February 8: A Book Talk with Toshi Yoshihara on “Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: The Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy”

February 8: A Book Talk with Toshi Yoshihara on “Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: The Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy”

Wednesday, February 8, 2023 from 12:00PM – 1:00PM (ET)

Event Description:

The Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) is pleased to invite you to a conversation with Toshi Yoshihara on his new book, Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: The Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy. Beginning in 1949, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was forced to undergo a radical transformation. After years of campaigns against Japan and the Chinese Nationalists, the PLA had developed into a formidable fighting force. However, it lacked the expertise and resources to conduct maritime operations, complicating its efforts to secure its periphery. Over the course of a relatively short period, however, PLA leaders undertook a series of crucial reforms that laid the groundwork for the modern Chinese navy, allowing it to seize several offshore islands from its Nationalist rivals. In Mao’s Army Goes to Sea, Yoshihara provides an unprecedented look at this transformation, using primary sources to gain insights into the leaders and doctrines behind the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. What factors shaped the development of the PLAN? Who were the key figures in this process? What can this period teach us about the modern Chinese navy? This discussion will cover these questions and more.

This event will be moderated by GTI Executive Director Russell Hsiao.

Doors will open at 11:30 AM, and the event will begin at 12:00 PM. If you plan on attending in-person, please RSVP here by February 6, as seating is limited. A light lunch will be provided. Please only register if you would like to attend in-person. Please direct questions or concerns to Program Manager Marshall Reid at mreid@globaltaiwan.org.

The event will also be broadcast live on our website and on YouTube beginning at 12:00 PM.

**Media: Please contact Marshall Reid at mreid@globaltaiwan.org if you would like to bring additional crew members or equipment, so that we can be sure to accommodate you.

COVID Procedures: Proof of vaccination will be required at check in. Attendees unable to provide documentation will be required to wear a mask. Masks are optional for vaccinated individuals who are able to provide proof of vaccination. 

The Author:

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), as well as a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s Advisory Board. He previously held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies and was a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. Dr. Yoshihara has served as a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego; and the Strategy Department of the US Air War College. He currently teaches a graduate course on sea power in the Indo-Pacific at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. In 2016 he was awarded the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award in recognition of his scholarship on maritime and strategic affairs at the Naval War College. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, an MA from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, and a BSFS from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

The Moderator:

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of GTI, senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. He is a former Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia. He previously served as a senior research fellow at The Project 2049 Institute and National Security fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Prior to those positions he was the editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation from October 2007 to July 2011 and a special associate in the International Cooperation Department at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. While in law school, he clerked within the Office of the Chairman at the Federal Communications Commission and the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center at the Office of the US Trade Representative. Hsiao received his JD and certificate from the Law and Technology Institute at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law where he served as the editor-in-chief of the Catholic University’s Journal of Law and Technology. He received a BA in international studies from the American University’s School of International Service and the University Honors Program.

Event Summary:

On February 8, 2023, the Global Taiwan Institute hosted a talk with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara to discuss his new book Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: The Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy. The event was moderated by GTI Executive Director Russell Hsiao. Yoshihara opened the discussion by explaining that the purpose of the book was to lay out the institutional origins of China’s navy. Today, the Chinese navy boasts global, expeditionary capabilities, a status it lacked just a decade ago. This rapid naval build-up has the potential to upset the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and critically threaten Taiwanese sovereignty. To better understand China’s naval capabilities and institutions, Yoshihara set out to explain the origins of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by discussing its first island campaigns against the Nationalist army. He argued that by exploring the historical underpinnings of China’s navy, we can better understand institutional continuities and strategies that translate into China’s contemporary naval forces.

The key question Yoshihara sought to answer is how did the PLA—an agrarian, land-bound army—ultimately develop naval capacity and maritime technical expertise? The PLA was previously engaged in a series of ground campaigns against the Kuomintang (KMT). As such, its major battles—at first guerrilla, then conventional—were exclusively conducted on land. However, as the Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan and other nearby offshore islands, Mao decided that naval capabilities would serve a pivotal role in permanently defeating KMT forces. To this end, the PLA established naval institutions from the ground up—an enterprise that proved challenging due to a lack of human capital, shipping vessels, and maritime expertise, among other factors.

Yoshihara stated that the thesis of his book is grounded in the significance of institutional memory. Institutions matter because they possess unique personalities that often carry over to contemporary traits. The PLAN’s institutional history gives us an idea about what the organization prioritizes, its prior inspirations for technical expertise, and its preferred strategies for amphibious invasions.

To analyze these institutions in practice, Yoshihara looked at a series of naval campaigns that defined the modern borders of China and Taiwan. Two particular conflicts—the Battle of Kinmen and the Battle of Hainan—were particularly instructive in distinguishing between China’s conditions for naval success and failure. In Kinmen, China had poor intelligence, largely due to overconfidence from their prior victory in Xiamen, poor coordination, and a lack of shipping vessels. Furthermore, the Nationalists were expecting a Chinese invasion and therefore decided to heavily fortify the shores of Kinmen. This attempted invasion proved to be a naval disaster for the PLA forces. The PLA’s defeat in this campaign dictated the borders of modern-day China and Taiwan, as the offshore island of Kinmen remains Taiwanese territory to this day. However, in the Hainan theater of conflict, the PLAN had much more adequate intelligence and preparation, robust shipping, mobilization of localized societies on the island, and finally a strategy that evaded the heavily fortified north of the island and attacked the more vulnerable south. These conditions ultimately led to a victory for the PLAN and the subsequent conquest of Hainan.

Yoshihara noted that the PLA is assiduously studying its own historical experience, including the two campaigns outlined above. As a navy with relatively little combat experience, he argued that it is inherently a learning organization that draws from its own history. From these historical episodes, the PLAN emphasized the importance of massing tactical superiority over weakened garrisons and units. In the case of the invasion of Hainan, the Chinese navy effectively bypassed the frontline of defense to insert troops behind its enemy’s most vulnerable positions. A similar tactic may be deployed if the CCP plans to launch an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Additionally, Yoshihara identified two key points the PLAN learned from its early naval era. First, mass is vital for an amphibious invasion. The lack of shipping and firepower led to the catastrophic defeat during the Kinmen campaign. Second, PLA analysts often make the case to never underestimate Taiwan. While China’s current maritime strength has surpassed that of Taiwan and many other neighboring countries in the Asia Pacific, PLA tacticians often allude to the Kinmen campaign as a cautionary tale that resulted from the PLA Navy’s overconfidence and lack of preparation.   

Finally, when asked what the Taiwanese defense community can learn from this book, Yoshihara identified three main lessons. First, a heavily fortified defense force like the one on Kinmen translated into a major success for the Nationalist army. Second, the battles that resulted in a PLA victory were more of reflection of KMT weakness than PLA strength. Third, it is imperative to understand China’s strategic use of paramilitary forces, a strategy that came out of this period in which they used civilian transportation vessels for their amphibious assaults. The PLA is exceptionally adept at mobilizing all of society for their military campaigns, a practice the American and Taiwanese military planners must account for when considering how to defend Taiwan.

This event summary was written by GTI Spring 2023 Intern Zaki Atia.


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