From the Madaraka Express to the Lunatic Express: Thoughts From a Kenyan-raised Global Citizen: Part II

Why Was It Called the Lunatic Express?


Rumbling through the mighty Tsavo towards Voi. On a clear day Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, with its snow-capped peaks, comes into view.

In the last story I shared recollections of my first ride on the Lunatic Express— memories that will resonate with others who experienced it, especially during the mid eighties to early nineties. Now we turn our attention to some key events surrounding this railroad, in particular the role it played in the story of colonialism,  racism, and plunder in colonial East Africa, and the struggle for freedom.


Photo: Nairobi Travel Guide

The Lunatic Express (also known as the Uganda Railway) got its name from  lawmakers in the House of Commons who queried the astronomical financial burden it imposed on the British taxpayer as well as its rationale and logistical woes. Charles Miller’s aptly titled book, The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism, ensured that the phrase was forever  associated with the story of British empire in East Africa. The financial cost (more than half a billion pound sterling in today’s money) prompted the Foreign Office to develop Kenya as a settler colony as this was seen as the only way to recoup the massive investment.

The logistics required for the railroad were monstrous. 200,000 individual rails, 1.2 million sleepers, 200,000 fish plates, 400,000 fish hooks and 4.8 million steel keys had to be imported, among other items. This required the construction of port at Kilindini harbor in Mombasa. (The British also used Kilindini as a code breaking station against the Axis Powers during World War II. The station was housed in a building that is now part of Alidina Visram High School in Mombasa.)


Kilindini harbor today. It has a capacity of 200,000 TEU and can handle Panamax vessels

From Mombasa the Lunatic Express began its journey to the Uganda protectorate. It crossed thousands of bridges and made hair raising elevations to mountain ranges and volcanoes overlooking the Great African Rift Valley before descending to the valley’s floor. From there it made the final stretch to the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala. (The Kenya portion of the Rift Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of several lakes, mountains and active and dormant volcanoes).


Mount Longonot in the background on the final stretch out of the Rift Valley before the final ascent to Nairobi from where the train headed west to Uganda.


A close-up of Mount Longonot near Naivasha. As students, Longonot was one of our favorite camp sites. It was wilderness no doubt, yet less than 30 miles from Nairobi.


Some of East Africa’s oldest and most prestigious British schools were built along the Lunatic line from Kampala to Nairobi, the Kenyan Rift, and down to Mombasa. There were separate trains for high school boys and girls, but boys and girls attending primary school travelled on the same train. My high school, on the banks of the Nile, used to be a railway station on the Lunatic line. Photo: Malcolm McCrow


Pembroke Prep is one of the oldest British prep schools in Kenya. It is located in historic Gilgil, between Naivasha and Nakuru, on the floor of the Rift Valley. Gilgil, a military town, was an important stop along the Lunatic Express. It is now home to the Kenya Army Infantry and several batallions including the elite airborne batallion. Photo: Pembroke House

The construction of the Lunatic Express was not only a huge logistical undertaking but a deadly one as well. Hundreds of miles of track were laid in the wilderness and thousands of workers died of diseases or were killed in skirmishes between colonial forces and local communities. Several were killed by wild animals.

To English politician, Henry Labouchere,  the entire enterprise was a “gigantic folly”—words echoed by Uhuru Kenyatta when he termed the Lunatic Express as “the train to nowhere.” Labouchere famously said  “Where it is going to, nobody knows. What is the use of it, none can conjecture. What it will carry there’s none can define. It is clearly nought but a lunatic line.”

Despite these misgivings, countless notables rode Kenya’s historic railway, among them, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American novelist Ernest Hemmingway, and an endless list of English Royals including Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother. Churchill praised it as “a brilliant conception” in the “art of British muddling through.”

Speaking in defense of the project, Joseph Chamberlain, then Secretary of the Colonies, said “if Britain stepped away from its manifest destiny, it would by default leave it to other nations to take up the work that it would have been seen as too weak, too poor, and too cowardly to have done itself.”

It should however be noted that for all its grandeur and logistical marvels, the Lunatic Express was ultimately a colonial endeavor, complete with violence, racism and plunder, and above all, the profound lack of human feeling associated with the colonial experience in Africa.

President Roosevelt, in recounting his trip aboard the Lunatic Express,  describes Africans as “savages” that “had not advanced beyond the cave man stage.” “This railroad,” he tells his readers, “is the embodiment of the eager, masterful, materialistic civilization of today, pushed through a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and wild beast, does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the late Pleistocene.” Such were the views of the men in power in the white man’s paradise that was the Kenya colony.


President Theodore Roosevelt (seated left) and friends on an observation platform where they observed wildlife at close quarters

……..The Human Cost

32,000 workers from British-ruled India were sent to the Kenya colony to work on the Lunatic Express. Their experience working on the British railway in India was  highly prized by the British colonialists in Kenya. The incentive to import labor from India was also motivated by the resistance that local communities put up against the railway. That said, thousands of Africans also worked on the line as track-layers, porters, cooks and guards.

The human cost of constructing the Lunatic Express was colossal. It is estimated that about four workers died for each mile of track. Fifty percent of the entire labor force was affected by malaria and hundreds were decimated by several outbreaks of yellow fever and sleeping sickness, as well as malnutrition due to perennial droughts. As many as 3000 Indians perished by the time construction ended in 1901. The number of African deaths is unknown. The colonial overlords did not bother to keep such records since human rights were the least of their concerns.


Indian workers at a section of the railway. Notice the African guards in the left background. The vast majority of East Africa’s Asians are descendants of Indian track layers. Photo: Thee Agora

…..The Man Eating Lions

The mystique of the Lunatic Express achieved cinematic fame and left an indelible mark on popular culture. Yet the horror of those who experienced its darker side has received scant attention. One of the most infamous incidents in this regard occurred in 1898 during construction of a bridge at the Tsavo River in what is today the meeting point between Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks. A pair of marauding lions stalked and killed as many as 135 Indian and African workers over a period of 7 months.

Man eating is highly unusual behavior for lions and many speculate it could have been encouraged by the burial customs of the Hindu workers who cremated their dead in the open. This could have attracted the carnivores, as lions, in addition to being excellent hunters, are also prolific scavengers. Lions are also highly opportunistic predators. The sudden concentration of humans in their habitat made them easy prey in the harsh environment of the Tsavo.

Night after night the lions breached the camp barriers, pulled workers out of their tents, and devoured them within earshot of their colleagues. Work on the bridge eventually came to a halt. The camp supervisor, Col. J Patterson, mounted a  campaign lasting several months to track and kill the beasts. It was an extensive effort as the lions  constantly evaded him while continuing to kill more workers.

Patterson writes in his memoirs that he observed the behavior of the lions each night from the tower where he lay in wait, his rifle at the ready. He concluded that the lions sensed his presence and somehow avoided getting too close to him. After several months of attempts and near misses he eventually gave up hope of killing them. Then an opportunity presented itself on December 9, 1898 when he shot the first one. He killed the second one on the 29th, narrowly escaping death after it charged him.

Patterson became a worldwide hero. His book inspired three Hollywood movies and countless documentaries. His experiences are also immortalized at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, where the stuffed man eaters, along with their skulls and skins, are on display, attracting millions of visitors. Successive Kenyan administrations have tried to have the lions repatriated to Kenya without success. (Patterson sold them to the Museum).


The man-eaters on display in Chicago. Notice they are maneless, a  distinguishing feature of Tsavo lions—possibly a genetic adaptation to the thorny vegetation. They also have high testosterone levels, making them more aggressive than other lion varieties. They are also larger than other lion types.  Photo: Wikipedia


The infamous Tsavo Bridge. The Chinese company hired to construct the new railway built a workers camp in close proximity. In December 2015 a leopard mauled a worker there, leaving him in critical condition.


The new Tsavo super bridge under construction not far from the old one. In May 2015 a guard at a camp in the area was mauled by a lion and dragged to a nearby thicket. He was guarding President Kenyatta’s tent ahead of an inspection tour. Luckily his colleagues rescued him in time.



Patterson and a dead man-eater. One was 9′ 6 inches and the other 9’9.  He writes that “between them, the lions ate no less than 28 Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept.” He later revises the figure to “135 Indian and African laborers and artisans.” Photo: Thee Agora

As shown above, information about the Indian and African victims of the man eaters is scanty. Recently a Kenyan conservationist, Taiyana Chao, put out a well researched account of some of the men who fell victim to the lions. Some of her outstanding work in preserving Kenya’s history can be found here:

Two years after the Tsavo horror, police superintendent, Charles Henry Ryall, was dragged from his coach and killed by a man eating lion several miles south of the Tsavo Bridge.  In 1964 the departing colonial authorities organized a highly publicized event billed as a “commemoration” to symbolize the hardships involved in building the Lunatic Express. The highlight of the event were two lion cubs—mascots of 2 Battalion Scots Guard—that were placed in Ryall’s coach to drum up media attention.  As might be expected, the press statement made no mention of the Indians and Africans whose lives were also claimed by man eating lions.


Two lion cubs placed in the exact spot where Ryall was dragged and killed by a man eating lion on June 6, 1900. Photo: Thee Agora

…Wars of resistance

As is the case with the African and Indian laborers who lost their lives in the Tsavo, the wars of resistance against the railway line have not received much attention.  On November 26, 1895, a caravan of about 1,400 railway workers raided a Maasai village and abducted and raped two girls. A group of Maasai morans (warriors) made their way to the settlement and secured the girls’ release. The next day the railway party launched a second raid and abducted the same girls. The morans attacked the settlement and killed around 500 railway workers in what is now known as the Kedong Massacre. A British trader, Andrew Dick, led a counter-attack against the Maasai, killing more than 100 before being put to death himself.

An uneasy truce was reached but several years later the Maasai launched a fierce guerilla struggle against the British. This resistance was crushed when the revered Maasai commander, and World War II veteran, Kurito ole Kisio, was captured and killed by colonial troops. As a teenager, Kurito, and hundreds of others, were taken by the British to fight on their behalf overseas. On returning home, a large number formed the core of the anti colonial struggle.  Kurito’s body was paraded in his home area in Narok as a warning. His second in command, Muntet Ole Kapian, was paraded in a cage before being tortured and hanged.

Koitalel Arap Samoei of the Nandi community led an eleven year resistance against the railway. Nandi guerilla units attacked and uprooted railway tracks and harassed British troops and their African collaborators at remote points. This resistance ended following Samoei’s assassination by a British soldier at a peace meeting staged by the colonial government.


Miriam ole Kisio, widow of the late freedom fighter, General Kurito ole Kisio, with her son Memusi ole Kisio at their home in Narok in 2016. Photo: The Daily Nation

The resistance struggles of the Maasai, Nandi, Giriama, Meru, Kikuyu, Luo and other communities along the Lunatic Line eventually crystallized into a fully-fledged anti-colonial struggle waged by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). The struggle was disparagingly  named “Mau Mau” by the colonial government. It was heavily demonized by the British press during the state of emergency declared by London and long after Kenya became independent. Its fighters are still portrayed as savages yet their role in liberating Kenya and inspiring liberation movements in other parts of Africa is not in dispute.

The Lunatic Express was pivotal in moving troops and logistics for the counterinsurgency campaign waged by the British. As many as 150,000 civilians were herded into 150 camps across the colony as a strategy of denying the fighters support from the population. 10,000 British troops, 21,000 paramilitary, and 20,000 African “homeguards”  were deployed in this effort.

In 2011 a few surviving victims of this dark period in Kenya’s history sought redress from the British High Court. The complicated and lengthy case brought to light widespread acts of brutality and torture by camp officials, including systematic beatings, castration, rape and other sexual acts, such as the insertion of bottles into the private parts of female detainees.

women mau mau

Women KLFA guerillas.  Women were heavily brutalized by colonial troops and their African collaborators. More than 7000 women served in KLFA’s “passive wing” that provided the fighters intelligence, food and medicine.

As the case before the British High Court dragged on, an archive of highly sensitive documents removed from Kenya and transferred to the UK shortly before independence came to light. They showed that the atrocities committed by colonial troops were sanctioned by the highest levels of the colonial government. Based on these files the Court ruled in 2012 that affected persons could sue the British government for colonial era abuses.

To avoid facing trials in light of the landmark ruling, London paid damages to 5,228 victims, issued an apology, and constructed a memorial in Nairobi. Be that as it may, the UK authorities maintained that they could not be held liable for crimes committed by the colonial administration. During the hearings the  Foreign Office maintained that the colony’s liabilities had been inherited by the Kenya government as a matter of public international law. To many therefore, this sad chapter in Kenya’s history has not been closed.


Colonial troops and African collaborators standing guard over Kenyans at a “regroupment” camp. Photo: Daily Nation

Reconciling the iconic and breathtaking rides of the Lunatic Express with the atrocities associated with it is difficult and painful. Such was the nature of the colonial enterprise. The injustices suffered by the natives occurred in very close proximity to the enormous wealth, privilege and status of the Europeans. This state of affairs, which should have provoked outrage, was “normalized.”

Elements of this are reflected in the travel culture that emerged after independence.  Third class travelers on the Lunatic line sat on hard benches in dormitory—like coaches. There were no meals, no air-conditioning, no sleeper seats, and deplorable ablution facilities– a far cry from the luxuries of first class, just a few hundred feet away. It is astounding how no one saw anything wrong with this.

In summary, contemporary Kenyan memories of the Lunatic Express reflect the larger Kenyan experience with colonialism. For many, the railway symbolizes injustice, atrocities, plunder and dispossession. Yet the central role it  played in the Kenyan economy and in showcasing Kenya’s outstanding sights and sounds is undeniable.

That said, the vast majority of Kenyans felt excluded by the grand project. After all, it was built to advance imperial power, not for the welfare of the natives, who as Roosevelt argued, were sub human. Therefore from its maiden trip on May 30 1896, to its last one on April 28, 2017, the Lunatic Express was largely seen as a colonial railroad—perhaps contributing to its systematic neglect over the years. Will the new Madaraka Express bring something fundamentally different? It is to this question that we will turn to next.

Stay tuned.

From the Lunatic Express to the Madaraka Express: Thoughts from a Kenyan-raised Global Citizen

I always reminisce over things Kenyan whenever I get homesick. Kenya is the land of my childhood, the place that I still call home. I like to tune in to all the happenings and buzz over there. The latest news that got everyone talking is the eagerly awaited Standard Gauge Railway,  the Madaraka Express,  that made its maiden journey from Mombasa to Nairobi on Madaraka Day, June, 1, 2017.

This was a momentous event that made headlines in the region and around the world.  My mind raced back to my first ride on the old train from Nairobi to Mombasa. It was called the Lunatic Express, part of a 1,675 mile railroad constructed by the British to link Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean. Started in 1896 and completed in 1901, this railway line was built to counter the threat of German annexation and support the expansion of British Imperial power into East Africa.

Then commissioner of British East Africa, Charles Eliot, had this to say about the Lunatic Express: “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” This sounds distasteful considering that the welfare of the local people was never taken into account in constructing it Nevertheless Kenyans agree that their Republic was, in many ways, created by this railroad. The capital city, Nairobi (“place of cool waters” in the local Maasai dialect) was founded as a small railway depot in 1899. And as the railway expanded it triggered events that would shape the contours of a new nation.

While flagging off the new line, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s fourth president, said that his country had finally turned the page on its colonial past.  To mark the occasion I thought I should share some reflections on what many see as a turning point in Kenya’s history. I will do this through a three-part story starting with my childhood memories of the Lunatic Express , followed by a discussion of some of the events surrounding it and how they are memorialized by Kenyans. I will then look at some changes and developments brought by the new railway (positive and negative) and conclude with parting thoughts about whether the promise of true independence is indeed at hand.



Nairobi Railway Station in the mid 80s when my sister, my mum and I rode the Lunatic Express from Nairobi to Mombasa. My brother, then 3 years, was frightened by the sound of the trains and so he refused to board, and went back home with my Dad

Part One: Riding the Lunatic Express

Madaraka is a term coined by Kenyan freedom fighters to commemorate their brutal, bitter, but heroic struggle against British colonialism. President Kenyatta paid tribute to this struggle shortly before getting aboard the Madaraka Express on its maiden journey He declared: “A history that started 122 years ago when the British kicked off the train to nowhere…dubbed the Lunatic Express, but today we celebrate the Madaraka Express, to shape Kenya’s story for the next 100 years”. He was accompanied on the journey by school children representing Kenya’s 47 counties.

Kenya’s struggle for independence and its post-colonial triumphs and tribulations cannot be appreciated without understanding its railway history. For the interested visitor the Nairobi Railway Museum is a must see heritage site right next to the station pictured above. There, you will find the curator, Mr. Elias Randiga, whose immense knowledge of key historical events during the construction of the Lunatic Express will leave you transfixed.

The highly knowledgeable staff at the museum will share stories behind each piece of history there: the locomotives, coaches and pieces of rail as well as extremely valuable documents and correspondence dating back to the 1800s (incidentally one of the locomotives on display was used in the 1985 world-acclaimed Hollywood movie, Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep).

Then police chief, Charles Henry Ryall, was dragged from this coach by a man-eating lion at Kima station on June 6 1900.  On display at the Nairobi Railway Museum. Photo: Thee Agora

I was eight when I first rode the Lunatic Express. I vividly remember all the details of the iconic journey—one of the world’s most epic train rides—(the last Lunatic Express pulled out of Nairobi Railway Station one final time on April 28, 2017).

Dinner was served shortly after the train rolled out of the station. A steward signaled dinner time by walking up and down the cabin corridors ringing a bell. The Victorian décor of the dining car gave one a feeling of stepping back in time. This traditional British dining experience was elegant and very formal: waiters and waitresses wore black and white uniforms and the tables were set with spotless white tablecloths, silver cutlery and china. We were treated to a delicious three course meal. Priceless pictures of key moments in Kenya’s rail history hang neatly on the walls of the dining car.

Our bedroom suites were pretty and quaint (the beds were made while you had dinner). The rocking motion of the train sent us to sleep almost as soon as mum tucked us in. The next morning we were woken by the morning sun rising over stretches of savannah, as far as the eye could see. This was undoubtedly the most memorable part of the journey (–the Lunatic Express snaked through three world famous game parks, Nairobi National Park and Tsavo East and Tsavo West).

The sightseeing was magical—from our cabin we spotted elephants, zebra, buffalo, antelope, Thomson’s gazelle, wildebeest, impala and giraffes. Breakfast was served as the train chugged along its final stretch to Mombasa. There was a wide selection of cereal, fruits, and fresh juices, and toast, sausages, bacon, and on and on. As we ate, we enjoyed front row seats to some of Kenya’s breathtaking landscapes and wildlife.

One of the dining cars in first class. When we rode it pictures of key events hang on the walls. Photo: Thee Agora.

Since 2013 I have taken the Amtrak from Washington to Montreal several times, a ride dubbed as one of the most scenic in the world. No offense to my American colleagues, but as beautiful as it is, this ride pales in comparison to the Nairobi Mombasa one. The Lunatic Express was on the “to do list” of hundreds of thousands of foreign and African travelers over the decades. Those who rode it will undoubtedly hold on to many memories for decades to come.

Next time we will look at why it was called the Lunatic Express.



On Chinese Strategy: “Counter intervention” in substance but not in name is still “Counter intervention” —Paul Nantulya

Two well-established scholars of Chinese military strategy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) M Taylor Fravel and Christopher Twomey of the Naval Postgraduate School, wrote a very well researched article earlier this year, whose findings are still being debated among China watchers in the United States as well as in military circles and policy offices dealing with U.S./Asia Pacific policy. Based on an in-depth review of Chinese doctrinal writings and official commentaries they discredit the widely held notion in the US strategic community that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) force sizing, posture and modernization are framed around the concept of “counter intervention.”

This term is used heavily in U.S. official documents. The Department of Defense (DOD) issues an annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments. The 2012 report said: “China has continued to invest in cyberattack capabilities, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft, submarines and other capabilities, which appear designed to enable anti-access or area-denial missions, or what Chinese military strategists refer to as “counter intervention operations”- the ability of the PLA to force a foreign power to operate as far away as possible from the Chinese mainland and to keep that power outside key maritime areas of influence in the event of a conflict.The 2013, 2014 and 2015 reports use the term “anti-access or area-denial, or A2/AD” a military concept which connotes more or less the same meaning as “counter intervention.”


The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG), and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) define  “anti-access” (A2) as action intended to slow deployment of friendly forces into a theater or cause forces to operate from distances from the location of conflict than they would otherwise prefer. Area denial (AD) is defined as “action intended to impede friendly operations within areas where an adversary cannot or will not prevent access.” A2 affects movement to a theater while AD affects maneuver within a theater. China in U.S. defense thinking is vigorously pursuing an A2/AD strategy.

The U.S. operational thinking in response to A2/AD is anchored in the 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and the 2014 Joint Concept for Entry Operations (JCEO). The Pentagon’s  Air Sea Battle (ASB) (renamed in January 2015 as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, or JAM-GC) is nested in JOAC and JCEO. With this broad guidance the U.S. military will be required by the national command authority to achieve two interrelated missions:1) assured access the unhindered national use of the global commons and select sovereign territory, waters, airspace and cyberspace, achieved by projecting all the elements of national power, and 2) operational access: the ability to project military force into an operational area with sufficient freedom of action to accomplish the mission. Applied to China the strategic goal supported by these missions is restoring assured access by degrading and defeating “counter intervention” capabilities.

031130-N-3653A-001- Atlantic Ocean (Nov. 30, 2003) -- USS George Washington (CVN 73) Carrier Strike Group breaks formation in the Atlantic. Washington is conducting Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) in the Atlantic Ocean in preparation for their upcoming deployment. U.S. Navy photo by PhotographerÕs Mate 2nd Class Summer M. Anderson. (RELEASED)

The problem pointed out by Fravel and Twomey is that the American belief that China’s military strategy is shaped around “counterintervention” is not grounded in empirical evidence. They do an excellent job in my opinion; their findings  serve as a sobering reminder about the care that must be taken in choosing appropriate vocabulary to describe the intentions of foreign powers. They seem to conclude, however, that based on these findings the substance of China’s strategic thinking has been mischaracterized.  This is where I disagree with them. My counter argument is that just because the PLA does not frame its strategy in terms of “counter intervention” does not mean that it is not pursuing it in practice.

 Let me start by pointing out that the two experts are right to argue that Chinese doctrinal writings coin several terms that might connote a perception of containment and the need for “counterintervention”. Some of them include: “restricting” (xiànzhì, 限制), “blocking” (fēngsuǒ 封锁) and “consuming” (xiaohao, 消耗杨).

The two experts quote important Chinese doctrinal textbooks including the “Science of Military Strategy” and the “Science of Campaigns,” and identify some core PLA  missions designed to respond to situations of containment. These include “blocking” (zuzhi, 阻滞), “counterattacking” (fanji, 反击), “containing” (ezhi, 遏制) and “resisting foreign military intervention” (diyu waidi junshi ganyu, 抵御 外敌军事干预). Beyond such terms, however, an overarching concept of “counter intervention” is nonexistent.


That said, China is in practice fielding serious air, sea and undersea capabilities in what it calls its “near seas” (Fùjìn hǎiyù, (附近海域) and “distant seas” (yuǎn yáng, 远海). The “near seas” according to Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strategy cover waters in the following domains: 1)The maritime areas stretching from the Kurile islands through the islands of Japan, Ryukyu, Taiwan, Philippines to Borneo; 2) The Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea; and; 3) the waters adjacent to the outer rims of the three Seas and those of the north Pacific.

These areas are commonly referred to in U.S. parlance, and in Chinese writings aimed at western audiences as the “first island chain.” The “distant seas” cover cover a system of archipelagos from the East Asian continental mainland coast composed of the Bonin, Marianas and Caroline Islands through Japan’s Honshu Island to New Guinea, and the maritime space beyond this area. They are more commonly defined by U.S. analysts as the “second island chain” and cover a vast area stretching from the northwest Pacific to the east Indian Ocean.

The goal of denying potential adversaries access and maneuver in the “near seas” and developing capabilities to control the “distant seas” has guided Chinese naval strategy since Deng Xiaoping’s era. Then Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, Liu Huaqing, speaking at a 1983 meeting of the Party Committee of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) said “Our Navy will be a strategic service—capable of conducting independent operations within and the beyond the “first island chain” and eventually in the “three seas” (三海).

Liu was the PLAN commander from 1982 to 1988 and is credited with spearheading China’s naval modernization. He outlined a three step process by which China would have a navy with global reach by 2040. Under Jiang Zemin the PLAN adopted the concept “far seas operations” (远海作战) which requires PLAN to develop capabilities to conduct “offensive” and “defensive” operations within and beyond the “second island chain.” The goal is framed in the term “Regional defensive and offensive-type navy” (区域防御进攻型海军) which must be achieved by 2020. The PLA also talks about establishing “sea control” (制海权), for purposes of conducting “sea crossing” (渡海), with respect to Taiwan, and “naval blockade and counter blockade actions.”


China on August 2, 2013 announced that five warships had sailed through the “first island chain”  for the first time in the history of its navy. The vocabulary used by the authoritative editorial that appeared in Peoples Daily, an official media outlet of the Communist Party is instructive: “The Chinese navy has fulfilled its long held dream of breaking through the “first island chain blockade” (emphasis added). Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS) added: “The Chinese navy has demonstrated the capability to “cut” the “first island chain” into several pieces. “Now the chain is fragmented.” Such vocabulary reflects the psychological importance to the PLA of breaking out of the “near seas” a domain of vital strategic importance to China but which is also a source of many strategic vulnerabilities.

Underlying these vulnerabilities is the deeply ingrained historical fear among the Chinese of naval blockades (during the Opium Wars from 1839 – 1860 China succumbed to numerous British blockades and in the 1833 Battle of Fuzhou, French forces destroyed an entire fleet of the Chinese navy). China’s perceived vulnerabilities also have some basis in the current security environment: the nation’s economic hubs (the center of gravity of China’s rapid economic growth and a crucial pillar of the legitimacy calculus of the Communist Party) are concentrated along its coast; 80 percent of its energy imports pass through the Straits of Malacca; and its most serious territorial disputes lie in the maritime domain.


And then there is the all-important issue of Taiwan. China has long signaled its willingness to employ overwhelming force to prevent the dejure independence of that Island. Taiwan is seen by Chinese policymakers as the single-most important unresolved issue from the so-called “Century of Humiliation,” (bǎinián guóchǐ, 百年國恥, a period between 1839 and 1949 when China lost control over large portions of its territory at the hands of foreigners). Memories from this period inform the dominant narratives underlying the founding of the Peoples Republic of China and play a central role in the conduct of Chinese foreign policy. Within these perspectives the reunification of Taiwan with the Mainland is core objective, a survival interest which touches on concepts of dignity, independence and honor as understood by the Chinese. From a strategic standpoint China focuses on two aspects: 1) preserving overwhelming and decisive military superiority over Taiwan while at the same time displaying tactical flexibility and 2)deterring the U.S. from intervening on Taipei’s side in the event of a military contingency.


The combination of maritime-based economic, security, and sovereignty interests bring us back to the logic of the “near seas,” “distant seas” strategy. The PLAN has adopted “near seas active defense” (jinhai jiji fangyu, 近 海积极防御) in the “first island chain” and “far seas operations,” (yuanhai zuozhan, 远海作战) in the second island chain and beyond.

These operational doctrines  and the strategic requirement to keep outside forces from deploying closer to the “near seas” have driven China’s military modernization effort over the past two decades. China has invested in several classes of conventional and nuclear powered submarines armed with ballistic and cruise missiles of different types and ranges, large numbers of highly accurate antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, air, and naval platforms, and several fighter aircraft with different speeds and endurance. Beijing has also invested heavily in Anti Satellite (ASAT) technologies as well as cyberwarfare capabilities. In 2010 the Dong Feng 21 D, (“east-wind”) Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) entered service with the PLA Second Artillery (China’s strategic rocket forces). The assumption by many U.S. commentators is that this weapon is designed to threaten U.S. carrier battle groups.


The pace and direction of China’s military modernization is also informed by lessons from past military campaigns. This aspect of the Chinese professional military education system was made apparent to western military students in an important work, “Chinese Views on the Future of Warfare” (1998) a collaboration between the U.S. and Chinese National Defense Universities which brought authoritative writings by senior Chinese military professionals to the United States for the first time. Several authors, including Chen Zhou (then a Colonel, but now a Major General and the author of the 2015 Chinese Defense White Paper), General Li Jijun,former Vice President of the Academy of Military Science and Major General Zheng Shenxia, former President of the Air Force Command College, discuss some lessons the PLA incorporated into its military modernization from studying U.S. military campaigns in the First Gulf War.

In 2007 Colonel Wang Xiangsui explained in a documentary that the PLA learned important lessons from the 1996 military stand-off with the U.S. in the Taiwan Straits (the worst military incident between the two powers since the Korean war). The Chinese navy in that instance was unable to prevent the U.S. from deploying two aircraft carriers into the straits. The Chinese concluded that U.S. force projection in the Western Pacific was dependent on aircraft carriers and carrier strike groups and satellites (for advanced and networked command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance-C4 ISR).Accordingly China gave top priority to developing capabilities and operational solutions to threaten U.S. carrier strike groups and satellites as a strategy of deterrence rather than strive for parity.

The idea of holding enemy assets at risk comes from two enduring Maoist doctrines: the “dialectics of defeating the superior with the inferior,” and “people’s war under conditions of informatization.” It also draws on the traditional Chinese concept of defeating an opponent by striking his weak points as opposed to massing forces against him (appears in several classical works including Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Sun Bin’s Military Methods and Wei Laozi’s Seven Military Classics.)


In the final analysis China is captive to the notion of keeping foreign adversaries out of maritime domains considered vital to national security. Deterring or confronting offshore powers and preserving Chinese control over these domains is central to this calculus of threat. Du Wenlong in a 2013 interview explained: “China will achieve air and sea control over the South China Sea by using aircraft with air-to-sea functions, backed by submarines and surface vessels like advanced destroyers and frigates.” The concept of forcing territorial contestants and foreign powers to operate farther away from key domains is also captured in the 2015 Defense White Paper which states: “As the world economic and strategic center of gravity is shifting ever more rapidly to the Asia/Pacific region, the U.S. carries on its “rebalancing” strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region.” It adds: “Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.”


Presumably the Chinese will not simply sit idly by in the face of these perceived threats.  “China will not be contained” explains Professor Jin Canrong, a foreign policy scholar at Renmin University and an influential voice in Chinese policy circles. Senior Colonel Gaoyue Fan, while on a fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was more blunt: ” To prevent U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs, the PLA has to develop anti – access and area – denial capabilities.” He added: “Similarly if the U.S. military develops Air Sea Battle to deal with the PLA, the PLA will be forced to develop anti-Air Sea Battle doctrine and capabilities.”

In 2014 at a regional security dialogue attended by Asian heads of state as well the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, General Wang Guanzhong, the Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff, halfway through a prepared speech warned: “China only takes countermeasures against others’ provocation.” Referring to the speeches of the Japanese premier and Secretary Hagel he said: “China has never initiated provocations of any kind…assertiveness has come from the joint actions of the U.S. and Japan.”

China’s security strategy is colored by these dominant narratives and by hard security threats as understood by the Chinese. The key areas of concern for military planners are China’s sea lines of communication, its string of disputed maritime areas in the South and East China Seas and the Philippine Sea; and the vitally important Taiwan Straits. These strategic issues lead the PLA to the logic of denying operational maneuver to outside powers. Such logic might not be framed as  “counter intervention” in name but  it is definitely “counter intervention” in substance and is aimed primarily at the U.S. and Japan which China views as its most serious and capable challengers in the Western Pacific theater of operations.

Paul Nantulya specializes in U.S.national security policy and military operations in Africa and the Asia/Pacific.

Forthcoming: “China’s Strategic Response to the Air Sea Battle (ASB) Concept: A Traditional Chinese Strategic Culture Assessment and Implications for U.S. Force Sizing and Posture in the Western Pacific theater of operations.”