Quad: The Making of a Robust Entente


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website on 12 March 2018 and available at http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/quad-the-making-of-a-robust-entente )

The force planner’s primary task is to ensure that the military element of national power, alongside economic and political elements, can support national strategy. In 1950, India had defined national goals in the Preamble and Directive Principles to its Constitution. It then became a part of each political dispensation to contribute towards nation building. Is this happening?

The history of the National Defence Academy (Bal, Adarsh) provides intriguing perspective that underscores the general apathy that the Indian Military was subjected to by the post-independence administration. Two issues separated in time by seven decades warrant attention. Firstly, how was it that Indian political leadership of that era, “statesmen” such as they were, failed to understand the fundamental imperative of nation building: Security? Secondly, contemporary geo-politics has prompted the emergence of a security entente, “the Quad,” that could assure stability in a region at the substratum of global security. Disdain towards the first, led within a decade to the ’62 debacle in the Himalayas; while the latter, if not understood for its primary security connotations through indifference and sloth, may well lead to a fiasco at sea.

The Government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan awarded a sum of Pound Sterling 100,000 in 1941, for sacrifices made by Indian Troops. Two Indian Divisions confronted Mussolini’s Armies that threatened the Suez and, indeed, the British Indian Empire. By the end of the campaign Italian forces from Eritrea and Abyssinia were routed. Quarter of a million prisoners taken and the Axis threat to India from the West quashed. A grateful Imperial Office made the grant. However, at War’s end, impending independence of India left the British Government in a quandary; how best was the quick dissipating empire to capitalize on these equally depleting monies? It was at Field Marshall Auckinleck’s (then C-in-C India) intervention that temptation to appropriate for any other cause was evaded and a decision made to establish a National War Academy.

What remained after allocation to Pakistan proved just adequate to acquire land and commence to build. By 1955, the imposing Sudan Block that housed the humanities and administrative departments dominated the Khadakvasla valley. Insouciance of the establishment was apparent when no further budgetary allocation was made. Admittedly those were hard times, yet to deliberately oversee the stillbirth of a primary security building block is perplexing. It is to the credit of military leadership that the remaining infrastructure was constructed using ‘internal resources’.  No help came from the Government which barefacedly had deemed the military superfluous. One is, then, at a loss to explain the foolhardy ‘forward deployment strategy’ at a time when preparedness for war was so parsimonious. The 1959 Chinese incursions at Longju and Kongka La and the 1962 drubbing were consequent.

The profound influence of sea-commerce on the wealth and energy of nations is well known. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need for a strategic security architecture that could lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding nations: United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by the concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. The strategy 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 Belt and Road Initiative.

The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). World War II had left a devastated Europe sans security that it could neither afford nor envisage. While a militaristic Soviet Union was threatening elected governments with its lure of a Utopian fair-to-middling for all. To contain Soviet expansionism, counter the revival of nationalist militarism and advocacy of European integration; the Treaty was signed in 1949.Three remarkable articles were at the core of its Charter:  Article 5, the new Allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. Article 3 provided for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 2 lay the under structure for non-military cooperation. Global events of the 1950s and 60s had a dramatic effect upon NATO, for it rapidly adopted an integrated command structure, a permanent secretariat and doctrines to wage conventional or nuclear war. In time political stability was restored and there was growing recognition of the new Order.

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 in China. 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 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 maverick nuclear armed North Korea whose influence cannot be set aside.

As the Quad  push 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 ‘peril-to-the-whole.’ Key to the structure will be constitution of Charter in terms of identifying the geographic entity within which it would operate, investments in cooperative security and apportioning responsibilities. The question is, does leadership recognize that Chinese realpolitik is at play and that only a system based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations can confront it?


“Taking Centre Stage in the World”


   Vice Adm. (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

            First published in the author’s column on the IPCS website on 28 Nov 2017.                                                                                                 

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, “Let’s Party like it’s 1793.” The Economist May2013, https://www.economist.com/.

When Chairman Xi declared at the opening of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world,” he may have drawn this deduction from two perceived shifts in the global strategic environment. Firstly, the sensed flagging of US interests in global pacts emblematized by the “America First” agenda that most resembled an impending abandonment of regional partnerships that did not recognise US pre-eminence; and secondly, apparent US distraction in providing decisive security leadership in the troubled parts of the world. Of course, the issue of whether any grouping of major nations wanted Xi’s leadership never entered the debate.

China in recent years has become a major funder of infrastructure in the developing world. Its arrival has challenged existing institutional lenders, particularly when Xi in 2013, announced a scheme to resurrect the medieval Silk Road through a vast network of roads, pipelines, ports and railways that connected China with Europe via Central Asia, West Asia and ports in South Asia and East Africa. China intends to provide proprietary financial support to the project. The innards of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by ‘over the line’ issues such as client-government superintendence and financing on a scale not seen before or, remarkably, with such indistinct terms. Essentially, the scheme’s purpose is strategic influence of global connectivity; while at the same time, deploying close to 30 per cent of China’s substantial dollar reserves (over $3 trillion) that has hitherto held low yielding American debt, on more strategically beneficial ventures.

And yet restoring the lost grandeur of the Silk Route has many other challenges that may not be overcome by Xi’s ‘fiat.’ Beginning with internal corruption, since the entire programme is to be funded largely by state owned banks. In the instance, as a wit put it, “then, how does a barber cut his own hair?” The matter of an opaque dispensation attempting to break from its political roots to gain a mandate of the people must add to planners’ discomfort. The questionable economics of committing billions of dollars into the world’s most impoverished and unstable regions hardly instils confidence in the programme. Already falling prices of primary products and unhinged host politics have undermined some of the 900 constituent projects. Compounding matters is the cost of freightage by rail, which is as much as four to five times that of cargo movement by sea. Besides, the current state of the enterprise is unidirectional as rakes return largely empty on the east-bound leg. Chinese ideology is hardly welcome in the region. The recent use of trade as a tool of punishment, specifically in the case of Philippines from where banana imports were cut, while rare earth exports to Japan were curbed, tariff barriers raised unilaterally, and the general economic retaliation on South Korea, does not in any way serve the ends of free trade-flow or economic inclusiveness.

Chinese historians do not tire of reminding the world of its recent past that staggered between the collapse of an empire to humiliating colonization, from bloody wars to the civil anarchy of Maoism and now in the success of ‘Authoritarian Capitalism,’ some even perceive a return of the Middle Kingdom. But even if the old world order were to make way, slipping into a mire of lost belief, there remains the problem of a potentially bizarre future where not nearly-quite-dead Capitalism is controlled by a totalitarian regime fervently dependent on magnifying growth, perpetuity of dispensation and a disruptive brand of nationalism for stability; all of which echo a past not quite from the Orient but from a more recent Europe of the first few decades of the twentieth century.

In response, for Xi to turn to an even more assertive military-led foreign policy, brings to the fore the probability of conflict; specifically, on the Korean Peninsula, where China’s role as agent provocateur is becoming more and more undeniable. If the generalised theory of war suggests causes of armed conflict as introduction of weapons of mass destruction, a revisionist agenda stimulated by significant change in the balance of power, and lastly, a contrarian and often disrupted structure of order; then these are all eminently resident in the region. Yet global remedies adapted to date have neither generated a consensual course of action nor has the status quo been emphasised. In the on-going brinkmanship polity on the Korean Peninsula, the antagonists have, predictably provided partisan military support and embraced a skewed one-sided stoppage of financial and economic flows that fuel the causes of conflict (being the main donor to North Korea, Chinese leadership sees no reason to check continuance.) Similarly, dialogue has focused on little else than a dual-stance posture: delivery of military threats and a litany of in-executable demands.

The littorals of the West Pacific have, in the meantime, rediscovered the Trans-Pacific Partnership sans the USA; while on the security front the Quadruple Entente (an initiative involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) is averred for revival. These undercurrents suggest not just a hesitancy to endorse a China-led order, but also a push back on belt-and-road craft as well as Chinese blue-water ambitions.

In truth, much would depend upon the will to order, the universal repugnance to leaving centre stage untenanted, or the unlikely event of China’s amenability to sharing the stage.



The Curious Case of USS McCain


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Vulnerabilities of computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks: the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

On 21 August 2017, in the darkness of astronomical twilight, a destroyer USS John S. McCain bound for Singapore after a sensitive ‘freedom-of-navigation’ operation off one of China’s illegal man-made islands in the South China Sea, collided with a 30,000 ton, oil and chemical tanker ‘Alnic MC’, in the Eastern approaches to Singapore. Ten sailors lost their lives in the collision while the hull of the ill-fated McCain, was stricken by a large trapezium-shaped puncture on its port quarter abaft the after stack. The greater base of the trapezium was below the waterline and extended at least 40 feet along the hull to a height of 15 feet. Two months earlier a similar collision involving another Arleigh Burke destroyer could advance a more-than-accident theory.

Initial reports suggest loss of course keeping control caused the McCain’s fatal collision. That, and the computer aided nature of the ship’s steering and navigation system, has led to the conjecture that McCain’s manoeuvring system may have been “hacked” into and then manipulated to force a deliberate collision.

The Singapore Strait extends between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea in the east. The strait is about 8 nautical miles (15 km) wide and lies between Singapore Island and the Riau Islands (Indonesia) to the south. It is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The Port Authority of Singapore periodically warns mariners of the special rules applicable for safe pilotage in these waters. In its marine circulars (#20 of 14 November 2006) it draws attention to the traffic separation scheme (TSS) and the hazardous character of these waters. By law, the significant burden placed on vessels is: to proceed in the appropriate traffic lane in the general direction of flow; to keep clear of traffic separation lines or zones; cardinally, masters of vessels are warned to take extra precautions and proceed at a safe speed. In determining safe speed, experience advocates several factors be considered which in addition to traffic density include: state of visibility, manoeuvrability of the vessel, state of wind, sea and current, proximity of navigational hazards and draught in relation to the available depth of water. In the circumstance, the prudent mariner very quickly appreciates that the primary hazard presented by the narrows is not geography, but density of traffic and the perils of disorderly movement. On an average 200-220 ships transit this passage daily of which more than 100 are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre due deep draught.

The organisation on board a warship for negotiating such waters are the Special Sea Dutymen; a group of highly specialised and trained personnel charged with manning critical control positions involved in evolutions that potentially could endanger the ship, such as berthing, transiting pilotage waters and close-quarter manoeuvring. The key is the instancy of human judgement and failsafe control.

A standard fit on most USN warships is the Integrated Platform Management Systems (IPMS). It uses advanced computer-based technology comprising sensors, actuators, data processing for information display and control operations. Its vital virtue is distant remote control through commercial off the shelf elements (some may argue “its critical vulnerability”). Modern shipping, for reasons of economy and only economy, was quick to adopt the system. Warships systems, however, demand redundancy, reliability, survivability and unremitting operations; all of which militate against cost cutting expediencies. Incidentally, the Indian Navy, as early as May 1997, introduced the IPMS as a part of Project ‘Budhiman’ with the proviso that it would not intrude into critical control and combat functions.

It is not entirely clear the extent to which the IPMS had penetrated systems on-board the USS McCain but in the last two decades it is well known that USN has resorted to deep cuts in manpower and heavily invested in control automation. Inferences are evident.

On 21 August nautical twilight was at 0618h (all times Singapore standard) the moon was in its last quarter and moon rise at 0623h, it was dark, however, visibility was good and sea calm. Collision occurred at 0524h; USS McCain was breached on the port side causing extensive flooding. Examination of the track generated by the Automatic Identification System (AIS) video indicates the Alnic MC approaching Singapore’s easternmost TSS, about 56 nautical miles east of Singapore, at a speed of 9 knots when it suddenly crash stops and turns hard to port, which we may assume was the result of the collision. Unfortunately, military vessels do not transmit AIS data, so we do not have the track of the McCain. However, since the McCain was headed for Singapore it is reasonable to assume that she was overtaking the slow tanker from the latter’s starboard side when she lost steering control and effected an unbridled turn over the tanker’s bulbous bows. The trapezoid form of the rupture and elongation aft would suggest events as mentioned rather than a north south crossing by the destroyer at the time of collision (after all destination was Singapore).

Coincidentally, two Chinese merchantmen the Guang Zhou Wan and the Long Hu San were in close proximity through the episode; so, was that a chance presence? Or does it add to the probability of deliberate cyber engineering of the mishap? And, why else other than to damage the strategic credibility of the US Navy deployed in tense conditions in the South and East China Sea. Or was it, indeed, a case of gross crew incompetence? While, time and ‘sub-rosa’ inquiries could put to rest speculations, vulnerabilities of highly computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks may well remain the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.