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BOOK REVIEW: The Great Wall at Sea, Second Edition – China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century

By Bernard D. Cole, Naval Institute Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Dr. David F. Winkler

On the banner on the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings reads “The Independent Forum of the Sea Services.” This certainly can be said of the Naval Institute Press which offers titles that can educate and influence policy makers. One example is my Cold War at Sea which covered the history of the Incidents at Sea Agreement. Published in 2000, this book has been used as a case study for maritime confidence building measures and has landed me invites to speak at numerous conferences — the most recent hosted at the end of May 2011 by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences concerning “Maritime Strategy: Security and Governance.”

The maritime issues in the region are complex, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with its provisions for Economic Exclusion Zones and continental shelf rights has only dirtied the waters as several nations have staked out claims in the South and East China Seas.  Thank goodness the Naval Institute Press has published a second edition of Bernard D. Cole’s The Great Wall at Sea.  Since the first edition was published in 2001, the claim game in the Far East has continued with some resolutions and additional confrontations. Cole updates us on these disputes and focuses on China’s modernization efforts to build a capable fleet that is aimed initially at an area denial mission. Contrary to popular claims of lack of openness, Cole points out that the Chinese are very transparent – all you need to do is read Mandarin!  His explanatory endnotes covering the back third of the book support this assertion.

According to Cole, the Chinese have made significant naval strides in the past decade but also have had some setbacks including the operational loss of a submarine in 2003.  However, while their ships look very slick, Cole notes the Chinese are still platform-centric.  The quality of the Sailors is also in question given the conscript nature of China’s military.  That said, Chinese warships have performed well in their anti-piracy deployments to the Gulf of Aden.

My Japanese and Korean counterparts at the Shanghai conference eagerly grabbed and paged through my second edition copy.  It was clear they had memorized the first edition and were excited to see this timely update. I would not be surprised if there is a spike in sales for this book originating from the Far East.

Dr. Winkler is Director of Programs at the Naval Historical Foundation

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