Strategic Maritime Challenge of China: To Steer the Stream of Time


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar 

This article is forthcoming in the December issue of Geopolitics

The Language of War

Within an international system that hovers between a facade of order and anarchy, differentiated pace of growth in national power among states engenders rivalry over access to resources, control of technology, flow of commerce and entry to markets; resulting in friction amongst competitors and making  the threat of armed conflict  a reality (Mackinder). At the same time, abstractions of national honour, prestige and other national interests that separate the state from its citizenry are often at odds with the violence of, as Clausewitz so brilliantly put it, the “Language” of War. Experience of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Bangladesh and of the other conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century will suggest that perceptions of the people, that come face-to-face with the “language” of war, prevail. Add to this the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction with their intrinsic menace of ending political purpose and we have the coming of indirect, relatively scaled down version of conventional wars albeit with high destructive potential fought in the penumbric shadows of a nuclear holocaust.

Verge Powers

The targeting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in August 1945 marked a watershed in the history of warfare, for it placed in doubt viability of the human race should a war with atomic weaponry ever be fought (Kennedy, Paul). And as the decades that followed witnessed  transformation in the ebb and flow of national power, former great powers such as Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan gave way to the rise of the Soviet Union, a military giant  economically deprived and unbalanced; and the United States of America. The surge in the latter’s economy due wartime production and expenditure was of a magnitude near 100% in GDP. While a bi-polar world had arrived, it was abundantly clear that there was only one economic super power. For in a matter of less than half a century the grinding politico-socio-military confrontation (not forgetting the ever-so frequent nuclear brinkmanship) left a fragmented and exhausted USSR vanquished by the ‘cold war’ it’s national power in tatters while it’s relegation to the ranks of the second rate seriously dented Rodina-ma (mother Russia’s) pride.

What is emerging today is a fluctuating plurality of on-the-verge-great powers. These Verge Powers are counselled at times and coerced at others, by the lone super power, the USA. In this setting the United States retains dominant influence over its European and Pacific allies, but finds itself in confrontation with China and Russia; while Germany, Japan, Australia and India; also Verge Powers, find an intuitive affinity towards the democratic covey led by America.

Power Transformations: Familiar Cadence

There is empirical evidence to suggest that the global economic crisis of the 1930s that in part set off the Second World War was at conclusion responsible for thrusting the US into astonishingly favourable strategic circumstances. This situation not only triggered the Cold War but ultimately in the late 1980s, forced the melt-down of the Soviet empire and set into motion another fall and rise in global power structure. The characteristics of the economic crisis of the thirties ring a cadence now familiar to contemporary conditions – discontent at the biases that govern international economic systems, protectionism, unfair trade practices, one-sided competition, restricted access to resources, creation of proprietary mercantile routes and nationalistic policies; all in contradiction to the demands of an increasingly globalised and networked world.

And those that subscribe to the belief that nations having had their fill of globally ruinous violence cannot be so irrational as to embark on power politics that increase the probabilities of more devastating wars, have only to study the strategic trends of the last three decades of the post-Cold War era to determine that power transformations will continue to occur and as long as it transpires within an international order that is influenced by uneven growth and shrinking natural resources, the quest for power will invariably be linked to the generation of military capabilities that can secure this mechanism.

Challenges in the Maritime Domain

The maritime domain has not been sequestered from change. It is discernable by the disorderly expectations of Verge Powers and the increasing tensions between the demand for economic integration and the stresses of fractured political divisions. These nations are persistently confronted by the need to reconcile internal pressures with intrusive external impulses at a time when the economics of raw military power and its efficacy to engineer desired political outcomes is in question. 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 are anomalies that have angled for and conspired to re-write the rule book. India’s primary challenge comes from China.

China’s rising comprehensive power has generated an internal impulse to military growth and unilateral expansionism in its immediate neighbourhood in the South and East China Seas and its extended regions of economic interests. It has developed and put in place strategies that target the maritime domain to assure a favourable outcome to what it perceives to be a strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways. The consequences of China activating artifices such as the Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and geo-political manoeuvres to constitute proprietary sources of raw materials, their ports of dispatch and control of routes euphemistically called the maritime silk route and the establishing the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean Region evokes increasing shared anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic settings. Debt traps that have been set by China to inveigle some of the hapless littorals of the Indian Ocean of their maritime facilities are symptomatic of a new form of colonial adventures. The paradoxical effects of China’s contrivances are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

The Challenge of China

In the 18th century, China under the Qing dynasty enjoyed a golden age. It was a period of shengshi, an age of prosperity. Currently some Chinese nationalists say, thanks to the Communist Party and its economic prowess, another shengshi has arrived. Power, historically has changed the very character of nations as it transforms their outlook towards the world and places primacy to their beliefs and interests 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 revisionist power precipitates has been the cause for instability and tensions. Add to this that the principle of nationalism is inextricably linked, both in theory and practice, with war. We are, in the circumstance, faced with a situation when the military dimension of power will throw up conflicts. In this context the slogan of the Qing “the dream of a prosperous country and a strong army” has new connotations.

China’s most recent Defence White Paper and current strategic posture announces the arrival of a self-confident China recognizing its own growing economic and military prowess. It perceives the first two decades of this century of being a period of strategic opportunity which China has sought to capitalize on through its loaded economic policies, financial enticements, and military coercion. Beijing’s intended strategy of “a more active defence” places a premium on managing regional disputes, maritime combat preparedness and a thrust to attain first rate cyber warfare capability. At the same time, criticality of containment of various internal fissures that growth has precipitated remains on top of the agenda. Their posture significantly points out that struggles for cornering strategic resources, dominating geographically vital areas and tenanting strategic locations have, in fact, intensified. In this context the ‘one belt one road’ initiative provides the strategic sinews to their larger geopolitical ambitions. Control of proprietary maritime routes backed by vast economic investments in Africa, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka South East and Central Asia furnishes the framework within which resources of the region could be cornered and secured. Beijing goes on to underscore Power as a natural currency for politics and suggests that portents for friction are ever present and would therefore necessitate military preparedness, modernization and an orientation that advocates strategic readiness.

China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea; her territorial aggressiveness; her handling of dissent within Tibet and Sinkiang; her proliferatory carousing with maverick states such as North Korea and Pakistan are cases, amongst others, that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within that nation without turbulence. Progressively, China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well without bringing about a change within her own political morphology.

Defining the Strategic Space

With uncertainty driving geopolitical dynamics, the first imperative for India is to bring about policy coherence between strategic space, growth and security interests. It begins by defining the geographical contours within which a strategy can be developed to contend with challenges identified. The broad parameters of this definition must factor in the regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, narrows therein and potential allies. In this context the sea space encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific provides the canvas. This Oceanic body is dominated by ten important choke points and narrows. In essence the theatre gives to global trade efficient maritime routes and sea lines of communication that power the region’s growth. It accounts for over 70% of global trade, 60% of energy flow and is home to more than 50% of the world’s population; it also provides the context within which Indian maritime strategy must operate.

Determinants of Force Planning

The quest for strategic leverage in the maritime domain is founded on an oceanic vision backed by the development of a posture that characterizes our resolve to fulfil the quest. Inspiration may take the form of a policy declaration in relation to a geographic region such as the ‘Look East (and now) Act East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’, ratification of the UNCLOS and formation of alliances. Policy provides a frame of reference that not only has wide-ranging application but will remain central for purposes of force planning to develop a strategic posture.

Current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus 6 is symptomatic of the shifting centre of gravity of geopolitics to the East. From a security angle, the inclusion of India, USA, Russia, Japan and South Korea in addition to China provides the rationale for strategic equilibrium. India and China along with ASEAN are set to become the world’s largest economic bloc. The grouping is expected to account for about 27 per cent of Global GDP and will very quickly overtake the EU and USA economies. The buoyancy of the Indo-ASEAN relationship is backed by surging trade figures which is slated to hit USD 100 billion in the current year. With such burgeoning stakes strategic rebalancing in the region comes as a natural consequence and provides the settings for establishing strong and stable security ties. The expansion of the ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum are suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter balance the looming presence of China. USA’s presence will dominate activities in the region in the immediate and middle term. Flash points such as territorial claims both in the maritime and continental domain will remain a source of friction that would necessarily demand military capabilities and an orientation that assures mutual restraint. Having thus brought about a modicum of coherence between security dynamics, strategic space and growth, it would now be appropriate to derive objectives of a Denial Strategy as applicable to the larger Indian Maritime Military Strategy.

A Denial Strategy

Denial seeks to contest and discredit the ability of regional or extra regional countries to unilaterally project military power to secure their interests either through aggression or through other destabilizing activities. The instrument to achieve denial is by convincingly raising the cost of military intervention through the use or threat of use of methods that are asymmetrical in form and decisive in substance. The strategy’s first impulse is to avoid a hot conflict. To ‘contest and discredit’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of power projection forces lie. In China’s case, it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; nuclear attack submarine force that provides teeth to their denial capability and security of the narrows and of its ‘string of pearls’. Lastly the threat of ‘use of force’ must not only be credible but also the ‘value exchange’ in terms of potential losses must weigh against the power projecting force. At the heart of the Denial Strategy is deterrence and cooperative security.

The Quadrilateral Cooperative Security Dialogue                                                                                                

India, through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance has established itself as 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. But, of the uncertainties that influence regional stability, it is China a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact globally. Particularly so, in the maritime domain where it appears to be challenging global political and security order.

The next step would logically be to establish a strategic framework in the maritime domain which includes the concerned Verge Powers and the USA if we are to contend with the challenges that are present. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need to lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding countries United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by a concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. The alliance however appeared a non-starter with early withdrawal of Australia. It has been recently revived to counter China’s intrusive military power and its unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region.

The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established to contain Soviet expansionism, counter the revival of nationalist militarism and uphold advocacy of European integration, three remarkable articles are at the core of its Charter:  Article 2, lays the under structure for non-military cooperation. Article 3, provided for cooperation in military preparedness while  in Article 5, the new allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably, it will have three objectives. The first, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic militarism of the kind that has emerged . Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation, essential to secure passage of close to 60% of global trade. The third, to provide security assurances; however, just as behind the scenes machinations from Beijing splintered the Quad at inception, the entente faces similar fragmenting stresses that threaten the whole. India is locked into a long standing border dispute with China. Similarly, Japan has maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas while China’s new Air Defence Identification Zone provides the recipe for mutual interference in the air. Australia on the other hand depends on China for approximately 22 % of trade. And there is China’s assignee, the nuclear armed North Korea whose influence cannot be set aside.

As the Quad pushes to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they hold their ground against pressure from China, nature of the security architecture and an understanding of the peril-to-the-whole. Key to the structure will be the constitution of Charter in terms of identifying the geographic entity within which it would operate, investments in cooperative security and apportioning responsibilities.

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”. How they emerge from that voyage depends to a large degree upon the wisdom of leadership. Bismarck’s sombre thoughts lead us back to our fundamental inquiry – whether motivation for conflict lies in the turbulence of the ‘Stream of Time’ or in the quest for power or piety is a moot question, but how India and the Verge Powers steer the stream is the crisis that leadership will have to contend with.


2 thoughts on “Strategic Maritime Challenge of China: To Steer the Stream of Time

  1. China is a spider in all its rhetoric, mannerisms, politics, and in its governmental functions. This secrecy is purely Communist and they must be watched 24/7 for their actions.

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