Professor Toshi Yoshihara and coauthor James R. Holmes were among the first to suggest that China would seek, and eventually become, a major sea power. The March 4, 2019, YCAPS-JUMP seminar presented by Professor Yoshihara outlined China’s grand strategy of economic development to achieve the China Dream, which is driving the emergent sea power to our West. The buzz preceding the seminar projected what was, indeed, a record crowd of 65 people from Tokyo, Yokohama and Yokosuka, representing business professionals, scholars, National Defense Academy, and the intelligence and diplomatic communities.
To frame the discussion, Yoshihara referenced Mahan’s three pillars of sea power: commerce, political will, and the military power to protect economic interests. China’s pivot to sea power to achieve national greatness is a substantial pivot from centuries of obsession with potential threats from lands to the west and northwest. To the Chinese, the sea was a protective moat. The new geopolitical construct of the sea as a highway was first introduced in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping. With this lens in mind, it becomes clear that this new mentality deeply informs the Chinese cold war stance. When maps are viewed from a Beijing perspective, the island chains form a Great Wall in reverse, potentially choking China off from its economic commercial engine – trade. Thus, three structural factors—economic, geographic and political—propel China’s return to the seas. The strategic will to the seas has drawn the population to the major port megalopolises and provided the political capital to develop a modern naval force.
In the context of this grand strategy—economic prosperity leading to sea power, and eventual national stature—it is important to remember that political relations are shaped by the Chinese fear that US hard power is intent on containment, not a benevolent interest in equitable access to the seas. Chinese power is projected not just by naval ships, but also by the coast guard, fisheries, and uninhabited islands. These strategies are being used to deny access, or make the relative cost of access, prohibitive. In addition to military power, Chinese grand strategy employs influence operations to bombard the media and educational institutions with pro-China messages and subtle self-censorship.
During the question and answer session, audience members considered potential strategic moves, from deterrence by interdependence, to escalation, and adoption of nuclear weapons by allies. Professor Yoshihara noted that although economic interdependence is an effective deterrent, Thucydides identified fear, honor and interest to be motivating factors which can make nations act in unpredictable ways. After centuries of perceived humiliation, and frustration with the post-war world order, China may be sensing a surge of confidence and seek to displace the US in the world order. Sensing this bristling confidence, the Trump administration’s departure from a strategy of engagement “threw a brick through the glass” by providing an entirely new rhetorical and policy landscape, and entrée into the ideological realm, and consideration of a long-term strategic decoupling from sources of power which have enabled China’s rise. Ultimately, China wants to shape the external environment to make the world safe for authoritarianism, making democracies come to terms with an authoritarian super power. What values is this generation prepared to fight for?