Strife on the Global Commons

 This article is a summary of a presentation made by the author at the National Defence College (India) on 20 June 2014.  It was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website on 14 July 2014 


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Global Commons, Mare Liberum, Mahan, UNCLOS, China’s Comprehensive Power, South and East China Sea

The run up to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was marked by a  debate held in Sparta amongst the Peloponnesian allies to  determine whether war against the aggressive seapower Athens and the maritime Delian League was to be waged. Leadership of the warlike alliance lay with the powerful yet reluctant Spartan king Archidamus, a man of both intelligence and moderation. He questioned “What sort of a war, then, are we going to fight? If we can neither defeat them at sea nor control the resources on which their navy depends, we shall do ourselves more harm than good.” To Archidamus, clearly, the inability to access and control the Global Commons of his era presaged defeat.

Global Commons is a term typically used to describe international, supranational, and global common pool resource domains. Global Commons include the earth’s shared resources, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space and the Polar Regions. Cyberspace also meets the definition, but for our examination we shall focus on the hydrosphere. The parameters for enquiry necessarily include physical tangibles of Height, Width, Depth and the awkward intangible of human history.

Mahan in “The Influence of Seapower upon History” underscored three prescient perspectives relating to the Commons. First, competition for materials and markets is intrinsic to an ever trussed global system. Second, the collaborative nature of commerce on the one hand deters war, while on the other engenders friction. Third, the Global Commons require to be secured against disruption and rapacious exploitation.

Our understanding of the Commons must not suffer from any delusions that explicit and recognized conventions have evolved over the centuries. On the contrary, till the middle of the last century what passed for a principle was Hugo Grotius’ 1609 notion of Mare Liberum, freedom of the seas.The concept that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it. The free-for-all state of the Commons becomes evident in the fact of the seaward limit of national sovereignty being defined by the cannon-shot decree which would suggest that it was the ability to control that defined dominion. By the middle of the twentieth century the collapse of colonial empires and the birth of new nations set into motion a dynamic that demanded a change from cannon-shot rules and lawlessnessto equitability and responsibilities in the Commons along with demarcation of territorial and economic zones. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I, II & III) met 1954 to 1982 to hammer out and define rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans. The deliberations concluded in 1982 in and became functional in 1994. Recognizing that that the sea bed is the repository of vast and unguaged quantities of minerals, the Convention provided for a regime relating to minerals on the seabed outside any state’s territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zone. It established an International Seabed Authority to regulate seabed mining and control distribution of royalties. To date it has been ratified by 165 nations. Significantly, the US Senate has snubbed the UNCLOS. What critically mars the compact is its imprecision, its illusory demand for the supranational and the absence of a structure to securethe Global Commons against disruption and rapacious exploitation.

The current distressed state of the Commons is discernable by the impact that globalization has had; strains of multi-polarity, anarchy of expectations and the increasing tensions between the demands for economic integration and the stresses of fractured politicaldivisions are symptoms. Nations are persistently confronted by the need to reconcile internal pressures with intrusive external impulses at a time when the efficacy of Power to bring on political outcomes is in question. While most nations have sought resolution and correctives within the framework of the existing international order, China emerges as an irony that has angled for and conspired to re-write the rule book.

China’s rising comprehensive power has generated an internal impulse to military growth and unilateral intervention in its immediate neighbourhood in the South and East China Sea and its extended regions of economic interests. It has developed and put in place strategies that target the Commons to assure a favourable consequence to what it perceives to be a strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways that enable movement. The consequences of China activizing artifices such as the Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and geo-political manoeuvres to establish the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean Region evokes increasing shared anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic milieu. Particularly at a time when the North Eastern Passage through the Arctic is emerging as receding ice cuts the Asia-Europe route via the Suez by half (from 23000 kms to 11500 kms) and technology opens the Antarctic to economic exploitation. The paradoxical effects of China’s contrivances are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urging a global logic of cooperative politics over imperious strategies.

How the new government should deal with China


Srikanth Kondapalli

This article is a guest contribution. Srikanth Kodapalli is a Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

This article was first published on Rediff News on 06 June 2014  and is available here:

The new government needs to clearly insist on diplomatic reciprocal arrangements with China. While reciprocity is a function of power in bilateral relations, the Modi-led government’s responses should be based on India’s inherent strengths, says China expert Srikanth Kondapalli.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit New Delhi on June 8-9 as President Xi Jinping’s special envoy to greet and familiarise with the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. This decision to send Wang was taken following Premier Li Keqiang’s 25-minute encouraging phone call on May 29 with Modi.

As the head of the foreign ministry, Wang is tasked to warm up to the new government in the diplomatic and strategic fields, given the fast changing dynamics at the global and regional levels and in the backdrop of the Ukrainian and South China Sea events.

Moreover, at the bilateral level, Wang has to seek active interest of the new dispensation for the twin celebrations for this year of friendship and the 60th anniversary of the enunciation of the Panchsheel principles by India, China and Myanmar.

China’s media suggests that Wang is likely to pitch for the new Indian foreign minister to take part in the June 28 celebrations in Beijing to commemorate Panchsheel formulations. China had already invited leaders of Myanmar for this occasion.

Wang is no stranger to India, having dealt with New Delhi in his more than three decade career at the foreign ministry, where he served in different capacities at the Asian affairs department. Wang specialised on Asia, with focus on Taiwan and Japan as well. His negotiating skills with Southeast Asian nations in formulating the Declaration on South China Sea in 2002 is specifically noted.

Wang has visited India before, more recently for the November 2013 India-Russia-China meeting and the Asia-Europe meeting. Earlier, he accompanied Premier Li Keqiang to India on the latter’s maiden overseas visit in May 2013. This experience in interacting with Indian leaders should serve Wang in good stead next week on a number of issues.

Firstly, one of Wang’s priorities, besides gauging the new government’s foreign policy directions, is to prepare for the 6th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit meeting next month at Fortaleza in Brazil. Responses towards Ukraine, the BRICS Development Bank, restructuring of the international financial institutions, climate change and others need to be discussed and formalised. China is seeking a bigger profile on these issues.

Secondly, Wang will be looking for coordinated responses with India at the 9th meeting of the G-20 heads of government at Brisbane in Australia in mid-November given the Western countries posture of trade protectionism or diverting financial resources away from developing countries. As China’s exports continue to be affected by the side effects of the global financial crisis, the foreign minister is tasked with eliciting support from other countries.

Thirdly, the 9th East Asian Summit meeting is due in Naypyidaw, Myanmar on November 11-12 this year. The foreign ministries of China and India have recently initiated a dialogue process given the widening divergences in their respective stances on freedom of navigation, United Nations laws and overall stability and prosperity of the region.

Specifically, India views with concern China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s comment of May 12 that India need ‘not worry too much about the current situation in the South China Sea.’ If China continues its spate in the region, half of Indian trade that passes through this region will be in jeopardy.

While the above multilateral fora provide a venue for Xi Jinping and Modi to meet and discuss bilateral relations, substantial diplomatic negotiations will have to wait till both leaders meet in New Delhi at the end of this year.

Wang’s overall priorities is expand China’s diplomatic space given his country’s perceptions about the United States ‘rebalance’ towards the Asia-Pacific region and emergence of a ‘normal’ Japan. While China had tried to counter the US rebalance through the new initiative of reviving the continental and maritime Silk Roads, ironically these roads pass through dispute sovereignty areas.

However, China intends to convey, during this visit, that both China and India could coordinate and cooperate at the international and regional levels and at the multilateral institutions. Of course, Beijing is silent on any major progress on ‘core’ issues in bilateral relations with New Delhi. This has been China’s stance for the past six decades.

The new government needs to take a call on this ‘united front’ message from Beijing and clearly insist on diplomatic reciprocal arrangements with China. While reciprocity is a function of power in bilateral relations, the Modi-led government’s responses should be based on India’s inherent strengths and geo-strategic advantageous positions.


The Perils of Strategic Narcissism: China


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

China’s rise has powered an impulse to military growth and unilateral intervention which in turn evokes anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic milieu. The paradoxical effect is to undermine its own strategic standing.

 Keywords: Franco-German War of 1870, Globalization and China, State Controlled Capitalism, China as a Revisionist Power, New Strategic Alliances in Asia, Cooperative Security Strategies, Third Island Security Chain

Historical Similitude

            The Franco-German War of 1870 forms a watershed in strategic thought. After the annexation of the North German Confederacy in 1866, Bismarck sought the Southern German States.[1] He deceived the French into believing that a Prussian Prince would rule from the throne of Spain as a larger strategy of encirclement. By July 1870, France[2] was conned into a seemingly ‘inevitable’ war. Germany through superior military craft and technology inflicted a crushing defeat on the host. In the process the balance of power in Europe was upset.[3] The War, from deception, to alliances, provocation of crisis and defeat of the enemy forcing a one-sided negotiation could well have been scripted by Kautilya[4] or, more significant to our narrative, Sun Tzu.[5]

German victory ushered a strategic orientation to compete with the principal imperial power, Britain.[6] Three strategic objectives swayed the rivalry: military dominance over land and sea; global economic and technological ascendancy in tandem with unimpeded access to primary resources; and thirdly, diplomatic and political pre-eminence. By 1890, Germany had established continental military dominance and a warship-build programme that would challenge British command of the seas. Economically, Germany had already overtaken Britain in heavy industries and innovation, capturing global markets and amassing capital. This in turn muscled influence and superiority in one sector after another.

A thirty-year projection in 1890, suggested that Germany, home to the most advanced industries having unimpeded access to resources of the earth, best universities, richest banks and a balanced society would achieve her strategic goals and primacy. Yet precisely thirty years later, Germany lay in ruins, her economy in shambles, her people impoverished and her society fragmented. By 1920, her great power aspirations lay shamed between the pages of the Treaty of Versailles. The real lesson was that Germany’s quest for comprehensive power brought about a transformation amongst the status-quo powers to align against, despite traditional hostility (Britain and France; Britain and Russia), to contain and defeat a rising Germany that sought to upset the existing global order.

China in Perspective

Historical analogies are notorious in their inability to stage encores, yet they serve as means to understand the present. Contemporary fears of nations are driven by four vital traumas: perpetuation of the State; impact of internal and external stresses; reconciliation with the international system; lastly the conundrum of whether military power produces political outcomes. The paradigm of the day is ‘uncertainty’ with the tensions of multi-polarity, tyranny of economics, anarchy of expectations and polarisation along religio-cultural [7] lines all compacted by globalization [8].

If globalization is a leveller to the rest of the world, to China, globalization is about State capitalism, central supremacy, controlled markets, managed currency and hegemony. The military was to resolve fundamental contradictions that threatened the Chinese State. Significantly globalization provided the opportunity to alter the status-quo.[9] Against this backdrop, is the politics of competitive resource access and denial, which rationalized the use of force.[10]

China’s dazzling growth is set to overtake the USA. Its rise has been accompanied by ambitions of global leadership. This has in turn spurred an unparalleled military growth. In this circumstance the race to garner resources by other major economies is fraught. But the real alarm is, China seeks to dominate international institutions without bringing about a change of her own morphology. China’s claims on the South and East China Sea; handling of internal dissent; proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases in point.

The emergence of China from its defensive maritime perimeters into the Indian Ocean is seen as the coming ‘Third Security Chain’. Gone is Deng’s ‘power bashfulness’, in its place is the conviction that the-world-needs-China-more-than-China-the-world.Its insistence on a bi-lateral policy to settle disputes even denies the natural impulse of threatened states to seek power balance in collective security. 

The Sense in Cooperative Security Strategies

            The standpoint that provocation and intimidation can benefit China by persuading the victim to negotiate outstanding issues from a conciliatory position is a strategically mistaken one. India, Japan, Vietnam and the South China Sea Littorals have demonstrated so. Far from acquiescing they have chosen to resist, adopting (in trend) a cooperative security strategy. This includes deliberate negative response to favour Chinese economic monopoly even when the benefits are obvious. While individual action may be insignificant, the aggregate of combined action may impede China’s growth which in turn question’s strategic stability of dispensation.

The parallels with the rise and fall of Germany is complete when we note that China’s Defence White Paper of April 2013 underscores the will to expand offensive military capability in pace with economic growth. Internationally this can only be viewed as acutely threatening. The delusion that menaced States will not align to contend and defy China’s grand design is a strategically misleading notion.


End Notes

[1] Séguin, Philippe. Louis Napoléon Le Grand, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1990, Pg 390-394.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated December 2013, Franco-German War, retrieved 30 May 2014.

[3] Lowe, John. The Great Powers, Imperialism and the German Problem 1865-1925. Taylor and Francis, Routledge, London, New York 1994. Pgs 13, 26, 34.

[4] Kautilya. The Arthashastra, translation by Rangarajan LN, Penguin Classics New Delhi 1990, Part IX pg 498 to Part XI pgs 625-644, 676-679 & 727.

[5]Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Griffith, Samuel B. Oxford University Press, London 1963. Chapter V, pg 39-44.

[6] Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books, New York 1987, Chapter 5 pgs 194-274, deals with the crisis of the rise of ‘Middle Powers’ such as Germany (1885-1918).

[7]Fukuayama Francis. “The End of History.” The National Interest, 16 (Summer 1989), pp 4, 18.

[8]Huntington. Samuel, P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of  World Order, Penguin Books, India 1997, pp 30-39.

[9] The World at War United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. Between 1989 and 2010, forty nine wars erupted. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varying degrees of intensity.

[10] Security analysts  have examined China’s efforts to develop weapons systems that can retard or even stop a potential adversary from entering an area of interest. Dubbed “access-denial,” the aim of such a strategy is to use weapons that deter and should the need arise challenge or indeed prevent inimical forces from operating in conflict zones or oceanic areas of interest . The teeth of this strategy is an anti-ship missile. Such a missile, fired from land, sea, underwater or air can cause tremendous damage to an enemy surface vessel. While such technology isn’t new, the effective ranges of such weapons have increased tremendously, along with their accuracy, speed of delivery and precision. Defending against such systems is therefore a major problem for planners.