A Strategic Perspective for Change in the Navy

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article is forthcoming in the December 2019 issue of Geopolitics available at http://www.geopolitics.in)

The Act of Passage on the Sea

World change has set in motion a shift that will affect security of the Indian nation. In this churning, the context of revision and how the involved actors must relate to it is critical. Each step towards change will illuminate facets that will reveal the reality of their purport, challenges they characterise and the threats that they hold. In addition strategic thought in the Navy must transcend the temptation to consider these as a continuing current of the past. The question really is, how can we best recast the Navy without having to wait for the full exposure of the new world and not having to play catch-up-if-you-can?

Students of maritime history will not forget that at the turn of the 20th century it was thinkers like Mahan and Julian Corbett who set ablaze the maritime spirit of that century. The former identified principles that influenced naval forces during the first half of the twentieth century; he believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the commercial use of the sea in peace and its control in war. Sea power was seen as the handmaiden of imperial expansion. This vision, although uncontroversial in his day, lost its strategic flavour in the post-war age of decolonisation. Corbett, on the other hand, believed naval influence to be a part of national policy and saw the fleet not merely an instrument of destruction of the enemy fleet but as an accompaniment to assuring the “act of relative passage on the sea.” It was from this critical tenet that concepts of Sea Denial, Sea Control and Power Projection evolved. In 1915, his essay titled “The Spectre of Navalism” underscored the hazards of arms restructuring when attitudes considered “all power that was not one’s own was a menace that force alone could remove” (a belief amongst Germanic people in the run-up to the First World War and may today be found to thrive in the region). Perhaps his abiding legacy to contemporary naval thought was the idea that “freedom of the seas was an irreducible factor in sane world politics” for in his outlook the sea was not territory that could be conquered; nor were the oceans defensible. What it constituted was a substantial factor in the growth of a nation and prosecution of war. He suggested, “…great issues of nations at war have always been decided … either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.”

Context of Change

Within an international system that hovers between a facade of order and anarchy, variegated pace of growth among states engenders rivalry over access to resources, control of technology, flow of commerce and entry to markets; resulting in friction amongst competitors. At the same time, abstractions of national honour, prestige and other sovereign interests that separate the state from its citizenry are often at odds with the violence of the “Language” of war (Clausewitz). Experience of the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, East Pakistan, West Asia and Afghanistan will suggest that perceptions of the people that come face-to-face with the “language” of war learn to abhor it and eventually 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 and brutality fought under the overhang of a nuclear holocaust.

A Short Primer of Maritime Warfare

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval operations since 1945. The grouping is largely task oriented. It comprises of aircraft carriers, denial forces, escorts and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other support elements such as shore based aircrafts, landing ships, mine layers, tenders, space and cyber assets). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate. The principal demand of the theory is to attain a strategic posture that would permit control of oceanic and littoral spaces for a designated period of time in order to progress and influence the course of conflict, generally, on land. Upon the escorts depends our ability to accomplish control; while on the Aircraft Carrier and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depends the security of control. Control and security of control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces. If the doctrine of destroying the enemy’s armed forces asserts itself as the paramount objective then, our maritime exertions would concentrate on the singular aim of dealing that knockout punch. However, the vastness of the hydrosphere is of a nature that encourages dispersion, at the same time the antagonist may hardly be expected to expose his main forces in unfavourable circumstances. As Corbett so eloquently put it “the more closely he induces us to concentrate to face his fleet, the more he frees the sea for the circulation of his own forces, and the more he exposes ours.”

India’s armed forces have traditionally evolved and trained to cope with operational scenarios. But the operational canvas (inexplicable not to have been apparent), is a transient that eschews futuristic force planning. So it was every-year-after-five years the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived possible threats and/building forces that attempted to cope with those threats. It was, therefore, the instantaneous intimidation that drove plans which unfortunately is a pretender that serves to fill the strategic space and struggles to keep pace with a future that the planner neither sought to shape nor forecast.

The War in Shadows

Corbett’s formulation, adapted for the present, of ‘control-for-causes’ is far more sophisticated and finds application in an era when calibrated escalation of power, coercive diplomacy and sanctions as opposed to a destructive and economically debilitating conflict; finds favour as a political tool. The current situation in Crimea, Syria, Iran, West Asia, North Korea, weaponising of space, access denial strategies, disruptive control of cyber space and indeed the South China Sea imbroglio are marked by just such a ‘War in Shadows’ where the principal tools are persuasive in their threat to dent the adversaries comprehensive power. Three factors play a disproportionate part in evolving such a strategy. First is generation of strategic capability in all dimensions. Second, is the resolve to power of national leadership.  And lastly, is the state’s ability to cope with and manipulate strategic outcomes. This blend of the abstract with the realist’s point of view characterizes the ‘War in Shadows’. The reader will no-doubt note shades of the South Asian Regional situation in this plot. It is against this canvas that the future development and structuring of Indian maritime power must be gauged.

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact regional stability; particularly so, in the maritime domain. The planner must in the circumstance examine in some detail the challenge of China. Of significance is the shift in global balance to the Indo-Pacific intricately linked to the stunning growth of China as a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they expect to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests.

China’s latest defence white paper of July 2019 describes “Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity. While drumming the theme of “people’s security” it persists with its re-education camps in Xinjiang revealed recently. It hammers home the brutal repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, and their mass incarceration. The paper warns of the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting in the South China Sea and hazards of strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways.”

The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and moves to establish proprietary sources of raw materials, domination of sea lines of communication euphemistically called the “maritime silk route” and working to realise the String of Pearls (currently a patchy network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its silk route). These manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Region evoke increasing 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 venture. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their discordant Air Defence Identification Zone, the 9-Dash line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea   and breaching international law by constructing and militarising artificial islands. China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well.

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 must factor regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, narrows therein and potential allies. The Oceanic body encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific provides the back-drop. It 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 Future Force Planning

The quest for strategic leverage in the maritime domain is inspired by policy declarations such as the ‘Look East (and now) Act East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’, and formation of alliances. Current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus 6 is symptomatic of the shift in strategic centre of gravity 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 balance. 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 (despite the RCEP) is backed by surging trade slated to hit USD 100 billion. With such burgeoning stakes strategic rebalancing in the region comes as a natural consequence. The expansion of the ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum are also suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter poise the looming presence of China.

Having thus brought about a modicum of coherence between security dynamics, strategic space and growth, it would now be appropriate to derive the broad contours of our strategic objectives and how they may be achieved.

A Denial Strategy

Denial seeks to contest and discredit the ability of regional or extra regional countries to unilaterally engage in 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. To ‘contest and discredit’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of the intervening forces lie. In China’s case, it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; nuclear attack submarine and security of the narrows and of its ‘string of pearls’; these would have to be checkmated.

Leadership and Doctrines

Leaving aside, for the moment, material aspects of generating capabilities, the most critical issue is one of timing, that is, what would be the enabling circumstances that would trigger operationalizing (say) the Indian anti access denial strategy? While the short answer may be “when national interests are threatened” this does not in any way assist in formulating a doctrine empowering operational level leadership to plan and act. Leadership will note two considerations. First, initial moves must be so calibrated that the intervener is unequivocally made aware through diplomacy and notices from allies that a threshold is being approached and that the next rung in the escalatory ladder could well be a ‘hot’ exchange. This may take the form of ‘marking’ and surveillance. Second, initiating demonstrative action which may disrupt and disable operational networks or even measures instituted in some other theatre where correlation of forces would suggest Indian superiority. Under this order of things, we may in general terms define our ‘red lines’ as follows:

  • Any large scale military attempt to change the status quo in our territorial configuration.
  • Large scale military build-up either at Gwadar or on any of the “string of pearls” with the explicit purpose of threatening India.
  • Aggressive deployments that disrupt our own energy and resource traffic or dislocate command networks.
  • Any attempt to provide large scale military support, covert or otherwise, to promote an internal war against the State.

For obvious reasons details of ASAT batteries and cyber warfare teams along with NCA controlled strategic forces will remain discreet.

Technology Plan

The next issue that requires our attention is what nature of technologies would have to be fielded to realise the strategy. In developing a technology plan two considerations will influence our approach; the first being an incremental approach to adapt and modernize existing tools, skills and hardware, while the second is to develop new technologies. Viewed in this perspective areas that would need the notice of our scientific community are identified below:

  • ASAT deployment.
  • Development & Deployment of seabed sensors for tracking attack submarines.
  • Development of non-lethal devices to disable merchant ships.
  • Deploying cyber warfare teams for both defensive and offensive tasks.
  • Development of high speed networks with failsafe firewalls for command and control and information sharing.

 The Quadrilateral Cooperative Security Dialogue (Quad)

The 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. With early withdrawal of Australia the Quad almost “miscarried”. It has been recently revived to counter China’s unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region. The alliance, however, remains fragile. The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established to contain Soviet expansionism; three remarkable articles are at the core of its Charter:  Article 2, lays the under structure for non-military cooperation. Article 3, provides for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 5, the 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 may follow the NATO template. It may have three objectives. First, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic ‘Navalism’ of the kind that has emerged. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation. Third, to provide security assurances.

As the Quad pushes to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they face pressure from China, nature of  security architecture and an understanding of the peril-to-the-whole.

Conclusion

The reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibilities. India’s relationship with much of the world is robust. India has shown itself, through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance to be 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.

China on the other hand is a declared revisionist autocratic power that will impact globally; particularly so, in the maritime domain where it appears to be challenging not just economic orthodoxy, but geo-political and security order without bringing about a change within. This cannot be allowed to pass without a strategic riposte.

China: National Defence in a New Era

                                              Linking Dreams with Reality

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the September 2019 issue of Geopolitics http://www.geopolitics.in/

The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on 24 July 2019 that China had issued a white paper to “expound on its defensive national defence policy in the new era and explain the practice, purposes and significance of China’s efforts to build a fortified national defence and a strong military.” Titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era,” the paper was released by the State Council Information Office with a view, as the Council suggested, to helping the international community better understand China’s national defence. It is the tenth white paper on national defence that the government has issued since 1998 and the first comprehensive one since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

At a macro-level the Paper responds to a perceived shift in global strategies, as major players retract from a focus on counter-terrorism and extremism to an acute slant on competition, rivalry, and friction. It flags the fact that China in its bid to revise the global order on its terms is now a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they will be able to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests. The document describes Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity and underscores the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting should there be intervention of any nature on this account. It notes in cavalier fashion “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in surveillance by air and sea, enter China’s territorial waters and the airspace near China’s islands and reefs undermining China’s national security.” Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their newly established but discordant Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of 2013, the 9-Dash (10-Dash after 2013) line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening major tenets of the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and breaching of international law.

Unlike Chinese White Papers of the past which focused blandly on China’s questionable “peaceful” intent and not very convincing views of ‘win-win’ cooperation, the 2019 edition highlights China’s military development as a national riposte to what it considers as the challenges that it is faced with. The main body of the white paper is divided into six thematic sections:

  • The international security situation
  • China’s defensive national defence policy in the new era
  • Fulfilling missions and tasks of China’s armed forces in the new era
  • Reform in China’s national defence and armed forces
  • Reasonable and appropriate defence expenditure
  • Actively contributing to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Some statistics are featured in the 27,000-character document, 10 tables on topics such as a cursory breakdown of China’s defence expenditure have been attached and listing of international cooperation activities is included in the appendices.”

International Security & Visions of a New Global Order

The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater multi-polarity and its aspirations to exercise control amongst what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny.” It also outlines its strategic objectives, in the quest for which Beijing will neither accommodate nor soften its position. The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests.

“National Defence in a New Era” is a continuum on the official narrative of China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of a community with shared destiny” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction; what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “community of common destiny for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning for that very community. The question being, is the new era envisaged by China an emerging reality? And is its model of governance acceptable and appropriate for this reality? For if not (as it seems most likely) the prospects of friction and disruption loom large.

China’s Defensive National Defence Policy

The Document links the creation of a new world order with Xi Jinping’s discourse on the “China Dream,” which urges the People’s Republic to push forward the “great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and strive to achieve the  dream of “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation to the status of the world’s dominant power. The narrative is now expanded in the White Paper to argue that a more powerful Chinese military is essential to this global dream. The paper attempts to reframe the trajectory of Chinese military modernization by claiming: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” This assertion is intended to reassure China’s neighbours about the rise of Chinese military power, which has progressed at a speed and scale that have often provoked concerns, arguing that this instead is a boon for the region. What is apparent is that the construct and its strategic linkages are short on specifics and niggardly on how to put the dream into practice.

Although  China’s aspiration to exercise a leading influence in global governance and contribute to reforms of that system are hardly surprising, this is for the first time that the military has been so directly and officially connected to the agenda of revisionism. However, declarations to “build  a security architecture  through partnerships rather than alliances”  become confusing when one attempts to situate the deepening  Sino-Russian defence linkages in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, this partnership is starting to take on certain features of a military alliance, involving “the development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation, military training and technology transfers.” Military cooperation had notably extended to the People’s Liberation Army’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in September 2018. It will be recalled that the war-game is Russia’s annual strategic exercise spread over two months and across vast regional spaces to develop the ability to conduct large-scale combined arms war that correlate doctrines and coordinate Command and Control. To fully appreciate the scale of operations the 2018 edition involved over 300,000 personnel.

Fulfilling New Missions, Signaling of Red Lines and Resolve

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” is clearly intended to send strong signals to a global audience. However, communication of redlines and resolve often stand in stark contradiction to the discourse on China’s commitment to “world peace,” and claims of its policies and strategic intentions being purely defensive. On Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and its territorial claims in the South China Sea the Paper states “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures that target adversarial alliances, interventions and  intimidating deployments”.  These threats are awkwardly juxtaposed with the assertion that China will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or spheres of influence.” From Beijing’s perspective, the notion of “reunification” and defending national sovereignty may be justified and described so, but such an objective is inherently offensive, unilateral and disruptive of the status quo.

Reforms and China’s Concept of National Security 

The Document notes that for this new era, concerns of political security remains critical to the Communist Party of China (CPC). It highlights the imperative for China’s national defence to “assure political security, people’s security and social stability” and in terms of national priority it is listed second only to “deter and resist aggression.” In this context, the introduction of the concept of “people’s security” which is seen as the “soul” and core purpose of national security, alludes to the factors required for improvement of the “people’s well-being,” reflecting underlying connections between national defence and continued development. Increasingly, there are also concerns about threats to social stability in new domains, especially cyberspace. The security and survival of the regime is an absolute imperative for the CPC, and China’s armed forces are required to pre-empt and neutralize such eventualities.

As far as nuclear forces are concerned, its form and content have largely been consistent over the years. China has reaffirmed its commitment to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. It pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defence, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

Defence Expenditure: Reasonable or Unfathomable?

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the paper is a relatively more detailed treatment of the defence budget than the 2010 edition (statement on defence budget was absent from the 2013 and 2015 versions). The 2010 paper stated, China’s defence expenditure mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment; with each budget group accounting for roughly one third of the total”. In the 2019 Paper, subcomponents of the three groups of expenditure  are updated slightly, but significant changes in distribution is apparent. Since 2015, as the PLA has reduced personnel, retired old equipment, and purchased new weapon systems, “equipment expenses” amount to over 40 per cent (approximately $62 billion) of the total budget of $151 billion while personnel expenses have fallen to about 31 per cent ($47 billion), and training and maintenance to 28 per cent ($42 billion). The reasons cited for budget increases are five-fold: enhanced salaries and troop welfare; equipment modernisation; support reforms (which include personnel and unit transfers); improved training; and conduct of peacekeeping, constabulary, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. This order appears consistent with the budgetary allocation, as the PLA has downsized by roughly 13 per cent. The reduced allocation for training may suggest that the PLA has cut back on ‘mass’ manoeuvres, concentrating on developing specialised task oriented battle groups and small-unit proficiencies. However what remains opaque is a breakdown of the budget for Capital, Revenue and Strategic expenditure.

As China compares itself with the other major powers in terms of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP; at 1.3% it likens rather well from a pacific stand-point. However, what remains obscured is the expenditure on military related infrastructure, defense production and strategic programmes.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in defence deals is hailed specifically as, “the struggle having won an overwhelming victory, establishing a positive environment of political and moral correctness.” Pointedly calling out and cracking down on Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang for their “grave violations of Party discipline and state laws.” However, it is hard to judge whether these generals were purged for corruption or for being potential challengers to Xi’s authority.

Building a Community with a Shared Future

While the Paper attempts both to articulate a vision of global security in which China is a driving force for “world peace,” and to establish unambiguous red lines as to what threatens China’s sovereignty, security, and development; what is significant, nuanced or otherwise,  is the absence of any details of separatist activities as indeed the nature and condition of ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. One wonders, what Xi’s “new era” holds in terms of the shared future for the over 11 million Muslim Uighurs in China’s restive western province of Xinjiang.  According to un-verified reports over two million Uighurs and other minorities, including Islamic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. Outside of the internment camps, the eleven million Uighurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decade-long ethnic cleansing and re-culturing by Chinese authorities. While inside the camps, having no legal avenues to challenge their detention, there is no way of assessing the extent of brutality or brain washing that they are subjected to including behaviour modification in exchange for a dim and doltish rehabilitation . The reasons that may bring about incarceration, according to media reports, include traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; sending texts containing Quranic verses and often the inmate’s only crime is being Muslim. One puzzles if this is the new era?

The Paper takes an aggressive no-compromise stand on the integration of Taiwan to the extent of the use of unequivocal military force with the ominous call that Taiwan “will and must merge and consolidate with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. Prominent is the strident nationalist bellow for the integrity of the country as a foundational interest of the Chinese nation essential to realizing national rejuvenation. Additionally the on-going disruption in the financial capital Hong Kong do not in any way inspire either success in assimilation or the idea of  “one-nation-two-systems”.

The White Paper makes much of China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations and even goes on to declare that it is the largest troop contributing country among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However it must be remembered that the other four permanent members have been rather artful in their choice of engagement and have hardly ever committed  their troops in UN sponsored peace keeping missions unless their interests were directly involved or threatened; the United Nations Command established in 1950 to prosecute the war in Korea was led and comprised almost entirely of US forces , the US and Canada supported forces in Eygpt in the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1992  NATO involvement in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia Serbia and Herzegovina , France in Senegal and the Ivory Coast in 2013 or Britain in Afghanistan and Cyprus. All these examples are suggestive of permanent members being selective about their involvement. And so it is with China and therefore no surprises that their focus is on Africa where it has invested heavily and the Middle East for its energy security.

Conclusion

This “new era” of China’s national defence is characterized by change and continuity in China’s global outlook and expanding interests. At a time when the lone super power strategizes for a new era of great power rivalry, the 2019 Chinese posture may in parts appear to present a conciliatory picture. However, intentions to reform global governance, persistence with its claims in the South China Sea, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” revealed in the document are nonetheless disconcerting. China may soon be confronted by a rude awakening as this vision for a revised order, self-promotion and security is met with intense internal and external stresses. And all the while since 1998 when the key theme of China’s defence policy was cooperation, Beijing’s military today is inexorably being drawn into, what appears to be, an inevitable clash with forces that uphold the status-quo.

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

By

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.