To Steer the ‘Stream of Time’: The Crisis of Verge Powers


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website)

The Crisis of Verge Powers

A quarter of a century after the demise of the Soviet Union brought an end to the bi-polar confrontation of the Cold War, what is emerging today is a fluctuating plurality of on-the-verge-great powers. These powers are counselled at times and coerced at others, by one super power the USA. In this milieu the United States retains dominant influence over its European and Pacific allies, but finds itself in confrontation with China and Russia. While Japan, Australia and India, also verge powers, politically finds an intuitive affinity towards the democratic covey led by America. Superimposed on this emerging global construct is the crumbling of order in West Asia where interminable warfare and the stunning spread of radical Islam, have exasperated the prospects of stability. Whether motivation for conflict lies in the quest for power or piety is a moot question, but how it affects the international system and how the verge powers respond is the crisis of our times.

Tensions in the Maritime Domain

The maritime domain has not been sequestered from the turmoil in West Asia, tumbling of oil prices, global contraction of economies (barring India and China) or the emergence of ‘verge powers’. A growing disregard for conventions and an urge towards establishing proprietary markets and trade routes appears to be the norm. And, in what must be seen as a historical paradox is the return of a new form of colonialism, engineered through favours, money and the creation of local elites control of national resources of the lesser developed powers has sought to be imposed through the agency of manikin dispensations. Every verge power (whether it be China, Japan, Russia, Germany, Australia or indeed India) has, in varying degree, indulged in this practice with a difference that China not only seeks proprietary control over the instruments of growth, but also pursues change on its terms; while Russia’s militaristic involvement in simmering West Asia and Ukraine, runs the hazard of sparking off a larger conflict.

To get a deeper sense of the transformations that are occurring in contemporary global affairs one notes four tectonic shifts. First, the diminishing sheen in what was the dazzling two and a half decades of double digit growth which provided global impetus to economic activity and military sway of China; as it shrinks the danger it faces is a fractious populace that may not suffer an authoritarian dispensation without the enticement of unparalleled growth.

Second, the fall and rise of Russia from a one time super power to that of ‘verge’ status attempting to salvage a little of its past with neither the economic clout nor the ideological resolve. This poses a prickly predicament for within a period of a quarter of a century to have been reduced to pariah status and then rise amongst the verge powers with little to bolster state power other than its creaking arms industry, vast resources of primary produce in its icy wastes and a rapidly ageing demography; can hardly make for impact on the international system.

Third, the breaking out of Japan from its post World War II enforced pacifism as it finds out today that commercial dynamism and financial clout do not constitute a security shield in the contemporary anarchic world. After all, the deepest anxieties of Japan is of an over extended USA weakening in its resolve to uphold its Asian commitments at a time when China has announced its intentions to dominate the West Pacific and the trade routes of the Indian Ocean. All the while, looming to the North and West of Japan across the Sea of Okhotsk is a nervous Russia and a trigger happy North Korea. It is equally clear that for the USA to bring about strategic rebalance in the region it cannot do so with a fettered Japan.

And lastly the sole super power, USA, veering its strategic pivot in the wake of the centre of gravity of world economics shifting into the Indo-Pacific. This has underscored the importance to build a strategic entente in the region to counter balance a possible revisionist thrust by a Sino-Russian combine. Mutuality in security matters will be the rule as it is clear that the cost of security will stretch the resources of the United States.

Transformatory Dynamic

The four ‘tectonic shifts’ that we have noted are a part of a larger transformatory dynamic which has today become palpable as technological and economic changes collide with political systems, social structures and military power. In this setting the only certainty is that change will be increasingly more disruptive and unerringly more self sustaining. While most of the verge powers have sought resolution and correctives within the framework of the existing international order, China and to some extent Russia emerge as anomalies that have angled for and conspired to re-write the rule book. Our primary challenge, however, emanates from China.

A Period of Shengshi

In the 18th century, China under the Qing dynasty enjoyed a golden age. It was a period of shengshi. Currently some Chinese nationalists say that thanks to the Communist Party, its economic prowess and energetic policies another shengshi has arrived.

China released its most recent Defence White Paper in May 2015. When read as a sequel to its earlier white papers, it announced the arrival of a self-confident China recognizing its own growing economic and military muscle. The paper places a premium on wide area maritime combat preparedness, manoeuvre and a thrust to attain a first rate cyber warfare capability. At the same time, criticality of containment of various internal fissures is on top of the agenda.

The paper significantly points out that struggles for cornering strategic resources, dominating geographically vital areas and tenanting strategic locations have, in fact, intensified. In this context West Asia’s oil reserves, critical location and economic opportunities provide the strategic canvas for the ‘one belt one road’ initiative. Control of proprietary maritime routes backed by vast continental economic investments furnishes the framework within which resources of the region could be cornered. China has to satisfy its growing internal demands and eroding markets at a time of declining growth if it is to keep the illusion of shengshi alive among its increasingly edgy populace.

The consequences of China activizing artifices such as the Anti-Access Area Denial Strategy and geo-political manoeuvres to constitute proprietary sources of raw materials, their ports of dispatch and controlled routes, all euphemistically called the maritime silk route and the establishing the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean Region evokes increasing strategic anxieties among players in the same strategic locale. Progressively, China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy and order, but the world’s political and security framework as well without bringing about a change within her own political morphology. China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea; territorial aggressiveness; her handling of dissent within Tibet and Sinkiang; her proliferatory carousing with rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan does not inspire confidence in change occurring within without turbulence. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and catalyze a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

Strategic Imperatives for India

The first imperative for India is to bring about policy coherence between strategic sea space, growth and security interests. It begins by defining the geographical contours within which a strategy can be developed. The parameters of this definition must factor in the regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, the narrows contained therein which an inimical force would endeavour to secure and the geographic location of potential allies. In this context the sea space covered by the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific provides the theatre within which Indian maritime strategy will have to function. It accounts for over 70% of global trade, 60% of energy flow and is home to more than 50% of the world’s population.

Indian Strategy must seek to Contest, Discredit and Deny, the ability of regional or extra regional countries to unilaterally intervene. To ‘Contest and Discredit’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of power projection lie. In China’s case, it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; security of the narrows and of its ‘string of pearls’. The narrows provide strategic opportunity while the ‘Pearls’ that assure sustenance of forces and safety of hulls, characterize vulnerability. To achieve denial is by convincingly raising the cost of military intervention through the use or threat of use of methods that leverage opportunities while targeting vulnerabilities. ‘The cost of military intervention’ is a matter that resides in the mind of political leadership, yet there will always be a threshold, the edge of which is marked by diminishing benefits of intervention.

India’s relationship with the USA and her allies is robust. It upholds the status quo, yet invites change through democratic forces. India’s rise 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-Japan-Australia strategic framework if we are to contend with the challenges that obtain.

Conclusion: To Steer the Stream of Time

Bismarck suggested that great powers travel on the “stream of time” which they can neither create nor direct but upon which they can “steer with more or less skill and experience.” How they emerge from that voyage depends to a large degree upon the wisdom of leadership. Bismarck’s pithy thoughts lead us back to the fundamental question: whether motivation for conflict lies in the turbulences of the Stream of Time or in the quest for power or piety is a moot question; but how they affect the international system and how verge powers respond is the crisis of our time.

The international system over the last century has been a persistent history of warfare or at least preparation for conflict; and so it is with the current convulsions in West Asia and the emergence of verge powers. Whether China’s revisionist thrust, grandiose scheme to establish proprietary trade routes while seeking sovereignty over vast sea spaces; or a Russia, perceiving in an anarchic global system, strategic opportunity to regain some of its battered national prestige will lead to war is not at all certain. The presence of nuclear weapons with their intrinsic threat of mutually assured destruction may give strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate. Or, it may leave proxy wars as the future of conflicts as in West Asia today.

Each of today’s ‘verge-powers’ are therefore left grappling with the crisis of reconciling their respective rise with the four ‘tectonic shifts’. Will China see its future in a militaristic surge aimed at securing survival of dispensation and the instruments of growth and at a time when change collides with politics? Will Russia accept its fall from great power status without militarily seeking opportunities to anaemically re stake its claim? Will a Japan unleashed from the strictures of its post world war status transform from a successful pacific trading state to that of a militarily strong partner that provides strategic balance in the West Pacific Ocean? And how successful will the USA be in forging a strategic entente to enable an Indo-Pacific equilibrium? Or will the sagacity of leadership steer the ‘stream of time’ with skill?




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