Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy

Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy by Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes Yoshihara - Red Star

In Red Star over the Pacific Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes argue that the best analysis of China’s maritime turn in the 21st century can be found in the writing of an American Naval Captain who died in 1914.

Holmes and Yoshihara set out to explore and detail China’s internal debates about naval strategy. Bringing many of these debates to an English speaking audience for the first time, they show how the middle kingdom is thinking about its new role and how prominent ideas are influencing national capability choices.

At the heart of this debate, the authors find the strategic grammer of the American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The book begins with an exposure of his work and his significant influence on Chinese thinking and debates. The book then turns to examine key factors in Beijing’s maritime strategy. This includes chapters on fleet tactics, major capabilities such as ballistic missiles and submarines, and soft power operations.

Combined these offer a fascinating insight into how China’s maritime turn is occurring. Along the way we get discussions of US responses and force posture and the implications for regional and even global security.
The line between ‘strategic studies’ and ‘international politics’ is often blurred in the public literature. In Red Star over the Pacific Yoshihara and Holmes masterfully demonstrate why the former is an important sub-discipline that is worth preserving. They offer history (including a fascinating comparison with another Mahan inspired opponent, Germany), geography, extremely readable analysis of technical capability and balance it all with a judicious strategic analysis that grants due weight to ideational factors such as intellectual debates and culture to provide a compelling analysis.

By grounding the analysis in the strategic studies domains of concepts and capability, the authors go far beyond anything else on the shelves to detail just what China is attempting to do at sea, what it could do, how it will try to do it and what it means for the US and anyone else who may try to shape or resist Beijing’s policy.

The subject matter makes this something of a niche book, but given the quality of the analysis and writing I know many well outside my field who have picked up and enjoyed a copy (the book was published in 2010 though never feels dated). It also deserves to be read given the significance of the issues at stake. The US and China will almost assuredly avoid a land based conflict (a repeat of the 1950 crisis on the Korean Peninsula is about the only plausible exception). But a maritime clash is increasingly possible. More so, maritime strategy and coercion is already a fundamental part of the current strategic competition between the first and second largest economies of the world.

While I dismiss notions of US decline or passivity, and recognise the vast gulf between owning and effectively utilising capabilities, this book still makes for pessimistic reading. China may currently feel hemmed into the ‘first-island chain’ that connects Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. But with a switch of government in Taipei and authority over the South China Sea, Beijing can flip those barriers into creating a large moat that protects rather than contains China.

That sets the current dispute about the South China Sea in a very different light. Merely grabbing a few man-made islands or small oil fields hardly seems worth the effort. But as part of an effort to fundamentally rechange the regional maritime geography to China’s benefit, it takes on a far greater order of significance. Yet it’s also not clear that current policy alternatives will effectively challenge Beijing or that now is the best time to do it.

I tend to think that Southeast Asian countries are far better placed to dissuade China from such a policy than a clumsy and ill-interpreted effort from Washington. Likewise, the extent to which this change is unacceptable to non-Chinese interests is also not clear. US and Australian safety does not depend upon the waters inside the first island chain, and if shipping and trade is protected – and there’s no good reason it won’t be – then what exactly is the threat worth going to war over? Finally, and as Yoshihara and Holmes clearly demonstrate, even if the US wanted to actively resist China’s maritime expansion, it would be extremely difficult and costly to do so. This is quite unlike Britain resisting Germany before World War 1 and the usual dribble about national character/intent and seriousness that litters these kinds of discussions has almost nothing to do with it.

This is one for the wonks, but that says more about the public’s interest than the capacity of these scholars to write for the public. It masterfully shows what strategic studies is as a discipline, and examines one of the most important global questions of the day. Along the way it helps to draw many of China’s intellectual debates on military issues out into the open, while reminding us that strategy is a domain of ideas as well as weapons. Of concepts and capabilities. Power has its material and ideational spheres and we can only understand just what we are doing, and how we may seek our security if we understand and embrace both parts.
A remarkable piece of scholarship. Give it a go if you can