#Reviewing Red Star Over the Pacific

Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge for U.S. Maritime Strategy. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

On September 30th 2018, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 052C destroyer Lanzhou maneuvered dangerously close to American guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur as it patrolled the South China Sea. Lanzhou came within 50 meters of Decatur’s bow, sounding collision warnings on the bridge as radio calls went unanswered. Chinese skippers typically shadow U.S. vessels in these contested waters, but this behavior was uncharacteristically aggressive.

Decatur was conducting what the U.S. calls a freedom-of-navigation operation  near Gaven Reef in the hotly-contested Spratly Islands.[1] These operations demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s ability to transit international waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—a treaty the U.S. recognizes even if it has not ratified it.[2] China, which is a party to the law of the sea convention, claims adherence to its letter but often violates its spirit with excessive maritime claims.[3]

USS Decatur PRC Lanzhou during what the U.S. Navy called an unsafe and unprofessional incident in the South China Sea on Sept. 30, 2018 (USNI)

Gaven Reef consists of two seemingly-insignificant features that nonetheless bristle with modern sensors and weapons.[4] The northernmost of these is characterized as “rocks,” their highest point reaching a mere six feet above sea level, while the southernmost is a mere “low-tide elevation.”[5] This is but one of several artificial fortifications built at great expense by the Chinese over the last decade, the lineaments of what a former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander called a “great wall of sand.”[6]

These outposts constitute a defensive thicket that gives shape to China’s vaunted counter-intervention strategy, an overlapping network that threatens any vessel the Chinese Communist Party deems unwelcome in seas that carry one-third of global shipping and contain an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.[7]

Tense encounters like that between Decatur and Lanzhou have become more common in recent years. A Chinese admiral gave a pointed address in December 2018, speaking about “embarrassing” America by sinking an aircraft carrier (or two) and encouraging Chinese captains to ram offending vessels the next time they violated what they considered sovereign waters.[8]

For me, these brazen tactics appeared irrational. As someone familiar with global affairs but without expertise on China, I wondered why, as it rides the crest of a wave of prosperity, China would risk conflict with the U.S. over a handful of guano-covered rocks a thousand miles from its shores?[9]

For answers I turned to Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes’ Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. Its authors have studied Chinese maritime issues for decades. Yoshihara is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, while Holmes holds the J.C. Wylie chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College—where his biography cheekily asserts that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis finds him “troublesome.”[10] Both are fluent in Chinese and make judicious use of primary sources to express China’s view of its own strategic situation.

The first edition was named one of The Atlantic’s best foreign affairs books when it was released in 2010.[11] The second edition benefits from nearly a decade of refinement and is immensely enjoyable as a result. Its vision of Chinese thalassocracy has also become much clearer.[12]

Red Star is at once succinct and expansive, accessible and erudite. Moreover, it is incredibly illuminating—the kind of book in which you will find yourself highlighting and writing notes in the margins. The authors don’t just admire the problem of China’s growing naval power; they explain how this power fits into China’s worldview and grand strategic design. They set out to tell us what Chinese leaders are doing and why. If you only have time to read one book about the challenge China poses to U.S. interests in the Pacific, make it this one.

Chain Reactions

To understand China’s actions in the South China Sea, we must first understand how China’s rulers view the region. This helps explain why America’s policy to “fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows” so irritates them.[13]

China believes itself the victim of 150 years of repression that began in the 19th century. The Opium Wars left China humiliated, prostrate before foreign interlopers, resulting in national dismemberment.[14] The ensuing century of humiliation (roughly 1839-1949) that followed left deep scars in the minds of Chinese strategists.[15] Former navy commander Wu Shengli counted no less than 470 invasions of Chinese territory during this period.[16]

Foreign Powers Carve up Post-Imperial Chin following the Opium Wars (J.S. Pughe/Library of Congress)

China’s naval geography is framed around island chains that form natural chokepoints for maritime traffic. The first island chain, from China’s perspective, runs from the southern tip of Japan through the Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan, skirts the western Philippines, and wraps back around Vietnam. The second extends from central Japan through Guam to eastern Indonesia.

China often casts the island chain construct as Cold War relics, part of an “infrastructure of containment” built by America to keep China a second-rate power. It was, after all, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson who in 1950 first referred to an American “defense perimeter of the Pacific.”[17] Douglas MacArthur, addressing Congress in 1951, stated that it was this “chain of islands” that would enable America to “dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.”[18] So, it is not without reason that China’s leaders view these islands as ramparts defended by hostile prison guards. Red Star makes a compelling argument that all of China’s maritime actions must be viewed through this lens.

East Asia Maritime Geography (Stratfor)

China’s inability to protect its own backyard was reinforced in 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. The perhaps-not-coincidentally-named aircraft carrier USS Independence was one of two dispatched to Taiwan. Independence’s partner USS Nimitz sailed through the strait while Independence loitered nearby, sending Beijing a pointed message that the Chinese Communist Party certainly received, embarking upon a decades-long modernization program to prevent that affront from ever happening again.[19]

Mahanism (with Chinese Characteristics)

Which brings us to the book’s principal argument—that China’s leaders have adapted the doctrines of naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan to suit China’s purposes—that is, maritime access beyond the island chains. Red Star Over the Pacific builds a powerful framework for analyzing China’s neo-Mahanian model using the full scope of national power, including economic, diplomatic, cultural, and legal means.[20]

 Mahan is credited as the most influential naval thinker of the 19th century.[21] An evangelist of sea power, he was ahead of his time, famously writing that "the world has become smaller. Positions formerly distant have become of vital importance."[22] How much truer his maxim is today. Mahan recognized  prospective naval power was not only about numbers of hulls or even the size or displacement of ships. Rather, it was about the sinews of global connectivity—maritime communications and access.

Holmes and Yoshihara use the full scope of Mahan’s trinity of commerce, political willpower, and military force to frame China’s maritime expansionism. Communications and access stimulate commerce, which generates wealth that can be reinvested to further expand naval communications and access, forming a virtuous cycle of sea power. These “peacetime elements of sea power constitute essential sources of Chinese prosperity, spurring economic growth that has powered China’s rise to regional and world eminence.”[23]

Mahanism is a doctrine “to found, support, and increase—as well in peace as in war—the sea power of a country.”[24] It offers “national prosperity and destiny founded upon a program of mercantilist imperialism.”[25] If heady talk of national destiny reeks of 19th century nationalism, you’ll understand why Mahanism has fallen from favor in many modern liberal democracies.[26] It’s difficult for those with only a cursory familiarity with Mahan to square his ideas with the rules-based international order the U.S. founded after the Second World War.

But for China—whose ancient concept of tianxia (literally “all under heaven”) is more congenial to extractive imperialism—Mahan makes a lot of sense.[27] China wants to shape a world consistent with its particular neo-authoritarian model—a model that gives it veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions, reminiscent of tianxia, “a modern tribute system, with all roads literally leading to Beijing.”[28] 

What China Wants and What We Can Do About It

China seeks nothing less than to displace the United States as the preeminent power in the Pacific, if not the world. It intends to make a new order that expands the reach of its state-driven economic model.[29] To achieve this vision, China's leaders have characterized the first two decades of the 21st century as a "period of strategic opportunity," during which Xi Jinping's “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation can be realized.[30]

Red Star concludes by arguing there must be major changes to America’s maritime strategy in the Pacific if Xi’s vision is to remain unrealized. The first step is recognizing that China is already an unhyphenated peer competitor.[31] American naval power should be recalibrated around this threat. American naval strategists must relearn the tenets of Mahanism still useful in the 21st century—access and communication through alliance, collective defense, and free trade shored up by a powerful navy.

The authors do not subscribe to the determinism of Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap.[32] They do advise Western strategists to “temper the sinister,” without “quashing [the] benign.”[33] They recommend an American maritime strategy that approximates a “new Cold War,” setting up tripwire forces and layered defenses that might forestall China’s advance beyond the first island chain.

“Steadfast, firm, patient pushback,” they write, “could induce Beijing to postpone its ambitions.” They leave us with the almost wistful thought that, “if it postpones them long enough, internal change could engender more healthful attitudes toward regional politics.”[34]

Hedging and hoping for internal change may not sound like much of a strategy, but the best strategists know strategy is, above all, the art of the possible. And to take a final thought from Graham Allison that isn’t disputed, “The rise of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition—a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation.”[35]  

Zachery Tyson Brown is an intelligence officer and U.S. Army veteran who consults for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the position of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Chinese warships at the end of a joint exercise with the Russian navy in 2016. (Xinhua)


[1] Ben Werner, “Destroyer USS Decatur Has Close Encounter with Chinese Warship,” United States Naval Institute News (October 1st, 2018). Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2018/10/01/37006; Ben Werner, “China’s Atypical Response to U.S. Navy FONOPS May Be a Message to Trump Administration,” United States Naval Institute News, (October 3rd, 2018). Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2018/10/03/37076

[2] Hannah Beach, “China Will Never Respect the U.S. Over the South China Sea: Here’s Why,” Time (July 8th, 2016). Retrieved from http://time.com/4397808/south-china-sea-us-unclos/;

[3] Mark J. Valencia, “US FONOPs in the South China Sea: Intent, Effectiveness, and Necessity,” The Diplomat (July 11th, 2017). Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2017/07/us-fonops-in-the-south-china-sea-intent-effectiveness-and-necessity/; Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, “DOD Annual Freedom of Navigation Reports,” Department of Defense. Retrieved from https://policy.defense.gov/OUSDP-Offices/FON/;

[4] Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “Gaven Reefs,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Retrieved from https://amti.csis.org/chinas-new-spratly-island-defenses/; Staff, “Using Clever Technology to Keep Enemies at Bay,” The Economist (January 25th, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/special-report/2018/01/25/using-clever-technology-to-keep-enemies-at-bay; Joseph Trevithick, “SAMs and Anti-Ship Missiles are Now Guarding China’s Man-Made South China Sea Islands,” The Drive (May 3rd, 2018). Retrieved from http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/20616/sams-and-anti-ship-missiles-are-now-guarding-chinas-man-made-south-china-sea-islands;

[5] Eleanor Freund, “Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea: A Practical Guide,” The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (June, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/freedom-navigation-south-china-sea-practical-guide;

[6] Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange, “Pandora's Sandbox: China's Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs (July 13th, 2014). Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2014-07-13/pandoras-sandbox; Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet “Speech Delivered to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute,” Canberra, AUS (March 31st 2015). Retrieved from http://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf; Bonnie S. Glaser and Gregory Poling, “Vanishing Borders in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs (June 5th, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-06-05/vanishing-borders-south-china-sea;

[7] China Power “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?” CSIS (2016). Retrieved from https://chinapower.csis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/; CSIS “South China Sea Energy Exploitation and Development,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (n.d.) Retrieved from https://amti.csis.org/south-china-sea-energy-exploration-and-development/;

[8] Alex Lockie “China Sets the Stage for a ‘Bloody Nose’ Attack on US Aircraft Carriers,” Business Insider (January 11th, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/chinas-threats-to-attack-us-aircraft-carriers-would-backfire-horribly-2019-1;

[9] Christopher Helman, “Whatever Is Behind China's Spratly Island Showdown, It Isn't Drilling for Oil,” Forbes (May 27th, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2015/05/27/war-with-china-these-tiny-islands-could-trigger-it/#dbc8608c0008;

[10] U.S. Naval War College, “Biography of James R. Holmes, Ph.D.” (n.d.) Retrieved from https://usnwc.edu/Faculty-and-Departments/Directory/James-R-Holmes

[11] Editors, “The Best Books of the Year: Foreign Affairs Edition,” The Atlantic (December 15th, 2010). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/12/the-best-books-of-the-year-foreign-affairs-edition/67994/;

[12] Kris Osborn, “The U.S. Military is Worried About China’s Moves in Africa,” The National Interest (August 15th, 2018). Retrieved from https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/us-military-worried-about-chinas-moves-africa-28872; Associated Press, “Chinese Navy Hospital Ship Docks in Venezuela Amid Crisis,” South China Morning Post (September 23rd, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/news/world/americas/article/2165360/chinese-navy-hospital-ship-docks-venezuela-amid-crisis; John Lee, “China’s Trojan Ports,” The American Interest (November 29th, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/11/29/chinas-trojan-ports/; Paul Coyer, “China’s Pivot to Latin America: Beijing’s Growing Security Presence in America’s Backyard,” Forbes (February 20th, 2016) Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulcoyer/2016/02/20/chinas-pivot-to-latin-america-beijings-growing-security-presence-in-americas-backyard/#4ac4f27824c2;

[13] Peter A. Dutton and Isaac B. Kardon “Forget the FONOPs — Just Fly, Sail and Operate Wherever International Law Allows,” Lawfare (June 10th, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.lawfareblog.com/forget-fonops-%E2%80%94-just-fly-sail-and-operate-wherever-international-law-allows; Reuters News Agency, ‘The US Will Fly, Sail, and Operate Wherever International Law Allows’: Tensions Rise in the South China Sea,” Vice News (October 14th, 2015). Retrieved from https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/bjkjx3/the-us-will-fly-sail-and-operate-wherever-international-law-allows-tensions-rise-in-the-south-china-sea;

[14] Stephen R. Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (New York, NY: Knopf, 2018).

[15] Matt Schiavenza, “How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History,” The Atlantic (October 23rd, 2013). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/10/how-humiliation-drove-modern-chinese-history/280878/;

[16] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Second Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 129.

[17] Dean Acheson, Remarks to the National Press Club. June 25th, 1950. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/1950-01-12.pdf;

[18] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Second Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 75.

[19] Nancy Tucker, Dangerous Strait: the U.S.-Taiwan-China Crisis (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[20] Peter Mattis, “China’s ‘Three Warfares’ in Perspective,” War on the Rocks (January 30th, 2018). Retrieved from https://warontherocks.com/2018/01/chinas-three-warfares-perspective/;

[21] John Keegan, The American Civil War (New York, NY: Knopf, 2009), 272.

[22] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783 (1890; reprint, New York, NY: Dover, 1987).

[23] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Second Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

[24] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783 (1890; reprint, New York, NY: Dover, 1987), 22-23.

[25] Harold H. Sprout and Margaret T. Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power: 1776-1918 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1939) 203, 217-222.

[26] James R. Holmes and CDR Kevin J. Delamer, “Mahan Rules,” Proceedings 143/5/1,371 (May 2017). Retrieved from https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-05/mahan-rules;

[27] Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, (New York, NY: Knoph, 2017).

[28] Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 18.

[29] Elizabeth C. Economy, “China’s New Revolution: The Reign of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2018). Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-04-17/chinas-new-revolution?fbclid=IwAR1mt83kCXVayOEx3PAcBQnWwJpG4vU2QB-1TseqGlYBo7FVMUQwtEEhNQg;

[30] Pratik Kumar, “What is the Chinese Dream?” Dhaka Tribune (January 10th, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2019/01/10/what-is-the-chinese-dream;

[31] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Second Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018),102.

[32] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic (September 24th, 2015.) Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/;

[33] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Second Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 292.

[34] Ibid., 299.

[35] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic (September 24th, 2015.) Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/;