Ancient Greece historians Herodotus and Thucydides once used the word “thalassocracy” to reveal the importance of controlling the sea in the Mediterranean area.
However, the term sea power first appeared in famous American scholar Alfred Maham’s classic book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History.” In his book, Maham (1840-1914) combed and analyzed several influential sea battles by Spain, Holland and England from 1660 to 1783, and stressed the importance of having command of the sea in gaining an upper hand in war. According to Maham, land power, which is based on an agriculture-oriented economy, could hardly match sea power, which is based on the maritime trade economy.
As a big country with more than 5,000 years of history, China has long been regarded as a nation attaching great significance to land power. Nevertheless, during the Southern Song (1127-1279), Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, shipbuilding technologies, maritime expansion and naval exploits of the Chinese people reached a climax. According to concerned statistics, in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese navy owned more than 4,000 battleships.
What were the factors that made China a powerful blue water nation during these periods? In my view, the shift of economic and demographic centers of gravity from the hinterland of Northwest China to the coastal regions of Southeast China was the main reason that forced the Chinese to expand out to sea.
History tells us that the ultimate drive to develop sea power is overseas trade. If a country’s foreign trade does not constitute a significant portion of its GDP, there is no foundation for developing a strong sea power. After more than 40 years’ reform and opening up, China’s foreign trade totaled 30.51 trillion yuan, or US$4.62 trillion, in 2018, ranking first worldwide. Under this circumstance, sea power is of special importance to today’s China as the country’s goals have shifted from the need to guarantee its survival during the revolutionary days to the current state of securing stable economic development. This shift symbolizes a full transition for China, changing from a closed country to an open one that is irrevocably integrated with the rest of the world. Such a shift also includes social, political and geopolitical changes that deeply influence the country’s national security.
Chinese people always use theory to guide practice. Compared with China’s robust economic development in recent years, our theoretical research on sea power is lagging far behind. Today, the United States is strong because it has an unmatched sea power. It has been pointed out that America’s path to wealth and strength was revealed by Maham over 100 years ago in his lifelong research on sea power. Based on his analysis, Maham found that the situation of the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century was remarkably similar to what happened in Spain, Holland and England in the 17th and 18th centuries, when a nation embarked on a process of shifting from an inward-leaning economy to an outward-leaning economy.
Meanwhile, to consolidate its sea power, China still has a long way to go to establish a strong naval force. Without a strong navy, there will be no great future for China. Building up a strong navy does not necessarily contradict China’s long-held principle of peace and development. Experience has perfectly proven that to live and survive in a world such as ours, a country must develop a reliable sea fleet to safeguard its national security.
The U.S. now boasts 11 aircraft carriers in active service; six of them are deployed in the Pacific Ocean and five others in the Atlantic Ocean. Currently, the PLA Navy operates only two 50,000-metric-ton aircraft carriers, one of which was retrofitted from the former Soviet-era cruiser Varyag.
Also, compared with advanced Western counterparts, the size of Chinese carriers is also relatively small. The largest aircraft carrier in the world now has a much larger displacement, at 112,000 metric tons. Meanwhile, unlike nuclear-powered U.S. Nimitz-class and Gerald Ford-class carriers, the Chinese vessels still use a conventional propulsion system which means they must carry large amounts of fuel for long voyages. Moreover, fighter jets on Chinese vessels still have to resort to traditional ski-jumping ramps instead of the more advanced catapult-assistance takeoff facilities used by some Western ships.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)