Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of overbearing diplomacy and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in war being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event security tolerance of rival powers was persistently stretched. And, when war did break out, it was fought with colossal military ineptitude and a bizarre inability to match military design with political purpose (sadly, a recurring malaise to this day). An observer of contemporary geopolitics cannot fail to notice the remarkable similarities in the circumstances of China’s dazzling economic growth, military build-up and its twenty first century realpolitik instincts.
The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty, that dominated the three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts that lack definition the nature of which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination. China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence are financial inveiglement, military coercion, and exploiting instabilities.
Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism,” the realist international-relations theory, holds that in “an anarchic world with no sovereign to provide law and order, states will tend to amass as much relative power as they can and will never find security other than in accretion of power at the expense of competitors…the best defence (in this milieu) is good offense.” Revisionist China is today an avowed devotee of just such strategic logic. And therefore, to China a global economic order governed, largely, by a single set of rules not of its bidding, is repugnant.
China has announced sweeping claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and sought to ratify them by creating and fortifying artificial islands in flagrant defiance of existing international laws and conventions. A network of Chinese naval bases, port infrastructural developments and atypical shipping control centres has been secured from the South China Sea to the East African Coast. This includes ports of Sittwe in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port Sudan, port Lamu in Kenya and port Bagamoyo in Tanzania. Historically and in terms of contemporary significance to the existing maritime flow of trade, these harbours are of no weighty consequence; however from a geo-strategic standpoint they suggest springboards for sea control and envelopment of India rather than mercantile ascendancy or commercial profitability.
Chinese Military outposts in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar have mushroomed to challenge unwelcome maritime control presence and safeguard their extensive investments in Africa. These investments have thus far resulted in either generating equities or enmeshing the victim states in a debt trap that force them to surrender sovereignty over assets being created. Learning from “colonial experience” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, China has put in place a strategy that emphasizes relatively superior organization, technological interventions, and unscrupulous financial mobilization to exploit and divide the weaknesses of the political and military systems in the host state. And if China’s growth seeks new markets and primary resources in Africa, then exclusive control of these is at its core, regardless of friction that may erupt.
Both India and China in their quest for growth with security must find ways and means to avoid threatening each other’s interests (as is happening) and advance the nous for security even if that implies establishing a ‘restraining balance.’ In the past, leadership coped with the coming challenge more by knee jerk rather than policy responses. In changed circumstances of India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies, the impact that the military will have on the developing correlation is the moot question. A scrutiny of the problem from these two distinct levels of strategic policy and military force will also precipitate several questions, answers to which hold the key to the future. First, from the strategic viewpoint, is India focussing on what comprises the strategic centre of gravity of China’s power and mercantile ‘putsch’? Second, from the military perspective, would our forces, either singularly or in alliance, be able to balance Chinese military activities prejudicial to our interests? Clearly the answer to the first is: China’s compulsion for unremitting growth while to the second the answer lies in developing a ‘China restraining strategy’ best tempered by an appropriate alliance.
Given the slowdown of China’s hitherto stunning economic growth (a recent BBC estimate puts China’s annual growth rate as low as 5.6%), the trade and tariff war with the USA which has begun to bite, and the countries of the ASEAN eyeing markets and resources elsewhere as demand in China falters, would suggest an adverse impact on China’s current military modernization and strategic infrastructural plans (such as the Belt and Road Initiative). The other problem which may hobble China’s ambitions is the amount of debt in the economy – by some estimates close to 300% of GDP.
Two options present themselves to China’s planners as they attempt to manage these predicaments: retard pace of projects, cut back on military modernization, strategic infrastructure building and accept moderation of Xi’s “Dream of national rejuvenation, securing expanding interests overseas and developing capabilities to degrade core operational and technological advantage that influence the region ” (China defence White Paper 2015 , recalling that leadership have for long characterized the initial two decades of the 21st century as a period of strategic opportunity). Or, perceiving the window of “strategic opportunity” rapidly closing, continue to run down their strategic objectives with far greater vigour even at cost of international friction and disruption of their internal circumstances.
In either of the two options the development of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad); a security organisation which includes the USA, Japan, India and Australia must be viewed as a timely ‘China restraining alliance’ to counter China’s unrelenting power surge for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the Indo-Pacific. 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. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation essential to secure passage of close to 60% of global trade through the Indo-Pacific. 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 in 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. In the meantime the US is engaged in a self-destructive move to renege on its larger strategic responsibilities; Australia on the other hand depends on China for approximately 22 % of trade. And there are China’s assignees, the maverick nuclear armed states of North Korea and Pakistan whose disruptive influence cannot be set aside. And yet the opportunity that the current state of China’s economy presents must be grasped if the Quad is to have ready impact.
The question is, does leadership recognize that Chinese realpolitik is at play and that only a determined system based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations can confront it? The current moves by Japan, USA and India to develop Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to stave off China’s aggressive push in Hambantota will suggest that the entente has not been altogether unsighted to events in the region.