China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective is a provocative work that seeks to assess the prospects for a contemporary Chinese maritime transformation by examining and comparing the key factors that have shaped such transformations undertaken by landed empires from ancient times to the modern period — that is, landed empires that have effected a shift from a primarily landward strategic orientation to one that preferences maritime economic and naval power. After a brief introduction, the work is divided into four sections. The first examines the Persian, Roman, Spartan, and Ottoman empires; the second analyzes the maritime experience of European continental states in the age of global communications from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, including France, imperial Russia, Germany, and Soviet Russia; and the third assesses late imperial China during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1364–1911) and Mao’s China (1949–1980). These three sections serve as a prelude to the fourth section, which the editors regard as the most important part of the book — the assessment of contemporary China’s maritime assets and the prospects for a complete maritime transformation, with both commercial and naval components, in the near future.
Gilbert Sullivan introduces the section on the early Mediterranean world with an excellent analysis of the multinational character of the Persian maritime enterprise in the late sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e ., arguing that the Persians’ tolerant practicality, built on a foundation of outstanding leadership, coherent political institutions, and fiscal abundance, enabled them to enlist the nautical skills and technical infrastructure of their maritime allies (principally, the Phoenician city states) to overcome maritime challenges and then create a permanent maritime presence in the eastern Mediterranean to stabilize their seaward frontiers and profit from maritime trade. The Persians, the author points out, provided the funds, while their allies did the work — this without losing sight of the geographical imperatives that faced their vast landed empire; thus, Persia was one of the few states, ancient or modern, that was able to sustain and balance its strategic needs on both land and sea.
Similarly, Arthur Eckstein’s detailed analysis of Rome’s maritime transformation emphasizes the adaptive practicality of the Roman leadership in the late Republic in response to the threat of Carthage during the Punic Wars (264–146 b.c.e .) and then, later, to the threat of piracy in the eastern Mediterranean that led to the creation of the Roman navy. Quick to fund and build fleets of warships to meet these challenges and exploit the naval resources of allies as a force multiplier, the Romans soon came to appreciate that naval power and communications enhanced their rule in those parts of the empire straddling the Mediterranean Sea, and the navy became an integral, albeit subordinate, part of Roman imperial power beginning with Octavian’s rule (27 b.c.e .).
The Ottoman Empire (1300–1922) also exploited naval power and communications after completing the conquest of its landed empire in southeastern Europe and the Middle East, culminating in 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople — a port city with already existing navigational facilities and infrastructure. Jakub Grygiel brilliantly outlines the Ottoman maritime transformation that sought, first, to stabilize and defend the eastern Mediterranean coast and, second, to maintain its access to the Indian Ocean trade via the Red Sea. It did so, he argues, at a watershed moment in world history when the Atlantic powers, led by Portugal in the early sixteenth century, made spectacular innovations in ship design, deep ocean navigation, and the fortification of ports on the world’s major sea lanes, enabling them to dominate ocean communications into the twentieth century, thereby turning the Mediterranean Sea into a strategic and commercial backwater. In this new global-strategic context, the Ottoman leaders resisted the lure of seaborne adventures in maritime Asia and the costly naval innovations required to compete there. Instead, they decided to secure their position on the Mediterranean with the oared galley, and settled for access to Red Sea ports while devoting their land forces to internal and landward threats to their diverse empire.
Barry Strauss’s analysis of Sparta’s “meteoric rise and fall” (p. 33) as a naval power provides...