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Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies - Navigating Troubled Waters (October 15, 2013)

Bernard D. Cole's book was reviewed by Paul Midford for H-Diplo and is published here under Creative Commons license.
January 2, 2015

Bernard D. Cole. Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters. Washington, DC: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 320 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59114-162-4.

Bernard Cole has written a comprehensive, and even magisterial, examination of the maritime strategies and navies of East and South Asia, with the navies of the Persian Gulf included for good measure. Nonetheless this book has an unmistakable China focus, including Cole’s extensive analysis of the potential for maritime cooperation and conflict with the United States.

At times the geographical scope of this book is problematically expansive, however. One example is the inclusion of Canada, which is justified by the fact that it has a maritime border with the “North Asian” nation of Russia in the Arctic. One wonders why this justifies the inclusion of a small non-Asian navy such as Canada’s. If so, why not include Norway’s navy according to the same logic? Even more surprising is the inclusion of South Africa’s navy in the chapter on “South Asia.” Somewhat less problematically, the mid-Indian Ocean micro-states of Maldives and the Seychelles are included as well, although at times it seems that Cole unconsciously shifts his focus from “Asia,” “South Asia,” and “India” to the Indian Ocean itself.

Beyond its geographical scope this book looks at several dimensions of national maritime strategies. These include the development of national navies and coast guards as organizations, and their hardware. The book also covers maritime strategies in terms of history, theory, alignment, budget constraints, deterrence, multilateralism, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This book’s analysis is also sensitive to other variables often overlooked in security studies, such as the role of historical memory in the formation of threat perceptions. Thus, Cole observes that the history of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea has a major role in explaining why South Korea sees Japan, a fellow democracy, as posing a significant threat to its security.

A broader theme of this book is “the question of Asia surpassing the West economically and militarily, to include maritime affairs” (p. 203).Cole notes that the globe’s three largest ship-builders are already concentrated in Northeast Asia (South Korea, Japan, and China), and that with a rather small ship-building industry left in the United States the hegemonic U.S. Navy is becoming too expensive for the U.S. to maintain at its current level (p. 204). Nonetheless, Cole does not embrace the hypothesis that Asia is surpassing the “West.” In support of this position he points to the fact that “Western” countries (presumably North America, Europe, and Australia) still have higher per capita incomes than do Asian nations, and that Japan’s expected rise to number one has not happened (p. 203). Nevertheless, these points are contradictory as Japan, although never overtaking the U.S. in economic size, did in fact overtake Western countries in per capita income. Cole also does not present a persuasive case for why per capita income should matter more than absolute economic size when it comes to building maritime influence.

Cole is at his best when writing about China’s navy and maritime strategy. He offers badly needed perspective and balance to sometimes alarmist Western debates about Beijing’s naval development: “Contrary to opinions that are too widespread in the United States, Chinese military modernization during the past quarter century has been relatively moderate. Naval modernization has not exceeded the pace of a country with an economy growing as fast as has China’s” (p. 208). Furthermore, he emphasizes that “there is little in China’s decades-old program of naval modernization that would support an offensive maritime strategy.” Cole observes that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) size has not increased significantly and that only 25 percent of China’s surface fleet is “modern” and only 56 percent of its submarine force fits into that category (p. 101).

Given the popularity of the first and second island-chain arguments[1] in Western discourse on Chinese naval power Cole offers a provocative corrective, suggesting “the island chains so often discussed may be a Western construct to which Chinese strategists are reacting.” Although Cole describes China’s navy as defensive in structure, and its primary mission as being littoral defense, he nonetheless describes the PLAN as embracing tactically offensive operations, preemption, and first-move advantages in naval conflict. He refers to this as “strategically defensive and active self-defensive counterattack.” PLAN’s strategy “is not based on drawing limiting lines at sea, as was Soviet naval thinking,” but rather reflects “recognition of the inherent value of unconstrained, mobile naval power, limited as little as possible … by statically based weapons.” Thus, for the PLAN, “even defensive naval operations should … be imbued with an offensive spirit, that of always taking the initiative and attacking the opponents weak points” (p. 106).

While this orientation implies that China might engage in preemption, and limited strikes far beyond its “three seas” (the Yellow, East, and South China Seas), nonetheless its main naval focus remains “anti-access and anti-denial (A2/AD), or what Chinese thinkers call +’counter-intervention.’” Cole claims this is “not a strategy,” but “a defensive plan that reflects PLAN capabilities” (p. 102). Nonetheless, this plan is beginning to have profound influence on U.S. naval strategy, and has led to the development of the “Air-Sea Battle” concept for countering A2/AD capabilities. The Air-Sea Battle echoes the Air-Land Battle concept developed to counter Soviet land dominance in Europe during the Cold War. Notwithstanding this new concept, Cole finds the Air-Sea Battle concept “remains much more a concept than a reality” (p. 103). Other recent research also finds that the United States is ill-equipped to counter China’s A2/AD strategy today, and will need more survivable air and undersea platforms and will have to de-emphasize vulnerable surface naval vessels, most notably aircraft carriers.[2]

Although seeing the PLAN as literally a littoral defense navy, Cole nonetheless notes that one of China’s most important recent naval successes is that “for the first time in modern history it has been conducting distant naval deployments” (p. 105), notably to the Gulf of Aden to combat Somali pirates. He argues that the impact of this deployment “will almost certainly be significant,” and that the PLAN is actively learning lessons from this deployment (p. 105). This view stands in contrast to some Western and Japanese skeptics of the PLAN, who dismiss its professional competence by noting that during the first year of this deployment the PLAN sailors suffered from an outbreak of scurvy. What this skepticism overlooks, and Cole emphasizes, is the ability of the PLAN to learn from its mistakes and quickly improve. I witnessed a similar example of skepticism when I took a group of Japanese undergraduates to visit a U.S. aircraft carrier based at Yokosuka. A retired Japanese naval officer gave a tour, during which he volunteered the opinion that China would not be able to master aircraft carrier operations in a hundred years. Beyond the fact that China has made significant progress toward mastering carrier operations in recent years, this comment appears indicative of a deeply ingrained hierarchical strain in Japanese naval thinking, one that has difficulty dealing with change. This is a charge that definitely cannot be leveled at Cole’s book.

Cole rightly highlights the importance of maritime police forces in China’s maritime strategy and their role in Beijing’s maritime disputes with neighbors. Complicating these disputes is that China has deployed several maritime police forces and the lines of command are even more complicated. Cole claims that at least five, and perhaps as many as twenty-one separate government organs have some degree of jurisdiction over these forces, although there is now an attempt to unify them under the command of the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) force. Cole notes that this force will double the number of its surface vessels from 260 to 520 by 2020 as part of a broader build-up (p. 102).

Cole analyzes the naval expansion of the other rising Asian power, India, both in terms of equipment, with a growing fleet of aircraft carriers (where India leads China) and nuclear-powered submarines, and in terms of widening spatial ambitions. The Indian navy is increasingly focusing east of the Malacca Straits, as indicated by its ship visits to Japan and Vietnam, and its participation in joint noncombat exercises with those two nations. Nonetheless, the Indian navy, in Cole’s view, does not see itself as ready to compete with China on its own, hence its strategy of building relations with other navies such as Vietnam’s and Japan’s, and also the U.S. Navy. Even more impressive is India’s sponsorship of a large multilateral exercise that brings together fourteen navies from South and Southeast Asia. Milan is a biennial exercise that is perhaps only regularly surpassed in terms of the number of participating navies by the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise (p. 149).

One wonders whether China will be able to keep up with this aspect of Indian naval power by building its own large scale multilateral naval exercise. The PLAN made a start in February 2014 with the launch of an eight-nation naval exercise. Certainly China’s decision to participate in the RIMPAC exercises for the first time in 2014 indicates the PLAN’s growing interest in participating in multilateral naval exercises for the sake of building ties with other navies and accelerating the growth of its professional competence, points Cole emphasizes in Asian Maritime Strategies.

Unfortunately, this book is marred by some factual errors and poor research. In the chapter on India, Cole confuses the Malabar naval exercises, which are held bilaterally between India and the United States, and sometimes include Japan, with the regional multilateral Milan exercises India leads (p. 149). The Japan chapter is riddled with mistakes. This book claims the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) was established in 1950, and further that MSDF minesweepers participated in the Korean War (pp. 64, 75). In fact, the MSDF was not created until 1954 and no Japanese naval organization participated in the Korean War; rather, former Imperial Navy minesweepers along with their crews were pressed into service by the U.S. Navy. These are not trivial mistakes for a book that focuses on national navies, and they leave the mistaken impression that the MSDF has been a combatant in military conflicts.

Cole rightly notes that the concept of “Dynamic Defense” was the main innovation in Japan’s 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines [NDPG], but Cole then mistakenly gives it an offensive interpretation: “building a dynamic instead of a defensive force indicate an intention to enhance the … [SDF’s] proactive capability, especially with respect to … Takeshima [islands],” and “means deploying military capability for purposes beyond the needs of deterrence, enabling the country to play a ‘more active role’ in international security activities” (pp. 69-70). In fact, Dynamic Defense is oriented toward preparing for sub-war and nontraditional coercive challenges to Japanese control of the Senkaku islands, other remote islands, and in the country’s exclusive economic zone. Therefore Dynamic Defense actually represents a redoubled focus on defending national territory. Moreover, “proactive” or offensive operations to seize Takeshima/Tokdo Island from South Korea are entirely outside the ambit of this concept and the 2010 NDPG.

Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, Cole claims that Japan will deploy F-35 combat jets on its helicopter carrying flattop Hyuga vessels (p. 74). Most remarkably he sources this claim to a single article in China Daily. If he had bothered to consult Defence of Japan, or Tokyo’s Five Year Defence Build-up plans, documents available in English, he would have found that there is no plan to deploy F-35s on Hyugas. Indeed, Japanese naval experts judge the Hyuga as unsuitable by design and structure to operationally support F-35s. Moreover, as Cole should know, Chinese observers and media have a history of exaggerating Japanese and even South Korean naval developments, apparently to justify China’s own naval build-up. I participated in a security conference in the 1990s where a PLAN officer claimed in a paper that South Korea was then developing nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, a demonstrably false claim.

These problems notwithstanding, this is an impressive and unparalleled work on Asian maritime strategy that deserves to be widely read. Above all it offers a valuable corrective to the frequent exaggerations in recent Western discourse about China’s navy, especially claims about its offensive character. Beyond analysts of naval power, this book will be of interest to any audience interested in East and South Asian security, regional security multilateralism, East Asia’s simmering maritime disputes, and Chinese and U.S. military strategy.


[1]. The first chain refers to the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippines islands. The second chain refers to the main Japanese islands, the Bonin Islands, and Guam. This discourse claims China is developing capabilities to exclude the U.S. Navy from waters within the first island chain, and eventually from waters within the second chain.

[2]. Evan Braden Montgomery, "Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China's Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection," International Security 38, no. 4 (2014): 115-149.

Citation: Paul Midford. Review of Cole, Bernard D., Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. December, 2014.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.