The Maritime Domain – An Abiding Stage for Cooperation and Conflict

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(To be published)

.“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which it caused in Sparta”.

                                                (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War)                                               

The first truth is: the outcome of modern wars have hinged on economic fallouts. The second is: conditions have been greatly influenced by rudimentary universal education. Leadership have split the vast majority of populations into two categories: those that believe in unrestricted economic activity and an opposing camp enticed by authoritarian rulers to view the former in venal light creating a centrally controlled camp.

So, we note, the extinction of the “Cold War” was a temporary hiatus that after three decades has morphed the communist bloc to an autocratic and nationalistic faction comprising China and Russia that seek revision of world order and its hitherto inequities, at least that is what the bloc will have the rest of the world believe. This refrain that Beijing and Moscow profess brings it in direct conflict with the believers of unrestricted economic activity. At the same time the vision of unrestricted global economic activity has proven so fragile and subject to the many nuances of geopolitics that resource deficient nations are left out.

Geopolitics a New Slant

 The term ‘geopolitics’ has often been employed in reference to a nation’s interest and stratagems adopted to secure them. This meaning is subjective; it does not account for the full significance of the term, and even bears a negative connotation. During the Second World War, Japan’s expansionist policies were justified using the ‘geopolitical’ argument. In the 21st century, geopolitics aims at explaining how geography can impact politics and how states try to mitigate these effects. Geography, in other words, contributes to defining the boundaries of what is possible to achieve in international relations along with economic and security advantages that may be leveraged. China In its South China Sea policy has shown just how ‘creatively’ this can be achieved.  

The Maritime Domain

 Thucydides, in the 4th century Bce, chronicled the events of the Peloponnesian War (431-404Bce). The War was fought between two leading Greek city states; Athens and Sparta and their allies. The conflict bears so many similarities to wars waged through the ages, that, to this day it offers lessons. The Athenian alliance included most of the littorals of the Aegean Sea, while Sparta was at the head of an alliance of continental powers. Athens had the stronger navy and Sparta, the stronger army. It was Athenian aggressive moves to establish empire and control the Mediterranean Sea that caused fear in Sparta and provoked war. The years of fighting were largely battles of attrition that depleted manpower and financial resources of both sides. Eventually, the Spartans destroyed the Athenian fleet, leading to capitulation of an exhausted Athens. Two significant lessons emerge:

  • Wars of attrition between balanced alliances do not yield spectacular victories, rather, exhaustion and a blurring of lines between victors and vanquished.
  • Wars of choice stimulated by overconfidence dangerously leave much to chance.

Towards the end of the 19th century it was thinkers like Mahan and Julian Corbett who set ablaze the maritime spirit of the new century. In The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Mahan analysed the use of British naval forces in conflicts to demonstrate that nations that had exercised control of important parts of the maritime domain, had dominated history. More specifically, it was the effect of sea power upon the course of history and the prosperity of nations that had allowed Britain to achieve global pre-eminence. Mahan’s significance was twofold: The first in the realm of grand strategy he asserted integration of maritime and naval activities with politics and economics. The second was command and decision making in war from a position of naval superiority. Since the sea was both a logistical highway and an avenue of approach, Mahan emphasized that command of the Sea gave enormous power and could only be attained by a dominant fleet with established bases and colonies. Sea power was about commercial use of the domain in peace and its control in war; about profits and power projection. Mahan’s theory remained persuasive till the first half of the twentieth century.

Corbett, on the other hand, believed naval influence on the maritime domain to be a part of national policy which had sway over the non-military elements of state power. He saw the fleet not merely an instrument of destruction but as an accompaniment to assuring the “act of passage on the sea.” It was from this critical tenet that concepts of Sea Denial, Sea Control and Power Projection evolved. Perhaps his abiding legacy to contemporary maritime thought was the idea that “freedom of the seas was an irreducible factor” for the sea was not territory for conquest; nor the oceans defensible. What it constituted was a substantial determinant in the growth of a nation and prosecution of war (Corbett Julian, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Longmans, 1911).

The Economic Motif: Strategic Competitiveness   

National wealth and economic prosperity are to some extent inherited but, in the main, created by the innovativeness of people. In this milieu the role played by the individual nation in international relations has become more rather than less critical. Therefore, strategic competitiveness has become one of the central preoccupations of government. Yet for all the writing on the topic, there is still no theory nor is there an accepted definition of the term in global affairs.

 The phrase “Strategic Competitiveness” first made its appearance in the 2018 National Defence Strategy of the USA . The document identified the revisionist states of China and Russia as strategic competitors. China for using “predatory economics” to intimidate lesser endowed nations while militarizing and persisting with its illegal claims in the South China Sea. It saw Russia as an autocratic nationalistic state that eschewed the economic, diplomatic, and security aspirations of its erstwhile bloc

It is amply clear that strategic competitiveness develops when the existing status-quo is challenged, or indeed when a state or an alliance contests the emerging challenge. The tools of the contest are the combined “comprehensive national power” of the two parties embracing political, economic, diplomatic, military and technological prowess.

 Multi-Polarity and the Prospects of Stability

The multipolar distribution of power which marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned security imbalances on account of economic inequities, interdependences, geography, demographics, the military and nature of government. It has incited jostling for control and power-ascendancy. The twentieth century mass violence of the two World Wars was caused by these very imbalances. It gave way, in 1945, to relative ‘stability’ distinguished by bi-polar tensions and the Cold War.

Demise of the Cold War in 1991 ushered in two decades of an unrestrained militaristic unipolar world order before a return to a complex agglomeration of powers of the day. The challenge to global order today is exemplified in the Putin Doctrine. Driven by a vision of renewal; Moscow considers the use of force as appropriate when its security is threatened. Its primary purpose is the rejection of a western conceived global order and global acceptance of Russian exceptionalism.

Looming Contestant: China

An historical analogy may be in order to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world, particularly so in India. In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, overbearing diplomacy, nationalism 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 conflict being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event, it was the response to ambitious revisionism and disregard of norms that led to war. An observer of contemporary geopolitics will not fail to note the similarity in circumstance, of China’s economic growth and vulnerabilities in the maritime domain, “military muscularity” pivotal to its geopolitical vision, ambitions, nationalism and its realpolitik instincts. However, the Belt and Road Initiative, which was the economic centre-piece intended to deliver billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has now turned into a massive debt trap. The critical assumption of China’s leadership is that their new era of rejuvenation will progress per script unopposed. This assumption is flawed for as Michael Howard pointed (Lessons of History pg39) “force is the midwife of historical processes.” A clash is brewing, unintended as it may be. 

 Contestant Groupings

On cue, in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvres; the formation of a trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and the continuing Strategic Security Dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the two will do whatever it takes to succeed.  Ironically, Beijing’s recent White Paper titled “National Defence in a New Era” outlined its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh and warned regional powers of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.

The more palpable part of the ‘AUKUS’ is the transfer of 8 Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN). The SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, however they provides the basis for denial operations in these waters and gives access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS’s mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines both military and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The resolve to strategic confrontation against revisionism is thus emphasised. Such a visible demonstration of collective power is, perhaps, the only way to dampen Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.

That these initiatives have made China “edgy” is clear from their declarations that “China will certainly punish Australia with no mercy”. Fearing forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties to the U.S.; Japan, is engaged in its largest military build-up since the Cold War; India is readying strike forces along China’s borders, developing strategies to occlude vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and has engaged partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities; Australia is opening up its northern coast to U.S. forces. France, Germany, and the UK are sending warships into the Indo-Pacific to assert their rights. Clearly,  Nations have become less enthused by China’s market and more worried about its disturbing intent.  

 Conclusion

We had earlier touched on a pre-First World War analogy. However, one may surmise that given the nuclear overhang, the rise of China with its burden of a ‘century-of-humiliation’ will demand a firm strategy tempered by pragmatism rather than principles of the past. But the other reality is the fear of war, to authoritarian regimes that co-exists with belligerence and exalted nationalistic feelings that, while advancing concern of survival of dispensation, also boost profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. Herein lies the striking resemblance with pre-First World War Germany. And herein also lies the chink that provides the opportunity to collar China through unified action where it is most vulnerable – in the maritime domain. This would not only threaten its dream of rejuvenation but also of regime survival.

Deciphering China’s Grand Strategy

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in the authors column “The Strategist” may be accessed at  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5806

Xi’s Declarations

China’s strategic priorities constitute “comprehensive national security,” with regime-security being key and economic-security being the foundation and means to its Grand Strategy. The People’s Daily Online, reviewed Xi’s important declarations made while addressing the Central National Security Committee (CNSC) and the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCCP). Xi’s declarations included the following:

  • Uphold  Party’s Absolute Leadership over national security (17 Apr 2018, CNSC).
  • Improve strategic ability(17 April 2018, CNSC}.
  • Adhere to the organic unity of people’s security, political security, and national interest (18 Oct 2017, CCCP).
  • Play the first move well, play the active battle well, and be prepared to deal with any form of conflict, risk or challenge(18 Jan 2016, CCCP).
  • Take people’s security as the purpose and political security as the foundation, and embark on a national security path (15 Apr 2014, CNSC).

While some of the flavour may have been lost in translation the essence emerges only if we consider political survival of the CCP as key to national and economic security. Implying that the bulk of the population are mere vassals of the state. After-all, less than 6.7% of the population of China are members of the CCP.

What Do These Declarations Mean?

 “Absolute leadership” is a reminder to the world of the CCP’s internal stakes. If any saw in Beijing the possibility of egalitarianism, it must come as a rude awakening. It also brings into focus the reason why “galloping-growth” is an imperative for regime survival.

 “Strategic ability” of a nation is predicated on its people and their talent to generate wealth. People, for large nations, are also the most powerful consumers. When productive-age population shrinks, so do revenues. That has already happened to China since their “one child policy” of 1979. Adding to that Beijing’s policy of predatory economic statecraft and territorial ambitions, have hardly gone down well with the world community. No longer are nations enthused by China’s markets as they worry more about its disturbing intent.

 Examining the linkage between “unity of people’s security” with political security, and national interest; there is a contradiction that no action by the CCP can reconcile. The bond between people and politics is at best a tenuous one, for 6.7% of the population to claim first right of existence is only conceivable in a tyranny. George Orwell put it succinctly, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. “ This is a reminder of the possibility of the state imploding.

“To play the first move well, play the active battle well and prepare to deal with any conflict” are curious exhortations to make to the people. In the game of chess, the best first move is one that seeks the centre of the board in order to control the maximum number of squares. In geo-politics this not only suggests a ready preparedness for conflict, but also advises timing and the skill to “rout the enemy before they form” (Sun Tzu, Art of War). The conquest of Tibet, offensive in Korea, First and Second Taiwan crises, Sino-Indian War of 1962, Sino-Soviet conflict, annexation of the Paracel Islands, China’s disregard of international law and its legally discredited expansionist claims in the South China Sea exemplify just what the “first move” means and what it entails for an adversary.

Grand Strategy Unravelled

Grand strategy refers to a plan of actions by which a nation achieves its major long-term objectives. To understand Beijing’s Grand Strategy, reliance has been placed on a combination of leadership declarations, policies, economic activities and the military means it has embraced.

Since inception in 1949, China’s strategic focus has shifted from revolution-survival-recovery to an emphasis on rejuvenation. Both internal and external factors have shaped this vision. Internally the “century of humiliation” has driven strategies of regime survival and rejuvenation. Externally, tensions with leading democracies of the world over its revisionist and expansionist policies have characterized the on-going rivalry.

Protecting Chinese ‘core interests’ of sovereignty of CCP-led political system and securing its “bloated” territorial integrity have been the source of its legitimacy. China has resolutely resisted any perceived challenges to these interests by aggressively garnering power whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet; while threatening control of Taiwan, Ladakh, the South and East China Seas.

Safeguarding China’s overseas interests has increasingly become a part of China’s strategy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi noting there are 30,000 global Chinese businesses and over 100 million Chinese who travel abroad annually, enlarged China’s security ambit providing assurance that ‘China’s armed forces will fulfil their international responsibilities; as  articulated in their 2019 Chinese defence white paper .

Xi’s ‘rejuvenation dream’ includes economic vibrancy, political initiatives, scientific innovation, cultural richness and military versatility; all critical components of the Grand Strategy. Meanwhile, China’s defence budget for 2019 was estimated at $175.4 billion (second to the US) enabling modernization, doctrinal changes and organizational reforms; all towards forging a first rate military.

The enigma of ‘the China-approach’ is that having greatly benefitted from international systems, China has deliberately undermined the very same system by not fully supporting its governing elements; whether WTO, UN, IMF or the World Bank.  

Dangers of Acquiescing

Over the past several years, the resolve to counter dynamics that threaten the status-quo has run into perilous shoals; weakening the idea of an equitable global-order. The world’s sole superpower blundered into strategic gaffes in managing the international environment; whether it was the anarchic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inability to effectively restrain Russia’s Ukraine policy or the financial meltdown of 2008. Worldwide leadership ambivalence has hit credibility of the international order.

The Counter Play

The interests of India and leading democracies of the world converge on many aspects in the Indo-Pacific. At its core lies maritime security. India’s Act East Policy, in addition to economic, cultural and commercial goals, includes strategic interests. The quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD), the Australia-UK-US alliance and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific aim at maintaining prosperity, security, and order in the Indo-Pacific. Though not stated, countering China’s belligerence in the region figures prominently.

The ‘counter-play’ in chess is an offensive move intended to reverse the opponent’s advantage in another part of the board. The Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits provide the space for strategic “counter play”; through these waters over 70% of China’s energy flow and 60% of trade ply. It is China’s “growth-jugular” and it is here that the world’s democracies must develop strategies that potentially signal the ability to stymie Xi’s dream of “rejuvenation.” 

The Quad and AUKUS-Compacts to Collar China

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5797)

Keywords: Pre-First World War Germany, China’s new era of rejuvenation, strategic culture of China’s leadership, Confucian ideology, realpolitik, South China Sea, predatory economics, Belt and Road Initiative, Great Wall, Long March, era of turbulence, AUKUS, Quad, National Defence in a New Era, Covid 19.

An historical analogy may be in order to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world. In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, overbearing diplomacy, nationalism 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 conflict being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event, it was the response to ambitious revisionism and disregard for established norms of international order that led to war.

An observer of contemporary geopolitics will not fail to note the similarity in circumstance of China’s dazzling economic growth, “military muscularity” pivotal to its geopolitical vision, ambitions, nationalism and its realpolitik instincts. The critical assumption of China’s leadership is that their new era of rejuvenation will progress per script through questionable economic deals and coercion. This assumption is flawed for as Michael Howard pointed out in his Lessons of History (pg39) “force is the midwife of (violent) historical processes.” A clash is brewing, unintended as it may be; for nationalism and predatory economics is as much a source of conflict as counterforce and economic rivalry.

The strategic culture of Chinese leadership is driven by two dynamics — Confucian ideology and Realpolitik — the former is legacy of China’s past, the latter draws strength from rigidity of a totalitarian dispensation and its propensity to ‘power-politics’. This presents a dangerous cocktail. Confucian ideology treasures virtue and conservatism; it depends largely on the sagacity of the autocrat to speak for society. However, for an unrepresentative nationalistic state, Realpolitik places power and the threat of its use central to international relations. Beijing’s grandiose territorial claims coupled with leadership’s strategic culture provide both incentive and contrivance for conflict.

China’s economic policies are predatory, a key reason is opacity of dealings, for the Communist Party is opposed to any inconvenient transparency that might compel standardising products and divulging processes. The Belt and Road Initiative, which was supposed to deliver billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has now turned into a massive debt trap.

To interpret China’s international and domestic behaviour one needs to look over the “Great Wall” and beyond the “Long March.” The former, was conceived to hold back Northern raiders, yet its completion over 1800 years comes at a time when invaders rule within; while the “Long March” was a bloody retreat in a civil war that underscored great human loss and ruthless control. Both events were inward “racking” and do not provide advocacy for use of power in the strategic environment of today. No surprises, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), readily resorts to strong-arming when it perceives an opening window of vulnerability or a closing window of opportunity in potential victims.

The Long March (Chinese posters.net)

China’s geopolitical aims are not secret. Xi, wants to consolidate China’s control over important lands and waterways that the “century of humiliation,” ostensibly, wrested from its influence. These areas include Hong Kong, Taiwan, chunks of Indian Territory, and some 80 per cent of the East and South China Seas (SCS). Contradictions erupt when use of force is tempered by tenets of Confucian thought; so the Korean War ends in a caustic stalemate, the 1962 conflict with India meanders to an unsettled impasse, the purpose and outcome of the Vietnam war of 1979 is clouded, the frenetic creation of artificial islands for military bases in the South China Sea tramples on established international norms and the recent skirmishes in Ladakh remain a continuum of the impasse. We stand, perilously, on the cusp of an era of turbulence.

On cue, in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvres; the recent announcement of the formation of a new trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and the continuing strategic security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the two will do whatever it takes to succeed.  Ironically, Beijing’s recent White Paper titled “National Defence in a New Era” outlined its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh and warned regional powers of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.

The more palpable part of the ‘AUKUS’ is the transfer of 8 Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN); clearly, the SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, however they provides the basis for denial operations in these waters and gives access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS’s technology-sharing mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines both military and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The resolve to strategic confrontation against revisionism in the Indo-Pacific is thus emphasised. Balance of power adherents, with justification, consider a visible demonstration of collective power as the only way to dampen Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.

That these initiatives have made China “edgy” is clear from their immediate declarations: “China will certainly punish Australia with no mercy” and Australian troops are most likely to be the first batch of soldiers to waste their lives in the SCS. President Xi Jinping avowed in July that those who get in the way of China’s ascent will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel”.

Nations have become less enthused by China’s market and more worried about its disturbing intent. Fearing forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties to the U.S.; Japan, is engaged in its largest military build-up since the Cold War; India is readying strike forces along China’s borders, developing strategies to occlude vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and has engaged partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities; Australia is opening up its northern coast to U.S. forces and is readying for acquisition of long-range missiles and SSNs. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are sending warships into the Indo-Pacific to assert their rights.

 In the meantime China’s dubious role in the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has left it beleaguered.  

We began with a pre-First World War analogy of Germany. However, one may surmise that given the nuclear overhang, the rise of China with its burden of a ‘century-of-humiliation’ will demand a strategy tempered by tolerance and accommodation rather than principles of the past. But the other truth is, the fear of war, to authoritarian regimes such as China co-exists with belligerence and exalted nationalistic feelings that, while advancing concern of survival of dispensation, also boosts profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. Herein lies the striking resemblance of China with pre-First World War Germany. And herein also lies the necessity to collar China through unified action that threatens regime survival by challenging its bellicosity in the Indo-Pacific.