Book Review: Rotte Cinesi

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Simone Dossi, Rotte Cinesi. Teatri marittimi e dottrina militare (Milan, Italy: Egea, 2014). 200 pp., €15,30 (paperback), ISBN: 9788883502071.

Rotte Cinesi is an impressive book, which provides a comprehensive analysis of China’s maritime and naval policies and strategies. The book’s bibliography is very rich and comprises numerous sources in the Chinese language, offering additional credibility to the author’s analysis. In fact, through the inclusion and analysis of literature and sources in Chinese, Dossi proposes an analysis regarding the Chinese perspective on the contents and goals of China’s maritime policies as opposed to only a Western interpretation of Chinese naval and maritime policies. This adds additional value to the academic and policy-oriented relevance of Dossi’s analysis.

Dossi explores and summarizes the factors that have influenced recent and ongoing doctrinal changes to China’s maritime strategies, and explains why the Chinese leadership will, in the years ahead, continue to invest enormous resources into modernizing and expanding its naval capabilities. While the resources invested into the modernization of China’s naval capabilities are significant, Dossi argues that China’s maritime/naval doctrine and policies are not aimed at changing the current status quo of US regional and global maritime supremacy and hegemony. In other words: catching-up with the US in terms of naval military capabilities is not an objective of China’s maritime policy planners – at least not yet.

China, Dossi argues in his conclusions, is hence not the Germany of the late 18th and 19th century challenging Great Britain’s naval hegemony. Dossi is backing up this conclusion with a detailed and very well presented analysis of Chinese official documents and Chinese literature. Rather, Dossi concludes that China is exclusively focusing on the region seeking to limit US naval supremacy in Asian territorial waters. Dossi is of course not the only one who has drawn such a conclusion based on the analysis of government documents, China’s official announcements, and speeches on China’s current and future naval policies.

There is near-consensus among scholars that China will continue to limit its naval ambitions in the region, which in turn, increasingly worries US policymakers. China’s regional naval strategies and policies are – at least from an American perspective – aimed at implementing so-called “anti-access” and/or “area-denial” strategies, limiting the ability of the US to exert naval supremacy and indeed hegemony in the region. Citing Barry Posen, Dossi supports the argument that China is planning to turn Asia into a “contested” area where China is able to inflict damage on the militarily superior US. While Dossi concludes that empirical evidence suggests that China is not seeking to challenge US global hegemony (given the superiority of the US in terms of funds, capabilities, and global reach), but rather “only” regional naval hegemony, this does not mean that Beijing’s longer-term naval build-up plans would entail just that. In other words: the fact that Beijing is not yet directing resources and policies aimed at challenging global US naval hegemony does not necessarily mean that Beijing is not planning to do so “tomorrow,” i.e., in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps Dossi “trusts” official documents and official Chinese naval doctrines too much when he concludes that resources are, and will in the foreseeable future be, exclusively dedicated and assigned to challenge US regional and not global naval hegemony. It will soon become apparent whether Dossi’s choice to take Chinese authorities’ declarations at face value will be reflected by the realities of China’s future global naval policy strategies and policies. The author explains that China’s recent policies in relation to territorial claims in the East and South China Sea confirm that Beijing is somehow no longer satisfied with the territorial status quo in Asia; moreover, Dossi explains how and to what extent China is equipping its navy with resources and capabilities to defend its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas with military force.

The author illustrates in detail how the recent and ongoing modernization of China’s naval forces is also a reflection of Beijing’s determination to defend territorial claims in Asia with naval military force. Indeed, China’s recent assertive and aggressive policies related to territorial claims in the South China Sea in particular are undoubtedly connected to the doctrinal changes to China’s naval and maritime policies.

Dossi explains that China’s official mission as announced in November 2012 by the then newly appointed Chinese President, Xi Jinping, involves China becoming a “maritime power” both economically and militarily. Since taking power in 2012, President Xi has seemingly emphasized the military (and not economic) dimension of China’s naval build-up. This conclusion is also accurate, and the realities of China’s policies related to territorial claims in Asian territorial waters (such as Chinese intrusions into Japanese-controlled territorial waters in the East China Sea) are clearly a result of this policy choice. Dossi explains that Xi’s rhetoric and announcements together with China’s naval policies in Asian “territory,” leave little doubt that Beijing is indeed also prepared to defend what China refers to as its “core interest” (of which territorial integrity and hence disputed territories in Asian territorial waters claimed by China are part of) with military force.

Three factors, Dossi concludes, will continue to influence and define the above-mentioned doctrinal changes to China’s naval policies: firstly, the recent re-emergence of Asian territorial conflicts in the East China and South China Seas and China’s territorial claims in disputed territorial waters; secondly, Chinese concerns about alleged threats posed to China’s territorial integrity; and thirdly, due to the country’s growing economic interdependence, the protection of China’s sea lanes of communication. All of these factors, Dossi concludes, influence each other; also, the fact that Mainland China’s reunification with Taiwan with military (naval) force remains -at least in theory – an option for Beijing’s leadership, makes it difficult to accurately and reliably predict the quality and scope of Chinese naval policies.

In summary, those who wish to understand China’s plans in terms of material and doctrinal policy changes regarding naval and maritime policies in the years ahead are advised to read Dossi’s excellent book.

Axel Berkofsky, Università degli Studi di Pavia and Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI), Milan

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