Sea Power and the Rights to Unimpeded Entrée: The Coming Uncertain Clash


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: China’s ‘Access Denial Strategy’, China Maritime Strategy, An ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’, Chinese Force Planning and Structures, Taiwan Straits, Multipolarity

Download full article here: Sea Power and the Rights to Unimpeded Entrée


The Point of a Paradigm

            If we are to form an opinion on the current state of reality and to act upon it with any impact, some sort of a simplified chart or theory is necessary. The end of the Cold War and the paradigm that it represented brought in its wake scholarly works that sought to prognosticate what future international relations and order held. Wide ranging theories were advanced from the emergence of one world in which harmony, democracy and an end to conflict were prophesized, and with it an end to a turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution with the grand terminal formulation that western liberal democracy had prevailed.[i] Some saw the emergence of a multi polar order and the arrival of China not withstanding the warts of Tiananmen. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilisations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural and civilisational similitude.[ii] However, these illusions were, within a decade, dispelled and found little use in understanding and coming to grips with the realities of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and a polarisation along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalisation in a State of continuous technology agitation.

So too when thinking of maritime affairs a paradigm only places in perspective the events that we are confronted with, provides a pattern and a context within which a strategy may be devised and force structures put in place to come to terms with an uncertain future. China’s quest to secure efficiently rights of passage on the sea to fuel her thirst for energy, primary produce and commodities has led her to the ‘Northern Passage’[iii]. Today that paradigm is a reality and in 2011 alone more than 18 commercial ships had made the now ice-free crossing and it is no surprise that Chinese merchantmen are leading the charge. To put matters in perspective, as a trade corridor the distance from China to markets in Europe has been cut down to less than 8000 miles from 14,700 miles. Significantly the route avoids two sensitive ‘choke points’ the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal. China also theorises that the road to securing these sea lines of communication is through a strategy of ‘Access Denial.’[iv] The access denial paradigm was founded on China’s significant security concern in relation to Taiwan. The U.S. deployment of two carrier groups to the region during the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis remains in Chinese memory as an embarrassing infringement of sovereignty. The value and logic of an access denial strategy is obvious in reference to Taiwan. But enabling such a strategy when scope and space are enlarged must clearly tax strategists world wide and suggest an uncertainty of an impending clash.

The Fear of Nations

As the curtains fell on the Cold War some of the symptoms that emerged were an increased and vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence as exemplified by China in Africa; the competition between autocracy and liberalism’ an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the anarchic flow of technologies and information. As these struggles are played out the first casualty in the post Cold War era is the still born hope of a benign and enlightened world order. The endemic instability world wide is characterized by the number of armed conflicts that erupted between the periods 1989 to 2010 which total 49.[v] The nature of these wars, more than anything else, reflected what I tern the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’ for they ranged from wars of liberation and freedom to insurgencies, civil wars, racial-ethnic-religious wars, proxy wars, interventions and wars motivated by the urge to corner economic resources. In all cases it was either the perpetuation of a dispensation, political ambitions, or the fear of economic deprivation that was at work below the surface. If that were not enough to underscore the fragility, gravity and self-centeredness of the international system, in the same period the United States of America alone has militarily intervened in foreign countries on 11 occasions; more often than at any time in history.[vi]

China, in the 18th century under the Qing dynasty enjoyed a golden age. It was a period of shengshi, an age of prosperity. Currently some Chinese nationalists say that, thanks to the Communist Party and its economic prowess, another shengshi has arrived.[vii] In 2010 China became the world’s biggest manufacturer, a position that the US had held for most of the 20th century. By 2020, it has been forecast, that China could become the world’s largest economy. Significant to political influence is its matching economic and military growth. Power, changes the very character of nations and its people and of their standing in the comity of nations. It transforms their outlook towards the world and places primacy to their beliefs and interests in the international milieu giving it new drive to shape global affairs in a manner that promotes their well being. This search for geopolitical space that the emergence of a new cognizable revisionist power precipitates, historically, has been the cause for global instability and tensions. Add to this that the principle of nationalism is inextricably linked, both in theory and practice, with the concept of war,[viii] then, we are faced with a situation when the military dimension of power will potentially throw up conflictual circumstances that will have to be contended with. In this context the slogan of the 18th century Qing dynasty “the dream of a prosperous country and a strong army” today has new connotations.[ix]

In this era the fears and anxieties of nations are driven by four vital traumas. At the head of these four is the perpetuation of the State and its dispensation, a factor that every nation lists as primary to their national interests. In second place is the fear and understanding that impedance to the nation’s ambitions of growth and development may come about due to internal or external stresses or a combination of the two; in all cases it is the duty of the State to ensure through polity, diplomacy or military power that these stresses are effectively countered or put down, if it is a matter of access to external resources then its denial becomes a matter that calls for the use of all dimensions of power in the quiver of the State. The third trauma is that the remaining interests that the State considers critical must be recognized and accepted by the International system; this distress places the system on the horns of a dilemma, particularly so when interests overlap at which time there is a real potential for friction and conflict. Lastly, is a conundrum faced by all major powers or those that aspire for such status, and that is, given a circumstance when the State deems it necessary for military power to be applied, it must do so with the confidence (at times misplaced) that they will prevail.

It will not fail anybody’s notice that both India and China fall into this very same cast ensnared by the ‘four traumas’, with one very critical difference, and that is the cooperative stimulus along with an egalitarian tradition is strong in India’s case, while China has no belief in respecting either. Against this backdrop, when the politics of competitive resource access is put into the same pot as survival and development of State, to which is added the blunt character of military power, we have before us the recipe for friction and conflict. It is against this canvas of competitive resource access that the development and structuring of Indian maritime power must be gauged.


China and her case for Lebensraum

China’s claims on the South China Sea as a territorial sea (see Map 1); her handling of dissent within in Tibet and Tiananmen; her proliferatory carousing with rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan are cases, amongst others, that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within that nation without turbulence. We also note with some foreboding, the emergence of China from out of its, largely, defensive maritime perimeters as defined by the first and second island chain strategies into the Indian Ocean region as a major stakeholder.

Map 1:  China’s claims of Territorial Sea along with the UNCLOS approved EEZs of the Littoral States. Shaded circles indicate the disputed Islands. Source:                                                      

To this end, it has through diplomacy and economic inducements established bases in Sittwe, Hambantota, Gwadar and Marao in the Maldives. The geographic and strategic significance of these posts were apparent in the past and are equally vital today, whether for purposes of control, regulating, providing havens or assuring security to energy lines. Sittwe and Gwadar also provide the front end for piping energy into China. These long term strategic investments by China maybe seen as the coming of the ‘Third Island Chain’.

China in a departure from the Western model of first identifying ends then conceptualizing methods and finally generating means to achieve ends; follows the comprehensive national power route where it sees the effect of an event on its own endowment and its ability to control the event as primary. Therefore in articulating its strategic objectives in order of precedence it has unambiguously identified three canons, the first of which is internal and external stability to its own gauge; the second is to sustain the current levels of its economic growth and lastly to achieve regional pre-eminence. Gone is the ‘power bashfulness’ that marked the Deng era, in its place is a cockiness that is discernible by the contemporary conviction that “the world needs China more than China the world”. Lt Gen Qi Jiangua, the Asst Chief of General Staff’s comments on the building of an aircraft carrier (refurbishment of the derelict Varyag) is revealing, he stated “It would have been better for us if we had acted sooner in understanding the ocean and mapping out our blue water capability earlier. We are now facing heavy pressure in the oceans whether the South China Sea, the East China Sea or the Taiwan Straits.”[x] At the heart of the matter lie three vulnerabilities:[xi]

  • Vulnerability of the economic powerhouses located along the east coast and the communication lines by land, air and sea that bring in resources to fuel the economy and transport finished products.
  • Vulnerability of Taiwan, and therefore the need for its denial as a base for foreign powers. This accent highlights China’s continued sensitivity to sovereignty issues.
  • Vulnerability of the sea spaces, so dramatically demonstrated by the crisis of 1995-1996 and consequently the need to deny the theatre to any interventionary  power.

Seen in this frame of reference General Liu Jinsong’s words carry new meaning, for if the first salvo is the build up; then it is not from the precincts of pre-emption that a strike emerges but as a reactive and a defensive strategy. This rationale gives form to the ‘Access Denial Strategy’. When projected in consonance with the Third Island Chain, one cannot but note that ‘Access Denial’ would apply not just to the region of purpose, but also to the points of origin and to the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) along which energy, trade and resources are moved. The waters and littorals of the Indian Ocean and specifically the West Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Bengal (together here after termed as the Eastern Ocean) will now become the region where this strategy will be played out.


Contemporary Challenges

Contemporary challenges in the region are dominated by three currents. While there are several regional and sub regional issues whose influence on the region cannot be denied it is these three that will have the greatest impact on the success or otherwise of our policy.

  • The Challenge of a Rising China: Towards the end of 2003 and early 2004 senior leaders of the Communist Party of China studied the rise of great powers in history noting the destructive inventory of conflicts that proved to be the engines of supremacy from the 15th century onwards. This brought them to the central theme of their examination: could China dominate without recourse to arms? Unfortunately, in its relationship with India it has shown no propensity to establish co operative stabilizing arrangements nor has it taken any measures to resolve long standing boundary disputes (it must be said that nor have they put in place measures that aggressively vitiate the situation). Its collusion with reprobate states further pushes Sino-Indian relations downhill, the nuclear tie up both in the weapon and civilian field with Pakistan along with possible doctrinal links and in March 2010, the failure to issue a condemnation when North Korea sank a South Korean warship does not suggest a pacific approach to relations. It’s disputes with Japan and its forceful reassertion of claims to sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea are very serious ulcers in current relationships in the Eastern Ocean. This conundrum continues to push affected parties and like minded states into countervailing arrangements. As, no doubt, the history lesson would have told Chinese leadership that the relationship that determines regional conflict or otherwise is the stability of relationship between  powers that have the greatest impact on the region.
  • The Hyper Power: The overwhelming ascendancy of the single hyper power and its penchant to resort to military force seen against the backdrop of the intricate economic relations that the US and China currently enjoy poses an ironic dilemma. Is the American posture in the Pacific and Indian Oceans intrinsically antagonistic and would it break out into a hot conflict given the strategic links that USA enjoys with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the other littorals of this region? The noises that currently emanate would seem to suggest that the war of words is just a few turns away from a conflictual situation. The impact of instability in this region will be to adversely affect India’s economic and developmental aspirations in addition to the hazards of being drawn into an unintended clash.
  • The Mixed Blessings of Globalization, Rise of Nationalism and Non State Actors: Impact of globalization and the inability of the State to reconcile with the stresses that it places on the very concept of sovereignty makes historical sores take centre stage, when their resolution ought to be the focus. Nationalism and Ideology which was the underlying force that sparked off the major wars of the 20th century has today become the source of China’s confidence, to an extent, when the words of Chairman Deng who started the reforms in the early 80’s “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capabilities, bide your time, never try to take the lead, accomplish things where possible”[xii] which became the essence of Deng Xiao Ping’s 24 character strategy, now has a hollow ring about it, particularly so, since there is a growing perception within that the arrival of the ‘Middle Kingdom’[xiii] is nigh (!). According to Yuan Peng of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations “many Chinese scholars suggest that the Government give up the illusion of US partnership and face squarely the profound and inevitable strategic competition.” [xiv] It is also apparent that the surge of nationalism that sweeps China has led it to formulate an affordable military strategy of asymmetric weapons (the ‘Access Denial’ and ‘Assassin’s Mace’ strategies are part of such a concept). These unorthodox strategies have set into motion three areas of rapid modernization in the military establishment; firstly the most active land based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world, secondly an enlarged nuclear attack and nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet, and lastly  concentration on what China calls “informatisation,” an active and passive method of waging information warfare.  China’s intriguing involvement with maverick nations such as Pakistan and North Korea does not in anyway enthuse confidence for the prospects of a stable future. The direction in which the Sino Pak alliance is headed is a vexed question. If it is the image of China that is going to predominate, then collusion with Pakistan on military and nuclear matters must witness a dilution and yet if the intention is to keep the Indian establishment on the boil, then for China to set aside an enthusiastic collusive partner would be tantamount to Janus shutting down his second face. In this calculus what would be a dampener for Sino Pak complicity, is the worsening non-state actor and political situation in Pakistan, which presents some nightmare possibilities for all parties involved including China.

Of these three dominant currents what direction China’s rise will take and whether it wears a largely benign or malignant mantle is a matter of conjecture that will be influenced by both internal as well as external factors. With the coming of the Third Island Chain; the maturing of the long range access strategy and the cultivation of the string of pearls, what is 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; as cracks begin to show, the fallout on the region can only be traumatic.

It is only India’s relationship with the USA that is, to some extent, within the hands of our policy makers and therefore it would be in order to examine this in some detail. Since Independence, Indo American relations have seen dizzy highs and plummeting lows. However, it was only after the 1998 nuclear tests that the two countries awoke to the realities that an engagement suggested. The consequences was the inking of  the ‘Next Step in Strategic Partnership’ an agreement that identified and formalised areas of  bilateral cooperation in January 2004 which included civil nuclear enterprises, civil space programmes, missile defence and high technology deals. Of critical importance was the opening of technology doors which culminated in the watershed Indo-US nuclear agreement of 18 July 2005. The larger significance of this deal was the arrival of India on the global stage as an equal and an acceptance of its potential to play an influencing role in the rarified environ of the club of nations that sought to control and oversee world order (the impending G8 +5).


The ultimate reality of the international system is the place that power, in all its dimensions, enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability in relations between nations. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibles. The strategy of Anti-Access Denial is one such defensive power tool which is available to a nation provided it nurtures and develops capabilities that serve to ‘contest and deny’ adversarial power projection. History has suggested that for the strategy to have impact not only must in-theatre force balance be tilted towards the rebuffer through asymmetricity, but also, the first salvo must be his. China takes the comprehensive national power approach, where it sees the effect of an event on its own endowment and its ability to control the occasion and its outcome as a primary virtue. In articulating its strategic objectives it has unambiguously identified three stability, growth and regional pre eminence.  Gone is the ‘power bashfulness’ that marked the Deng era. In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies specifically the coming ‘Third Island Chain’ superimposed on a long range power projection strategy is its blindness to recognize that, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons”. The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high.

Contemporary challenges in the IOEO 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 IOEO 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. Its rise, in the main, is not only welcomed 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 IOEO presents.

Phased implementation of the Anti-Access Denial Strategy, from deployment through demonstration prior to a hot exchange is intrinsic to the scheme and essential to its mechanics if the interests of deterrence are to be served. The question of when or under what conditions the plan is to be brought to bear is a dodgy call for if Phase III is arrived at, it may well signify a point of no return. The paper has suggested four ‘red lines’ which when breached may enable our Anti-Access Denial strategy; it is the second of these which will challenge decision makers to the extreme, for if a military build up at Hambantota, Gwadar or Sittwe is threatening, then at what stage of the mobilization should the strategy be called into play? The obvious answer is “at an early stage” at which time we must find the will and resolve to translate rapidly from Phase I to Phase II. A focused 50 year technology and infrastructure plan in support of and in harmony with our Anti-Access Denial Strategy must be placed on the anvil and resolutely hammered out, if we are to come to grips with the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm.’

Download full article here:  Sea Power and the Rights to Unimpeded Entrée

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

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

[iii] Article by author titledThe Gwadar-Karakoram-Xinjiang Corridor”, publishedin the September 2012 issue of the DSA. The Northern Passage was a fabled sea route theorised by adventurers, merchants and money chandlers over the last six centuries to

link the Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean. The Route lay through the Arctic archipelago the treacherous ice flows that frustrate passage across the Arctic Ocean.

[iv] 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 conlict 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

[v] 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. 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 varrying degrees of intensity.

[vi] Occasions of US military intervention 1989 – 2010 :

1989 – Panama, 1991 – Iraq, 1992 – Somalia,1994 – Haiti, 1995-96 –  Bosnia, 1998 – Iraq, 1999 – Kosovo, 2001 – Afghanistan, 2003 – Iraq, 2009 – Pakistan (Drones), 2010 – Libya .

[vii] The Economist, June 25th – July 1st 2011, special report China.

[viii] Howard, Michael. The Lessons of History, Yale University Press New Haven and London, p39.

[ix]Peter Hays Gries, China’s New Nationalism. Pride, Politics and Diplomacy Berkeley & London, University of California Press, 2004, p 105.

[x] BBC E-news 08 June 2011. Lt Gen Qi Jiangua speaking to the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

[xi] Lampton, David M. The Three Faces  of Chinese Power. Might, Money and Minds. Berkeley, University of California Press 2008, p16, 40-41 and 50.

[xii] The 24 Character Strategy is attributed to Deng Xiao Ping in the early 90’s as quoted in the Pentagon’s annual China report dated 17th August 2010

[xiii] The phrase Middle Kingdom was first applied to the XII dynasty of ancient Egypt (1991BC – 1778BC). As the Chinese name for China it first appears in 1000 BC when it designated the Chou empire, who unaware of earlier civilizations to their west, believed their empire occupied the middle of the earth, surrounded by barbarians. Since 1949, the official name for China is ‘The Middle Glorious People’s Republican Country.’

[xiv] As quoted in The Economist of Dec 4-10 2010 Special report p9.

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