Globalization with Chinese Maritime Characteristics

The Security Overlay


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 (Forthcoming in the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies Quarterly, New Delhi)

Keywords: China Maritime Strategy, Third Security Chain, Northern Passage, Access Denial, Gwadar-Karakoram-Xinjiang Corridor

The ‘Uncertainty’ Paradigm

The end of the Cold War brought in its wake prognostication of the emergence of one world in which harmony, democracy, an end to conflict, and man’s ideological evolution was imagined. The grand formulation was that Western liberal democracy had prevailed.[1] Some saw a multipolar order and the arrival of China; others forecast a clash of civilisations.[2] However, these conjectures found little use in understanding the realities of the post Cold War world, as each represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day, I would posit, is ‘uncertainty,’ as marked by the tensions of multi polarity; tyranny of economics; anarchy of expectations; and a polarisation along religio-cultural lines, all compacted in the cauldron of globalization.

The West saw in globalization a process which transformed the world in their mould, through the adoption of Western values, free markets, the rule of law, flow of Western capital and embracing of democratic norms. Globalization with Chinese characteristics is about State capitalism, supremacy of central authority, controlled markets and currency and influence through power. It factored endemic instability[3], underscoring the premium on military power and the fundamental contradictions that existed, perceiving them as threatening the Chinese State and its dispensation, and as an impediment to growth and development. Against this backdrop, is the politics of competitive resource access which rationalizes the use of military power. It is in this perspective that Chinese maritime strategy must be gauged.

 Economic Power and China’s Case for ‘Lebensraum’

China’s quest to secure rights of passage on the sea is to insure against the uncertainties of access to resources. It has led her to the ‘Northern Passage.’[4] Significantly, the route avoids two sensitive ‘choke points,’ the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal. China also theorises that the road to securing lines of communication is through a strategy of ‘Access Denial.’[5] The strategy was founded on China’s security concern with Taiwan where its logic is obvious. But, enabling such a strategy on a global scale invites confrontation.

Today China is the world’s largest exporter, its economy is second to the USA and she is the third largest energy consumer. When we look at the growth pattern of India since liberalization, we note a similar trend. Indeed, with one third of this growth being powered by trade to the East and China our largest trading partner, the requirement to secure these interests become vital. In this circumstance the race to garner resources by two very large economies is fraught. But the real alarm is that China seeks to influence and dominate international regulatory and security institutions without bringing about a change within, what I will call, her own ‘organic morphology.’ China’s disputed claims on the South China Sea; her handling of internal dissent; her proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within. The emergence of China from out of its defensive maritime perimeters, as defined by the first and second island chains, into the Indian Ocean is seen as the coming ‘Third Security Chain.’ Gone is the power bashfulness that marked the Deng era, in its place is the contemporary conviction that “the-world-needs-China-more-than-China-the-world”.

Evolution of China’s Maritime Strategy

China published its sixth Defence White Paper in January 2008. The paper notes that struggle for cornering strategic resources, dominating geographically vital areas and tenanting strategic locations have intensified. Power as a natural currency of politics remained the preferred instrument. Under these circumstances the portents for conflict are ever present and would therefore demand preparedness, modernization and strategic orientation of a nature that would serve to neutralize friction.[6] Central to the Paper is that “influence of military-security factors on international relations is mounting.” ‘Active Defence,’ embracing the development of bases overseas to launch strategy along with advanced assault and enhanced strike capabilities, remained the means. Doctrinal underpinnings to realise such capabilities and the development of ‘Access Denial and Control’ Strategy are now at the core of Chinese military thought.[7]

Two events of the 1990s have shaped Chinese strategy. From the Gulf War of 1991, China took home a reason for strategic pre-emption.[8] The second was the Taiwan crisis of 1995-1996, U.S. deployment of two carrier groups in the Strait embarrassingly infringed sovereignty. These episodes triggered the ‘Access Denial’ strategy. The development of capabilities, in material terms, operational precepts and strategic alliances threaten to upset the status quo. Operating from infrastructure cultivated in Sittwe and Aan in Myanmar, Hambantotta in Sri Lanka, Maroa in the Maldives and Gwadar in Pakistan gives legs to long range access denial.

Specific operational deployments to muscle her maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean may include: One carrier group; Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarine on deterrent patrol; nuclear powered attack submarines on sea lines patrol with cooperating surface groups and maritime patrol aircrafts; long range maritime strike aircrafts operating from Aan or Gwadar; one amphibious brigade standby with transports on hand at one of the ‘string of pearls;’ and, a regiment of ASAT missiles along with cyber teams to wage information warfare that will seek to paralyze hostile operations.

To Counter an Enabled Theory    

            The principal demand of maritime operations is to attain a strategic position that would permit control of oceanic spaces. It therefore comes as no surprise that China develops forces and alliances necessary to realize an ‘access denial’ strategy. Consistent with theory is their shipbuilding programme of escorts and scouts to exercise control; and aircraft carriers assisted by strike and denial forces for security of control. Control and Security of Control is the classic model that China’s naval growth has been inspired by.

China has unambiguously articulated its three strategic objectives; stability, growth and regional pre eminence. The problem with such sweeping strategies specifically the coming ‘Third Security Chain’ superimposed on access denial is its blindness to recognize that we are dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons.” The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high. The only consideration that could deter a collision is the ability of India to attain a strategic posture that serves to stabilize. India’s relationship with the USA provides opportunity to establish cooperative security in the region that could counterpoise China’s self-centred view of globalization.

End Notes

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

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

[3] 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.

[4] Article by author titledThe Gwadar-Karakoram-Xinjiang Corridor”, published in 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. 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. In 2011 more than 18 commercial ships and in 2012 forty ships have made the now ice-free crossing.

[5] 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

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

[7] Ibid  

[8] Lewis John Wilson and Litai Xue, “The Quest for a Modern Air Force” in Imagined Enemies China Prepares for Uncertain War,  Stanford University Press 2006, p237. General Liu Jingsong, a member of the 15th CPC Central Committee, he was also the PLA  Commander of the Shenyang and Lanzhou military regions and to him amongst others is attributed the opening of Equatorial Guinea 1995.

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