Does Soviet naval strategy provide a template for China’s maritime ambitions?
21 Jan 2021|

In 1976, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergei Georgyevich Gorshkov published his exposition of Soviet maritime strategy under the title The sea power of the state. It was translated by United States Naval Intelligence in 1977 and an English-language edition was published commercially by Pergamon and by the US Naval Institute Press in 1979.

The book is an argument for a rising great power to exploit the maritime domain in all its dimensions: military, political, economic and scientific. It is an argument derived from Marxist–Leninist foundations, made to the leadership of a continental state with a hitherto profoundly continental outlook, whose army saw the navy as a subordinate service used mainly for protection of its seaward flanks. It is an argument which seeks to gain not just priority in the allocation of defence funding, but national priority for an oceans policy in what was seen—at least until the 1980s—as an expanding and increasingly powerful industrial economy.

This work is more significant now than it has been at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not because of what it still says about Russian maritime strategy, but for the insights it can provide on Chinese maritime strategy.

For The sea power of the state is more than simply navalist special pleading. Gorshkov wrote of the ‘world ocean’ and its resource potential and sought a whole-of-nation approach. At a time when the law of the sea was evolving rapidly and on the brink of the creation of a new regime with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Gorshkov argued that the Soviet Union needed to be a leader in exploiting the ‘world ocean’, not only through direct efforts, such as fishing, trading and offshore mining, but also in scientific research. He was ahead of his time in certain respects, writing:

It is legitimate to consider the sea power of the state as a system characterised not only by the presence of links between its components (military, merchant, scientific research fleet, etc.) but also by the inseparable union with the environment—the ocean in the mutual relations in which the system expresses its wholeness.

The sea power of the state also made a compelling case of the ‘imperialist’ states’ successful use of the sea for both political and economic benefit. It argued that the Soviet Union needed to go onto the ‘world ocean’ to balance against and eventually defeat the ‘imperialists’. Gorshkov’s approach was finessed to manage the continentalist mindset of his political and military masters. In arguing for a stronger navy, Gorshkov was careful to acknowledge the fundamental importance of the defence of the motherland and the imperative for it to continue.

The sea power of the state made much of the increasing numbers of seaborne nuclear weapons and the threat that they posed. According to Gorshkov, this gave the navy an existential importance that it had never before possessed in Russian history. He repeatedly stressed the value of submarines, both as nuclear-missile carriers and as independent fighting units in the defence of the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, even as he acknowledged the primacy of the defence of the motherland and its centrality to naval force structure and doctrine, the admiral argued this was not sufficient to achieve the communist party’s long-term aims. Sea power offered the chance of both breaking free of the USSR’s geographic limitations and advancing the socialist cause—and that of the Soviet Union in particular—on a global scale. Gorshkov concluded, ‘The sea power of our country is directed at ensuring favourable conditions for building communism, the intensive expansion of the economic power of the country and the steady expansion of its defence capability.’

There is an obvious difference between the Soviet Union and communist China. Gorshkov’s project failed largely because it, along with other Soviet military ambitions, placed excessive demands on an already overstrained industrial base. China, on the other hand, may be returning to a command economy, with all the problems that might create, but has very much greater industrial capacity. As the second Chinese-built aircraft carrier nears completion and a multitude of other units come into commission, that capacity is being demonstrated in spectacular fashion.

China will always pursue its own approach to national strategy and Chinese maritime strategists will blaze their own trails. But, at a time when its leadership is pursuing regional dominance and global influence, while China re-emphasises its own Marxist–Leninist roots and looks to exploit its newfound economic strength, The sea power of the state provides a ready-made template for maritime expansion for a rising continental power new to the sea.

That the People’s Liberation Army Navy is on the one hand hedging against conflict with the United States with its anti-access strategy, and on the other seeking to emulate the American approach by making its presence felt further afield through the deployment of carrier battle groups and amphibious units, suggests that the template is being applied. Chinese fishing fleets roam the globe, China’s merchant marine is equally far ranging and its scientific research and survey units operate around the Indo-Pacific, not to mention in the Antarctic and Arctic.

China has gone to sea and The sea power of the state gives some clues about why.