Influencia de Alfred Mahan en la doctrina naval de China

Alfred Mahan's influence on China's naval doctrine.


26 | 10 | 2022


From Navy expansion to 'denial of access' Beijing follows the guide of the American admiral and strategist who propelled the U.S. as a maritime power

In the picture

The Liaoning, the first aircraft carrier of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy; in June 2022 China launched its third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, the first of design and exclusively Russian construction [China Navy].

For several decades now, Beijing has been progressively increasing the national expense on defense, and in particular on its National Navy. In the period between 1990 and 2020, the People's Republic of China has raised its defense expense from $9.93 billion to $252.3 billion in 2020, from agreement with data of the World Bank[1]. Such an increase has come hand in hand with its growing economic clout and its parallel rise in the list of richest nations. To this end, the government has undertaken a drastic increase in its naval power, including armaments, issue of ships and maritime doctrine.

Thus, over the last ten years, China has imposed a pace of shipbuilding and armament that has led it to rapidly climb positions in the ranking of the world's strongest navies. This growth has gone hand in hand with an expansion of its presence along the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea, where coast guard vessels maintain strict control and make navigation difficult for other neighboring nations.

This evolution, which has also led to an increased presence in the Indo-Pacific (destined to become the new geostrategic center of gravity) and the Arctic, has been especially motivated by the economic and commercial interests of the Asian giant and, therefore, by the ideas of the American geopolitician Alfred Mahan. Therefore, in the following lines, we will analyze the influence that his ideas and teachings have had on the naval strategy and maritime doctrine of the People's Republic of China in its struggle to extend its influence and dominate the main maritime trade routes.

Mahan and China's naval doctrine

Ironically, China's maritime doctrine has derived some of its most important points from one of the most relevant American naval and geopolitical historians in history: Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). His works, which analyzed both the military and commercial aspects of maritime doctrine, served to make the U.S. Navy the most powerful in the world. Many others have studied and implemented the American's ideas, and today China is one of the best examples of countries that have been inspired by Mahan to enhance their Economics and trade.

Broadly speaking, Mahan established six factors (three geographical and three social) as determining factors for any nation aspiring to become a great maritime power, all of which fall within the scope of maritime doctrine[2]:

GEOGRAPHIC POSITION. From agreement with Mahan, those nations that are in a position to direct their efforts towards the sea, without the need to invest great efforts in the defense of their land borders, have an advantage over the rest.

PHYSICAL CONFIGURATION. Depending on the shape and size of the coastline of the country in question, it will have a greater or lesser inclination to go to sea and interact with its neighbors.

EXTENSION OF TERRITORY. For Mahan, in a status conflict between two nations in similar conditions, the factor that will determine who will surpass the other in naval power will be the distance of their coasts, as well as the disposition of their ports. If these have been strategically distributed in such a way as to allow a better control of the coasts, that nation will be more likely to have a greater power.

POPULATION SIZE. More specifically, looking at the issue total population that is engaged in maritime professions, or could shortly be so prepared, is another factor of importance core topic in estimating a nation's potential to accumulate sea power.

NATIONAL CHARACTER. By this Mahan refers to the desires and motivation of a given nation to take to the sea and exploit it to increase its trade. On the extent to which such a population is involved in dominating maritime trade, and the ambition it allocates to this business, also depends the naval power a nation can aspire to achieve.

CHARACTER OF THE GOVERNMENT. Finally, the American noted that "with respect to naval power, the best results have been obtained when there has been intelligent leadership on the part of its rulers and they have identified themselves completely with the spirit of the people."

Mahan's influence over the upper echelons of the Chinese Navy was especially visible at the 2004 Sea Lanes Security Symposium in Beijing. Wang Zaibang, vice president of the Chinese high school of International Office Contemporary began the session on "Challenges to Asia Pacific Seaway Security: assessment and Categorization" by reciting Mahan's naval power theory[3]. Mahan's appeal is easily understandable, given that he was writing about and for an emerging power - at the time, the USA - something that fits perfectly with the current status of the People's Republic of China.

Therefore, we will now present several concrete examples of how China's military and maritime activity reflects the teachings of the American admiral through its three pillars core topic. Firstly, with investment in the nation's naval power as a primary requirement. Secondly, through its commercial dominance as the main determinant of its maritime doctrine. Finally, through expansion into other regions of geostrategic importance that allow it to expand its naval presence.

Chinese investment in naval power

China's investment in its navy follows Mahan's guidelines, as it responds to the first step that the American established for his country. Aware that the US could not cope with the British navy of the time, just as China today cannot cope with that of its competitor, he stated that the first concern should be to have a fleet that would allow control of the nearest maritime space. In this way, China has been increasing its maritime force until it has become the first in issue of vessels.

China's first aircraft carrier, unveiled in 2011, marked an important milestone in China's climb toward increasing ocean dominance. Japanese Admiral Fumio Ota judged that event as "the beginning of a B transition in naval doctrine"[4]. Indeed, China has already launched the first exclusively Chinese-built design aircraft carrier, the Fujian (the two previous ones were design Russian), which has capabilities on par with U.S. ships of the class Nimitz or class Ford and is expected to be operational by 2025. While this is not a major change to the overall status - the U.S. Navy has 11 active aircraft carriers - China will undoubtedly experience an improvement in its offensive capabilities and an increase in its maritime presence. However, the aircraft carrier is not the only subject ship China is developing. Amphibious assault ships subject-075, frigates subject-054A, or destroyers subject-052D have also been built; all these projects are led by China State Shipbuilding Corporation, the world's largest shipbuilder[5]. The total number of ships China has produced since 2014 exceeds in tonnage that of entire navies such as the French, German or Spanish navies[6].

On the other hand, satellite images have been progressively revealing how China is also carrying out modernizations and expansions of its infrastructures and shipyards. The Jiangnan shipyard, for example, located in Shanghai, has a 7.3 km2 area , a size that the images suggest will be doubled. In addition, new facilities have been established in Wuhan to build several submarines[7]. Such developments, together with the slogan captured by satellites at the launching of the latest aircraft carrier, "build a strong and modern navy, and provide strong support to achieve the Chinese dream of a strong military"[8], follow the recommendations of Mahan, who pushed his country to build naval instructions and increase the issue of ships available to counter the power that then dominated the seas. This pace of shipbuilding shows no signs of slowing down for the time being, and voices of alarm are beginning to be heard in US naval and government circles.

Anti-Access and Denial of area

Mahan argued that, once it had a capable navy, the U.S. should seek to deny the British access to the strategic enclaves closest to its shores. China, which is now at the same status, has decided to do the same. In 2007, the outline of what is now known as the Anti-Access/ Denial of Access area (A2/AC) began to take shape, applied in the maritime environment close to the Chinese coasts. This system, designed to ensure China's supremacy in this region, had the advantage of not requiring technological parity with the US to be effective[9]. China has been increasing and consolidating it over the years, and now has satellite and radar surveillance, ballistic and Wayside Cross missiles, attack submarines, ground-based aviation and special mines[10]. The main motivation of this procedure, as its name indicates, is to deny access to China's territorial waters to any other maritime power that intends to confront it.

Thus, China's geopolitics in the South China Sea revolves around the so-called "island chains", the concept of which was developed precisely by the United States as a means of containment and a way of ensuring control over the entire East Asian littoral. As explained at congress in 1951 by General MacArthur, a veteran of the Philippines campaign during World War II, the US would come to dominate the Pacific near Asia "by means of an island chain stretching in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas, controlled by us and our allies. From this chain we can dominate by sea and air power every Asian port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.

China has adopted this base and turned it into its main defense instrument in the opposite direction to that intended by the Americans. Its coast guard and fishing vessels, in the service of the navy, routinely patrol the region, as we shall see later, ensuring control of these waters without the need to mobilize its warships. It has also been building facilities on many of the small islands and reefs for years, so that it can make more efficient and convenient use of these sites. Focused on providing military outposts throughout the region by placing small instructions and harbors, China is seeking to have these promontories considered islands in the eyes of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In this way, Beijing could claim sovereignty over these territories and over its exclusive economic zone, thus establishing greater (and more legitimate) control over these waters.

The first chain, consisting of a line running from the lower part of Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, is the first step in the strategy. Within the area delimiting this first line, Beijing maintains control of the area by means of artificially constructed islands, accumulating sand on the reefs and then placing infrastructure on the newly generated surface.

With this policy of Anti-Access-Denial of area, with which it prevents the US navy from sailing in those waters, while controlling the entire region, China imitates what the US applied in the Caribbean more than a century ago, as Mahan proposed. However, Beijing encounters the difficulty that international law does not recognize the islands, and therefore Chinese sovereignty over them.

Despite this, China now seems to want to increase the area of its application, extended to the "second chain" of islands, stretching from Yokosuka in Japan to Papua, via Guam (enclave of the American base). This represents a formidable challenge for Beijing[12]. Despite the lack of hard evidence, some have argued that China could use the second chain as the pivot for a potential "counter-offensive" campaign directed at US and allied forces in the region[13].

The South China Sea

The case of the South China Sea also sample an important influence of Mahan's ideas in the Chinese maritime doctrine, being undoubtedly one of the most strategically important points for them. It is not in vain that it is considered one of the most probable environments where a naval conflict between two great powers (USA and China) could take place.[14]

It is therefore not surprising that Chinese politicians and military strategists see the South China Sea as Mahan and the United States saw the Caribbean a century ago. This similarity is demonstrated by two very clear examples.

Firstly, considering the geographical similarities between the two seas: both are dominated by one power, which covers the vast majority of the coastline; the Malaysian peninsula and the Sumatran archipelago are reminiscent of the isthmus of Central America -to which Mahan paid so much attention-; and finally, the Strait of Malacca and the Panama Canal as vital trade routes for the nation that dominates the coastline of that sea. [15] At final, a combination of geographical factors make this area a territory of great strategic importance of which China is fully aware.

Second, following one of the fathers of today's Chinese Navy and a staunch advocate of Mahan's doctrine, Liu Huaqing, who decades ago already advocated that China should dominate the island chain from southern Japan, through Taiwan and the northern Philippines, parallel to mainland China (i.e., the islands of the South China Sea). [16] Indeed, a comparison of the ideas reflected in some of Mahan's works with China's naval activities in this environment certainly shows that a large part of China's Navy leadership sees the same potential as the Americans saw in the Caribbean. In this way, China imitates the ideas advocated by the American in its interest in establishing control and securing safe transit for its trade through the Straits of Malacca and its various entrances.[17]

Moreover, there is also a similarity between China's status vis-à-vis the US today and that of the US vis-à-vis the UK in 1890. Just as the United States was dealing with a superior power, the British, but was able to dominate the Caribbean because its direct adversary had global responsibilities to fulfill; today China is still inferior to the Americans in global terms, but can aspire to control the South Sea in an identical way through its Anti-Access and Denial of area.

instructions naval

In the middle of the last decade, some scholars suggested that, if Beijing was truly inspired by Mahan to expand its maritime control and secure its trade, it would need to establish maritime instructions far from China's shores to ensure its presence in the other oceans. Three years later, in 2009, Air Force Colonel Dai Xu suggested this need to establish and develop naval instructions beyond its nearest coastline. [18] This vision was finally realized when China made the leap in its ambitions from establishing its first and only base so far - in Djibouti. Mahan's influence on Chinese doctrine was thus confirmed. However, over the past year, the possibility has emerged that China is secretly deploying two more: in Cambodia[19] (see geographic location in Figure 4) and in the United Arab Emirates. [20] Such initiatives reveal an important influence of Mahan's insistence on Chinese doctrine, for whom naval instructions was one of the fundamental pillars of sustaining a nation's naval power.

By the time these instructions become operational, China would have substantially increased its strength and presence in the Indo-Pacific, which is becoming the center of gravity of the Economics and global trade. Thus, Mahan's predictions more than a century ago would be confirmed, when he said that "many observers have asserted the immense latent strength of the Chinese character."[21] No doubt, if Mahan were to see the naval power and capabilities that China has amassed, he would be amazed at the remarkable progress that China has made in such a short period of time; and he would also point to the instructions overseas as the next point for continuing its aspirations to be a navy with a global presence.

Indeed, Chinese doctrine expert Lyle Goldstein noted that "there are Chinese strategists who have even said to my face, 'We are looking for additional instructions . We have Djibouti and we want more. We have Djibouti and we want more,' which makes sense [...] China has global interests and wants a global presence. [22] This ambition is, as we say, in line with Mahan's thinking when he explained the "inevitable connection in logical sequence: industry, markets, control, navy, instructions". [23] China has the first two elements clearly in place, and has now spent years making sure to establish the others. Its navy already exceeds the world's largest navies in issue of ships, its influence in the South China Sea region continues to expand outward; all that remains now is the establishment of instructions abroad on which its warships and merchant ships can rely to extend its influence in the world's oceans.

The Pearl Necklace and the China Trade

The term String of Pearls was first coined in a report graduate "Energy Futures in Asia",[24]in which it detailed the strategy adopted by China to extend its influence across the Indian Ocean to secure its trading activity from China to the Middle East. This strategy, named after the image formed on the map by linking all the ports used is reminiscent of a necklace, is also one of the main reasons why China has expanded across the Indian Ocean with the String of Pearls is, according to some, to reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca, through which about 80% of its hydrocarbon imports transit; thus being able to exploit other routes that will allow it to expand its exports more safely.

"As of today, China has 96 ports around the world. Some of them in strategic locations for its maritime trade - which in turn implies energy trade - giving Beijing strategic dominance without the need to deploy any soldiers, ships or weapons."[25] Thus, President Xi Jinping secures a B commercial, diplomatic and military influence in numerous countries. This, in turn, has generated a discussion regarding the potential such ports would have for global security. While some see such growth in the Indo-Pacific as a logical consequence of its economic growth, others fear the consequences for global security should the ports be used as military instructions for the Chinese Navy. [26] Conveniently, this dilemma is precisely the same one that Mahan has generated over the years with his ideas, again demonstrating his influence over Beijing and China's doctrine.

Undoubtedly, the Pearl Necklace is one of the most significant manifestations of Mahan's influence on Chinese commercial naval doctrine. As Mahan stated, "as the merchant and war navies of a nation extend their field of operations away from the coast itself, the need is felt more and more for points at which ships can reliably enter to trade, seek shelter, or procure provisions."[27] Well, these are the most important features of China's Pearl Necklace strategy. To this day, China's Economics depends for the most part on maritime trade, and the Necklace is undoubtedly one of the most important elements of that economic activity. Its strategic importance - which in turn has determined the nation's strategic culture - has its main focus in the Indian Ocean region, traditionally dominated by the US and of vital importance to China's trade.

Thus, the String of Pearls is nothing more than a strategy to project its political, economic and military influence, as well as its naval presence, through the construction of instructions and infrastructures. Mahan advocated that the nation that has control of the seas will be the one that becomes a superpower and dominates over the others. Well, China's ambitions are a perfect match: the core topic of the Collar strategy is that each of these ports and enclaves should be linked together to form a chain that serves as an economic, military and intelligence hub in the Indian Ocean region.[28]

Through these routes, China ensures the maintenance of its presence in global markets, as well as its military and strategic dominance in the Indian Ocean region in order to strengthen its trade routes. At the same time, Beijing has also shown interest in influencing the countries where it has ports along the route through the so-called "soft power", thus minimizing skill and possible rivalries with other countries in the region. This makes it easier for Beijing to negotiate agreements for instructions naval or ports in its territory.


At final, it is undeniable that Mahan's ideas and thinking are clearly reflected in the aspirations that China is demonstrating with its economic growth and increased reliance on maritime trade. Not only with the portentous increase being undertaken in terms of issue of assets, offshore weaponry and defense systems, but also with the ongoing drive to dominate the sea lanes in the Pacific and along the Indian Ocean through the String of Pearls. China has shown the important influence of Alfred Mahan's thinking on it. This is reflected in many aspects of its maritime activity, from the strengthening of trade routes to the incredible growth it has experienced over the last ten years.

This rate of shipbuilding in Chinese shipyards significantly exceeds that of any other maritime power, and there is no doubt that China's growing naval presence in all oceans, coupled with its economic influence, will continue to increase over the coming years. It will thus force the United States to undertake a serious reassessment of its foreign (and, above all, naval) policy if it does not want to be relegated to the shadow of the Asian giant and its portentous navy. However, several questions remain about China's intentions regarding its naval doctrine and its commercial expansion around the world. Leaving aside the case of the lack of transparency with which the government communicates its military plans and projects, which makes it difficult to investigate issues in this regard, many wonder how many years it will take the Asian giant to surpass the American dominance and control of the seas, taking into account the positive trend that its Economics continues to maintain. But, above all, what will be the response of the other major navies in this regard.

* This essay was presented as a communication at the XXIX congress Interrnacional de Defensa held in Jaca in September 2022.


[1] World Bank, 2021.

[2] Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783 (1890). 36-73

[3] James Holmes & Toshi Yoshihara, "China and the commons: Angell or Mahan?" World Affairs, 168 (4), 176.

[4] Fumio Ota "The Carrier of Asia-Pacific Troubles," Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2011.

[5] H.I. Sutton. "Chinese Navy Growth: Massive Expansion of Important Shipyard," Naval News, 15 March 2022.

[6] Nick Childs & Tom Waldwyn. "China's Naval Shipbuilding: delivering in its ambition in a big way", Military Balance Blog, IISS. 2018.

[7] H.I. Sutton. "Chinese Navy Growth: Massive Expansion of Important Shipyard," Naval News, 15 March 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] José R. Pardo de Santayana. "Modernization of the Chinese Armed Forces." bulletin IEEE, (21), 2021. 79.

[10] Angel Guinea. "The Anti-Access-Denial Doctrine of area: A New Approach to Coastal Defense," BELT, 4 June 2020.

[11] Douglas MacArthur. "`Old soldiers never die', Address to the US Congress on April 19, 1951," State Historical Society of Iowa (1951) 3-4.

[12] Andrew S. Erickson & Joel Wuthnow (2016). "Barriers, springboards and benchmarks: China conceptualizes the Pacific `island chains'". The China Quarterly, 225. 2016. 16-17.

[13] Ibid, 1.

[14] Marvin Ott. "The South China Sea in Strategic Terms," Wilson Center, 14 May 2019. 

[15] James R. Holmes & Toshi Yoshihara (2006) "China's `Caribbean' in the South-China Sea", The SAIS Review of International Affairs, Winter-Spring 2006, 26(1), 88.

[16] Ibid, 83.

[17] Ibid, 87.

[18] Michael S. Chase & Andrew S. Erickson. "Changes in Beijing's approach to overseas basing?" China Brief, 9(19), 2009. 24.

[19] Mathew Loh. "China's navy has the world's largest fleet but only one foreign base to launch ships. It's secretly trying to change that, a report says", Business Insider, 7 June 2022.

[20] Gordon Lubold & Warren P. Strobel. "Secret Chinese Port Project in Persian Gulf Rattles U.S. Relations With U.A.E," Wall Street Journal, 19 November 2021.

[21] Alfred T. Mahan, The Problem of Asia and its Effect upon International Politics (1900) 24

[22] Christopher Woody, "With a new carrier and rumors of more instructions, a vision of China's global presence is getting clearer," Business Insider, 1 July 2022.

[23] Alfred T. Mahan, The Interest of America in International Conditions, (1910) 87.

[24] See Juli A. MacDonald, "Energy Futures in Asia: Final Report," Booz-Allen & Hamilton (2004).

[25] Liam Fox & Robert McFarlane, "China wants to get a stranglehold on our vital energy supplies," The Daily Mail, 7 August 2021.

[26] John Xie, "China's Global Network of shipping ports reveal Beijing's Strategy," VOA News, 13 September 2021.

[27] Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783 (1890) 33.

[28] Igor Pejic. "China's String of Pearls Project," South Front, 5 October 2016.