The War in Shadows


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

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A century ago it was Japan’s uncompromising and resolute political culture, superior operational savvy, doctrinal cohesion and tactical preparation that permitted comprehensive strategic success in a Fleet on Fleet clash over the Russian challenge, in the process upsetting the status quo. Today the emergence of China falls into a similar mould. It has the political will, the economic power and the selective military capability to challenge and revise the status quo. But the nature of War has changed. In this era calibrated escalation of power antagonisms, pressure diplomacy, economic influence and coercion as opposed to a destructive conflict find more favour as political tools. The current situation in Syria, Iran, West Asia, North Korea, weaponizing of space, disruptive control of cyber space, resource capturing and indeed the South China Sea imbroglio are marked by a ‘War in Shadows’ where the principal tools are persuasive in their threat to dent the adversaries comprehensive power. In all cases there is not just a compelling military posture that notifies antagonists but also one that reassures allies.


Consequences of Strategic Enlargement: Battle of Tsushima 1905

            On 08 February 1904 Admiral Heihachiro Togo fired the first salvo in the Russo-Japanese War with a surprise attack on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet harboured at Port Arthur. In one strategic stroke the Russian Fleet was annihilated and the balance of maritime power in the North West Pacific careened in favour of Japan. The attack preceded a formal declaration of War. Termination of the conflict occurred under equally stunning circumstances when Russia’s Baltic Fleet, now seconded to retrieve the balance of power, was routed a year and a half later in the Battle of Tsushima.[i]

The war grew directly out of competing imperialism in Korea and Manchuria between, what was rated as, a first rate European Power pitted against a developing ‘second’ rate Oriental Power. What astounded the West was that the latter emerged victorious with consummate ease despite strong European alliances on both sides.  Unnoticed was Japan’s national tenacity driven by a deep sense of veneration of the State, the Samurai spirit and ethos of militarism which nurtured a fiercely nationalistic political culture. It also propelled its extension into “Greater East Asia” for strategic security and resource access. Few in Japanese government circles of that day dissented with Baron Hayashi’s severe resolve (so reminiscent of China’s contemporary status): “If new warships are considered necessary we must, at any cost, build them; if the organisation of the army is inadequate we must start rectifying it from now, if need be our entire military system must be changed. At present Japan must keep calm and sit tight so as to lull suspicions against her; during this time the foundations of national power must be consolidated; and we must watch and wait for the opportunity in the Orient that will surely come one day. When this day arrives Japan will decide her own fate.”[ii] Victory in the Russo-Japanese War announced Japan’s day for Great Power status had arrived.

But there was a more significant impact of Japanese enlargement of its sphere of influence which coincided with the draw down of European naval power from their many overseas commitments in the run up to the looming conflict in Europe. Of more than six major powers exploiting the geo political situation in the Far East during the period of the Russo-Japanese War, all but the United States and Japan remained in the ring to contend for mastery of the Pacific. This fact was not only recognised by the two protagonists, but also set in motion a phase of intense strategic engagement that sought to remedy the imbalance caused by the termination of Russia’s ambitions in the region. The Root-Takahari Agreement of 1908 between the United States and Japan went so far as to delineate spheres of accepted influence.[iii]

The world at large and navies in particular drew important lessons from the Russo-Japanese War and the Tsushima action. Consequences of the encounter were felt at three different levels which were to usher a new era in strategic thought and concepts in maritime war fighting. Firstly, at the politico-strategic level the emergence of a new power centre had to be accompanied not just by recognition but also with strategic engagement, realistic accommodation backed by balance if friction and hostility was to be avoided. Secondly, at the Operational level the pivot of maritime power had shifted to the all-big-gun fast and accurate Dreadnought type platform. Lastly, at the tactical level doctrines and training provided the key to success in engagement.


The War in Shadows

             Strategic maritime thought and its manifestations in the twenty first century have long supplanted the Mahanian concept of Command of the sea which envisaged a life and death fleet-on-fleet mortal struggle for domination.[iv] Corbett’s formulation, adapted for the present, of ‘Control-for-Causes’ is far more sophisticated and appropriate to contemporary geo political circumstances.[v] Its application will have far reaching relevance in an era when calibrated escalation of power antagonism, pressure diplomacy, economic influence and coercion as opposed to a destructive and economically debilitating conflict finds favour as a political tool.

The current situation in Syria, Iran, West Asia, North Korea, weaponising of space, access denial strategies, disruptive control of cyber space and indeed the South China Sea imbroglio are marked by just such a ‘War in Shadows’ where the principal tools are persuasive in their threat to dent the adversaries comprehensive power. In all cases there is not just a compelling military posture that notifies antagonists but also one that reassures Allies. Decisive action seen as the clash of battle fleets, which naval strategists of the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century considered the key to all strategical problems at sea is today displaced by the interplay and competition of the comprehensive national power of states.

In concept, the comprehensive capability of a country to pursue its strategic objectives through freedom of action internally and externally defines its national power. In achieving this freedom of action, three core factors play a disproportionate part. The first and primary of these is strategic capability in all dimensions. Second, is the resolve of the nation to power as underscored by the will of its people and leadership. And lastly, is the state’s ability to face up to and manipulate strategic outcomes. Klaus Knorr, an American academic influenced greatly by the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, while putting forth an analysis of the war making potential of states, went beyond the characteristics of economic and military potential to include such components as “the will to fight” and “administrative capacity.” He defined national power as the aggregate of a state’s economic capability, its administrative competitiveness in terms of the influence it was willing to bring to bear globally and its readiness to use its military in order to bring about favourable conclusions.[vi] The Ray Cline expression, though one that emerged during the height of the cold war, moves away from the Second World War mould and introduces soft power attributes. It placed before the statesman the natural subjectivity which arises, when dealing with strategic factors and the will and vigour of people; at the same time it did not lose sight of the hard objective factors that contribute to power. This blend of the abstract with the realist’s point of view is its most abiding virtue. The other significant feature of the latter paradigm is that it sees power through the eyes of the international system or a potential adversary.[vii] Dealing in abstract matters related to the correlation of power was a fresh and sophisticated approach.

This then is the nature of the ‘War in Shadows’. If, now, we search for a practical expression we need go no further than the current situation in Iran. The nature of war that we are currently witness to does not readily fall into any mould other than one in ‘Shadows’. Covert action, cyber attacks and political alienation sufficiently reinforced by economic sanctions and intrusive nuclear inspections on the one hand, has unleashed globally disruptive nationalism on the other. The South China Sea imbroglio is another manifestation of a ‘War in Shadows’; the rise of a new hegemon in China and the slow decline of the current Principal, the USA stimulates the former to develop forces and alliances necessary to realize its grand strategy which China has unambiguously articulated as: stability of dispensation, unimpeded resource access to spur growth and regional pre eminence.[viii]


 A Conclusion: Challenges and Policy Urge the Strategic Entente

            India’s interests in the region is strategic, enduring and diversifying just as China’s is while that of the sole superpower’s and her allies cannot be set aside. What form this strategic rivalry will take and the substance of it will perhaps only be clear when the dust of USA’s involvement in Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq settles down. However there is considerable congruence of interests between USA (and its Allies), Japan and India which provides a substructure for strategic entente.

The challenge before Indian Planners begins with an understanding of the significance of China’s rise. Just as Japan, a century ago in the post Tsushima era, propelled herself into “Greater East Asia” in the quest for strategic security, great power status and resource access; China’s move into the Indian Ocean may be seen as analogous. Divergences from the analogy lie in the fact that there are other competing stake holders (which includes India, Japan, Russia the USA and allies) in the region and significantly the change in the nature of warfare. The probability of a Fleet on Fleet conflict when there is balance in the correlation of power is low but friction and tensions are more than likely to take the ‘War in Shadows’ form. So the first task before the Planner is to ensure the building of an entente with like minded nations and the second is to structure and deploy forces such that the balance of power is not upset and the resolve to confront the ‘War in Shadows’ is not weak. From this strategic posture leadership may attempt to identify areas of common and overlapping interests with China and to enhance cooperation in these areas. The new found strategic Indo-US relationship provides leverage to promote the areas that lie in the domain of vitally common interest of the entente, such as guaranteed energy security, safety of production facilities, protection of transportation infrastructure and the right to unimpeded passage. The stake holders also share a common sensitivity to terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. Measures to arrest it may translate to joint naval patrols working in tandem with littoral states and the use of commercial and diplomatic clout to rein-in maverick states. The relationship that oil producers have with their consumers is a symbiotic one; this interdependence also provides the basis of a new framework which could be driven by action to promote security to both consumer and producer in such a manner that stability becomes of interest to all parties.

Participation of the stake holders in forums such as India Africa Forum Summits (IAFS) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) would give relevance and substance to these institutions. After all not to include the main actors with governing stakes in the area, not withstanding the fact that China, Japan, Russia and the USA are extra regional powers, is to denude these associations of context. This may cue the next logical step to give regulatory teeth to these institutions. Given the stakes that China has in her own development and her security concerns, there are adequate signals to suggest that India needs to pull out of the state of paranoia that she transits through every time that China collaborates with Pakistan and replace it with  an understanding of and preparedness for the ‘War in Shadows’ on the one hand, while on the other a willingness to leverage its burgeoning trade with China which is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015. In this deepening of commercial relations lies the germ of friction resolution.

Download full article here: The_War_in_Shadows_Shankar

End Notes

[i] Chant, Holmes and Koenig, Two Centuries of Warfare-Tsushima. Octopus Books Ltd, London 1978, pp 187-209.

[ii] Kennedy Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books, New York 1989, pp 208- 209. Baron Hayashi Gonsuke a career diplomat from the samurai tradition was a career diplomat and the resident minister of Japan in the court of the Qing.

[iii] Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, University Press of Kansas 1992, pp 268.

[iv] Mahan A.T , The Influence of Sea Power on History the theme of Command of the Sea is a recurrent theme through the text.

[v] Corbett Julian. S, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Longmans Green and Co. New York 1911, pp 110-121.

[vi] Knorr, Klaus. The Power of Nations: The Political Economics of International Relations. Basic Books 1975. Definition and expansion of the National Power of a State is the central theme of the book.

[vii] Cline, S. Ray, ‘World Power Assessment: A Calculus for Strategic Drift’ Washington: Center for Strategic and International studies, Georgetown University,1975, pp 11.

[viii] Ma Cheng-Kun, PLA News Analysis, Significance of  2008 China’s National Defence White Paper No. 15,  pp 49-60.


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