Red Star Over the Pacific

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Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S Maritime Strategy. 2nd edition. By: Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018.

Reviewed by Simon Louie

Throughout most of its history, China has viewed itself as a continental power—an understandable position given its long history of having to fight off barbarian invaders from the north. With the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse, this geo-political focus has shifted; China has managed to solve most land disputes with its neighbours and has subsequently turned its attention towards the oceans.

In Red Star over the Pacific, the authors explain– in great detail—that the reason for this shift in focus is largely due to the fact that China is now very reliant on international commerce to maintain high rates of economic growth and to secure resources for its burgeoning middle-class.   Using the writings of the great naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan as a prism—who theorised that national power was inextricably linked to the oceans– the authors argue that China’s leaders see themselves constrained by chains of islands, claimed by countries allied with the United States, which could potentially impede their access to much needed raw materials. 

The book details the evolution of Chinese naval thought. The first admiral of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) saw the Chinese navy as a brown-water force that would fight in Chinese littoral waters to defend against Nationalist forces.  Later naval chiefs sought the ability to expand into China’s near seas and now the PLAN has achieved a status rivalling the US Navy in size. The PLAN order-of-battle includes indigenously produced aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines and flotillas of advanced guided missile destroyers and frigates and amphibious forces. The PLAN’s operations now extend as far afield as the Indian Ocean to conduct anti-piracy operations and demonstrate a maritime presence. 

A key part of China’s strategy is the sea denial/anti-access strategy which aims to make it extremely costly for an adversary (the United States) to send surface ships into  areas of conflict (e.g a potential clash with Taiwan). Here the authors explain how the Chinese navy has acquired anti-ship missiles with ranges far exceeding those of their American counterparts.  Another part of China’s strategy is its ‘cabbage’ strategy—using its maritime fishing fleet and coast guard to enforce its claims in the South China Sea, backed up by the PLAN should actual force be required.  

 Does this mean that the United States is bound to lose in a conflict with the PLAN? Here the authors are cautious. Whilst the Chinese navy is certainly large and expanding, and would be fighting in waters close to home, the authors point out that the PLAN has not previously fought an actual engagement and that it takes many years to train a navy to fight a peer opponent. 

An enormous amount of research and work has gone into Red Star Over the Pacific—the authors have not only drawn on Chinese language sources from naval writers and thinkers, but also from great military strategists such as Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz.  The book explains the thinking and strategic mindset behind the expansion of the Chinese navy. Without prophesising war as inevitable the authors explain ways in which the US Navy could possibly counter the PLAN — such as reusing Cold War strategies that worked against the former USSR and investing in longer range anti-ship missiles.  ‘Red Star Over the Pacific’ does not get overly bogged down in technical details—but does contain enough technical information for anyone interested in these aspects. 

 This book is an very valuable source of information for those interested in the trajectory of China’s navy, the history of its naval development, the motivations for its maritime expansion and the ways and means by which the United States and its allies could counter the PLAN—as such ‘Red Star over the Pacific,’ is highly recommended reading.

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