapons into these ports, creating an interlocking shield under which Chinese merchant ships could sail from Africa and the Middle East to China unmolested by the U.S. Navy.
This model of shore-based sea control becomes even more interesting strategically when one considers the level of global effort that China has begun to put into taking over and managing certain key ports and facilities. For instance, in 2017, a Chinese company tendered an offer to purchase a 40-year lease on land around the Panama Canal. The land, some 1,200 hectares, was formerly a bombing range that abutted the Canal Zone. China has also made significant investments in port facilities at the two ends of the canal. Overall, China has contracted for over $1.38 billion in work in Panama, which in addition to its importance for global commerce has served as the primary route by which warships are transferred from the American Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Fleet and vice versa for maintenance and strategic rebalancing. Chinese control of the canal would have grave strategic implications for the American Navy.
Equally grave are China’s expressions of interest in Portugal’s Azores island chain in the mid Atlantic. In 2014, Xi stopped at Lajes airfield on the island of Terceira in the Azores. Two years later, China’s prime minister stopped off at the air base on Terceira with a large delegation on his way home. China has shown a wish to make investments in Terceira’s port facilities as well as an interest in obtaining a long-term lease on Lajes airfield, which has lain largely vacant and unused since the United States drew down its manning on the island in 2014. China has also expressed an interest in establishing a scientific research station on the island, a facility that could double as an intelligence-gathering installation. The Azores islands represent a critical strategic location in the Atlantic. They “guard” the entrance to the Mediterranean and overlook transit lanes between Europe and the South Atlantic. Additionally, it should be understood that the Azores lie just 2,400 miles from Washington and New York City, a shorter distance than that which separates Hawaii from San Diego. Alone and uninvested in, the Azores are benign. Fortified by a rising great power such as China whose interests are inimical to those of the United States, they could become a malignancy.
From a historical perspective, it is interesting that, in pursuing an ability to control the seas from the land, China not only reverses several centuries of military strategic thought but also reverts legal definitions of territoriality and sovereignty over the seas to their points of origin.
In a landmark legal argument, Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius asserted in 1602 that, given that men or nations were incapable of establishing dominion over the high seas, these waters should be judged to lay between men and nations as a “common” space free to international transit. Building on this argument as well as narrowing it, another Dutch jurist, Cornelis van Bijnkershoek, three generations later advanced the dissent that nations could extend their claims of sovereignty over the seas as far as they could defend them. In what was later termed the “cannon-shot rule,” Bijnkershoek established three nautical miles (or one maritime league), the distance a cannon could fire, as the extent of a nation’s territorial waters. Today, under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Convention, territorial seas are defined as extending twelve nautical miles from a nation’s coastal baseline. China’s decision to ignore the ruling of the International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016 that its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea were not supported and that its occupation of islands and reefs belonging to other nations was illegal might suggest that the Communist government in Beijing has decided to revert to the Grotius-Bijnkershoek formulations and argue that its claims of sovereignty extend as far as modern anti-access/area-denial technologies allow it to exert control.
Such a possibility is concerning, but China’s investments in such weapons, like its port facilities, also betray a critical weakness. Islands (including artificial ones, such as those the Chinese have built in the South China Sea), ports, and airfields do not move. They can be targeted, even by imprecise weapons. Also, it is possible to target China’s overseas possessions without attacking its home territory and hence without putting bases in the continental United States at risk of tit-for-tat responses. China’s construction of overseas facilities simply grows the list of targets that can be easily hit by U.S. and allied military forces, something that China’s regional partners should consider as they pursue relationships with Chinese state-owned construction firms. In a conflict, after its overseas bases and investments were neutralized one by one, China would find itself right where it began, totally dependent on overseas supplies of energy and raw materials and totally vulnerable to blockade by a technologically superior U.S. Navy that can move, submerge, or be resupplied by other ships at sea every day.
China’s attempts to rewrite international law with regard to its sovereign claims over the high seas are perhaps more troubling, and more revealing of its strategic intent. Its decision to ignore The Hague’s 2016 ruling demonstrates its determination not to adhere to Western concepts of law and norms. Having not come out of China’s conceptual tradition, these concepts carry no power within China’s regional (for now) hegemonic construct.
This reality in turn makes it more important to recognize that China’s investment in ports and land-based weaponry presents a challenge to the United States, one that policymakers should take seriously and devise a strategy and concepts of operations to deal with. It is possible both to increase the capacity of the U.S. military and to deter the Chinese from ever taking the first step of overtly weaponizing an overseas port facility. The world’s oceans may in fact be the new global “heartland,” but China will not be able to control them long from land. The sea will not be tamed, and the United States’ advantage on the oceans can be maintained.