Recent Chinese pronouncements regarding the shift of their Navy from defensive to potential offensive operations contain a refrain with which naval historians are most familiar. It is a song once sung by another continental military power newly flush with a successful and expanding international economy.
China’s shift toward an offensive naval capability sounds very similar to the formation of the Imperial German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) in 1907. The Chinese and Hohenzollern navies have many commonalities in origin, training and choice of force structure. Their strategy, operational art and tactics are also remarkably similar to Kaiser Wilhelm’s fleet of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Chinese Navy may have also replicated the fatal flaw that left the High Seas Fleet incapable of achieving the victory it came so close to achieving in late 1917. Like the German imperial elite of the late 19th century, the Chinese Communist Party is now also seeking “a place in the sun” through President Hu Jinatao’s “new historic missions” assignment of 2004. China may too think that “its future is on the water” as did the Kaiser’s navy over a century ago. Such visions, however, for a fleet that has not seen battle against a peer opponent since 1894, can be dangerous.