Strategic Posture in the Eastern Ocean


VAdm (retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Download full article here: Shankar, Strategic Posture in the Eastern Ocean

Keywords: India Maritime Strategy, Strategic Approach, Eastern Ocean,  China Comprehensive National Power, ASEAN, Look East Policy



It was Clausewitz who first noted an area of darkness when it came to characterizing the complex relationship between national strategy and the military resources that were needed to muscle and enable that strategy. He perceived this region of obscurity as one caused by a lack of an understanding of the nature of power and the need to sculpt it in a manner that it promoted national strategy. Specifically within the framework of the military as a tool he identified this as a failure to distinguish between the maintenance of armed forces and their use in pursuit of larger objectives.[i] In Book II of Clausewitz’s On War, while discussing ‘The Theory of War,’ he notes,

“Even if we break down war into its various activities, we will find that the difficulties are not uniform throughout. The more physical the activity, the less the difficulties will be. The more the activity becomes intellectual and turns into motives which exercise a determining influence on the commander’s will, the more the difficulties will increase. Thus it is easier to use theory to organize, plan and conduct an engagement than it is to use it in determining the engagement’s purpose.”[ii]

This quandary was not unique to Clausewitz’s period as the dilemma continues to contemporary times when the momentum that propels the development of armed forces builds logic of growth that defies purpose and is often self fulfilling.

The absence of a cogent theory, which integrates the promotion, nurturing and maintenance of force with a convincing contract for use, is one of the first imperatives that the State must seek to reconcile. From this resolution emerges the concept of ‘Strategic Poise.’


A Hundred Battles: Chinese Security Perceptions[iii]

China published its sixth Defense White Paper in January 2008. Its contours were that of a self-confident China recognizing its own growing economic and military prowess. Unwritten was Beijing’s intention to improve her image the first step of which was to provide some clarity by the issuance of the White Paper. At the same time, the paramountcy of containment of the various social fissures that their development has precipitated was top of their agenda. Their appreciation of the security situation underscored the belief that the risk of world wide all-out war was relatively low in the foreseeable future, yet, the absence of such risk did not automatically imply a conviction that stability and peace pervades international relations. The paper critically points out that struggles for cornering strategic resources, dominating geographically vital areas and tenanting strategic locations have, in fact, intensified. Power as a natural currency for politics remains the preferred instrument. Under these circumstances the portents for friction are ever present and would therefore demand preparedness, modernization and orientation of a nature that would serve to neutralize the fall out of such friction.[iv]

Contemporary challenges in the Eastern Ocean in context of the Look East policy are dominated by three currents. What direction China’s rise will take is a matter of conjecture, of significance is that the potential for a collision is a reality and the only consideration that could deter it, is the ability of India to attain a strategic posture in the Eastern Ocean that serves to stabilize. On the ‘globalization-nationalism’ non state actor conundrum, clearly plural societies with decentralized control are more likely to transform, adjust, adapt and tweak their systems than monolithic centrally controlled States such as China which are intrinsically brittle in form, the fallout on the region caused by a transformation inconsistency can only be traumatic. The third current is India’s relationship with the USA; it is here that some control exists in the hands of our policy makers. India has shown itself; through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance to be a responsible State that upholds the status quo yet invites change through democratic forces and its rise, in the main, is not only welcomed in South East Asia but is seen as a harmonizing happening that could counterpoise China.  The next step would logically be to establish an Indo-US strategic framework in the maritime domain, if we are to resourcefully contend with the challenges that the Eastern Ocean presents.

End Notes

[i] Howard, Michael, Causes of War, Harvard University Press 1980, p.102.

[ii] Clausewitz Carl Von, On War, Howard and Paret (Eds.), Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1989, p. 140

[iii] In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Knowing the enemy and knowing oneself is the key to victory in a hundred battles. Sun Tzu, Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith (trans.) Oxford University Press, 1963.

[iv] Ma Cheng-Kun,  PLA News Analysis, “Significance of 2008 China’s National Defense White Paper” no. 15, pp. 49-60

2 thoughts on “Strategic Posture in the Eastern Ocean

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