Nuclear Security Challenges and Strategic Maritime Power

by Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the Indus International Research Foundation Digest

A Thesis

In the absence of a universally accepted system of administration and authority, the Nation State will remain key to global governance. As an innate corollary, rivalry between states is intrinsic to international relations. In the extreme this may lead to armed conflict when diplomacy fails to reach an amicable resolution. Policy makers since the Second World War, have had to contend with two significant trends that have transformed perspectives on warfare; firstly, the advent of nuclear weapons and the theologies that advocated use, were driven by the folly of mutually assured mass annihilation. Secondly, the reality that military force as an extension of policy had certain definite limits. This suggests an understanding that may be summarised in the pithy thesis:             

Within change, uncertainty and realism; dynamics that condition conflicts are predicated on two faces of warfare, Primary face as defined by conventional forces and the Shadow face as circumscribed by strategic nuclear forces. Application of the former is an active art while the latter destroys purpose & therefore scripts the perimeter and imposes cut-offs.”

What is notable is the discernment between conventional forces and Nuclear forces. The former is concerned with achieving political purpose while the latter, its destruction.

In Our Times

In approaching the subject it would be appropriate first to establish the context as we attempt to outline the significant characteristics of our times, then move on to the dominant crises that afflict it as distinguished by a revisionist China’s contrived sense of entitlement and a perverse self-decreed destiny that it seeks to fulfil.  At the heart of the matter is, what China considers its “hundred years of humiliation” (between the Opium Wars of 1839 to independence in 1949) that the colonizing west subjected it to, which it believes, the world must recompense for.

Fig 1. The Opium Wars John Bull forcing opium down China       source 1864 Granger

The period post break-up of the Soviet Union is remarkable for the derangement of a world order that was precipitately put together in the wake of the Second World War. The antagonistic coexistence of ideologies and tensions between nations at the end of that War, the hostile blocs that developed and the advent of nuclear weapons ushered in the Cold War and placed before the world the chilling prospects of global annihilation. This rivalry was played out against the backdrop of all-consuming rancour and was waged on political, economic, and propaganda fronts but had limited recourse to direct armed East West confrontation other than by proxies. Nuclear weapons determined the nature of order and scripted where thresholds lay .

The settings have since morphed to multi-polarity and left emerging powers to wrestle with the strategic environment, significantly so with the nuclear tangle that confronts India. The challenge of uncertainty has moved into the hydrosphere and has dominated relations in the Indo-Pacific maritime space that today is the pivot of global commerce and energy flow.  Stability from the Indian perspective suggests the importance of reinforcing the status-quo by bringing to bear the weight of democratic forces that support a rule based order.

Crises of our Era

 When the Cold War sputtered out in 1989, it left an exhausted inward looking-world ripe for the rise of a new order. Chinese leadership saw in the state of global affairs the opportunity to extract compensation for its “century of humiliation”. It knuckled down to apply its seemingly enormous labour supply to exploit western consumerism and diverted the earnings (as only a totalitarian regime could) to building comprehensive power. The economic and political demise of Soviet-style communism, its embrace of capitalism deepened without in any way slackening its authoritarian control over the military, trade and industry. Profit by any means became the leit motif. It gave a new twist to the meaning of communism with “Chinese characteristics” as it rejected ideas of common ownership, of the means of production and all thought of a classless society.

The obsession with continuity of political dispensation and nationalism in a techno-globalised environment set into motion dynamics that put society on a probable collision course with the Communist Party of China. In such a milieu it was only the illusion of a return to the grandeur of the “Middle Kingdom” and an erasure of the “Hundred Years of Humiliation” that could possibly salvage the dispensation. And so sets in China’s strategic narcissism; marked by outrageous territorial and maritime claims in the Himalayas and the South and East China Seas. Significantly, it energized a belligerent revisionist predilection to the current world order.

The new pivot of both geo-politics and geo-economics has undoubtedly swivelled to the Indo-Pacific and with it the need for more acknowledged governance rather than disruptive unilateral take-overs. China claims all of the South China Sea despite their case having been rubbished by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 that rejected China’s rights of sovereignty as lacking a basis in international law. Five other littoral governments dispute China’s wide-ranging nine-dash line and its bid to transform, what is a part of the “global commons”, to proprietary seas.

Fig 2. The Nine-Dash Line (green): China’s Illicit Claim in the South China Sea


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, its invulnerability to questions and its propensity to ‘power-politics’. This presents a dangerous cocktail. Confucian thought 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. All the while forces let lose by globalisation and climate change rapidly wear-down grandiose illusions of power. The reality is that China is very far from being a natural hegemon in Asia. Japan is hostile, South Korea wary, Southeast Asia mostly nervous of China’s expansionism; while India is building up sea power and coalescing with like-minded groups to counter China’s aggressive policies.

Perhaps no country has benefited more from the free and open international system than China. It has witnessed dazzling prosperity. Yet even as the Chinese people aspire to free markets, justice, and the rule of law, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) undermines the international system  by manipulating its freedoms and international laws while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order. It is the very circumstance that gave China its growth that it now covets to dismantle and revise.

Contours of the Strategic Space

The strategic environ within which Xi Jinping launched his “new era of rejuvenation” envisages revised order, self-promotion and self-centred security. China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence are financial inveiglement, de-bunking established norms, military coercion and manipulating instabilities; the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is an illustration of just how these instruments can be worked. Beijing is inexorably being drawn into, what appears to be, an inevitable clash with forces that uphold the status-quo.

Fig 3:             China’s Belt and Road Enterprise: A predatory debt trap?


Tensions in the Indo-Pacific are particularly compelling as China attempts to control Choke Points and the arterial sea lines of communication that run through it. After all, China’s “Malacca Conundrum” is as much a cause of disquiet to global stakeholders as it is to Beijing; which ought to be the reason to uphold the principle of customary international law of “Freedom of Navigation” in the Global Commons as defined by the High Seas, Atmosphere, Antarctica and Outer Space. And yet, China chooses to claim portions of these seas as proprietary waters and establish military bases to hold sway over them.  China has continued to militarize the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands and employing paramilitary forces in maritime disputes vis-à-vis other claimants. In the air, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has increased patrols around and near Taiwan using bomber, fighter, and surveillance aircraft to routinely violate Taiwanese air space.  China additionally employs non-military tools coercively including economic heft during periods of political tensions with countries that China accuses of harming its national interests.

The Nuclear Tri-Polar Tangle

China’s strategic collusion with Pakistan and its untrammelled nuclear proliferation to that country has the makings of a nightmare for strategic planners. It can hardly be forgotten that blue- prints, infrastructure and testing of Pakistan’s nuclear programme was conceived and put together in China . While the situation in Afghanistan has further queered the pitch. That State’, after the utterly confused withdrawal of US and coalition forces, has moved a step closer to the status of a terror state. The Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani army patrons are today back in Kabul. Pakistan’s army Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) backed the Taliban since the group’s origin in the 1990s. Under intense pressure and fear of having to face the wrath of a US invasion in September 2001, Pakistan, it’s ISI and the Taliban ran helter-skelter to the safety of its own borders. The strategic similarity to the US withdrawal in August 2021 is uncanny. The ISI has quickly renewed its support of the Taliban, planted its own co-conspirator from the Haqqani network in the council of control and the puppet show has re-started. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan will have significant consequences for Pakistan, all of which portends danger. Most perilous is when the Afghan-Pakistan situation is seen in perspective of the AQ Khan affair that still defies closure , even after his death.  One cannot fail to discern the ominous prospects of the trans-national illicit nuclear networks re-opening its counters to Jihadists. Pakistan, a state armed with nuclear weapons in the absence of a declared nuclear policy, presents a nightmarish problem to strategic planners. Its nuclear weapons are “India-specific”; both Custodian and Controller of the weapon are embodied in the military thereby discounting the possibility of restraint and, much more importantly, their military strategy of first use of nuclear weapons is in bed with Jihadists. Pakistan has inexplicably made the ‘nuclear overhang’ so fragile that its deterrence value is not at all apparent. In the meantime, the largest anti-state jihadi group in Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has skewed the internal balance of power and moved itself closer to its declared aim of founding a sharia based Islamic state; in the process tightening bonds with the Afghan Taliban and the deep state in Pakistan.  The horror of radical Islam in possession of nuclear weapons is looming large on the sub-continental horizon.

Rationally, no nuclear policy, by nature of the weapon involved, can conceivably be inclusive of terror groups nor can it fuse Custodian and Controller of nuclear weapons in one without seriously compromising a nuclear deterrent relationship. And yet the strategic predicament posed by Pakistan is perverse, for their policy on select terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), Haqqani network, TTP, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) etc. has always been that they are instruments of state policy. The absurd reason proffered is their zeal to fight the external enemies of Pakistan while undermining fissiparous religious elements within. And so emerges the twisted logic of a terror attack triggering a nuclear exchange. The question now remains: when militants fundamentally inimical to the Indian State (Israel and the US too) shed the need for subterfuge and quite openly enter Pakistan national politics, is “responsible nuclear stewardship” a prospect at all? Rather, does not this new dimension of political cosiness make for a nuclear nightmare, where an opaque nuclear arsenal under military control is guided by a strategy that not only finds unity with state licensed terror groups but has now unveiled a future for terrorists in politics? Indeed, the nuclear nightmare has begun.

Now, consider a second scenario: Pakistan promotes a terrorist strike in India and in order to counter conventional retaliation uses tactical nuclear weapons and then in order to degrade nuclear retaliation launches a full blown counter-force or counter- value strike. This is an awkward but realistic recognition of the logic that drives Pakistan’s nuclear policy. Cyril Almeida, a columnist for the Pakistan Dawn newspaper commenting on the reason why the army will not clampdown on terror groups that hurt India suggested that the problem was “the boys (meaning the army) wouldn’t agree, you could see why: you can’t squeeze your asset at the behest of the enemy the asset was recruited to fight against.” (?!)

The political mainstreaming of jihadists has enlarged and is in the process of creating a movement motivated by fundamental politico-religious ideology. A regime of this nature resident in a recognised state has brought to the fore how modernity and the political mainstreaming of jihadists is a doomed enterprise. And what of “responsible stewardship” of nuclear assets? We have thus far argued the hazards of a political future for terrorists in Pakistan. In this reality, given access to a nuclear arsenal, do we not perceive its utilisation to prosecute jihadi objectives? The Pakistan military hardly minces its words on the use of jihadists and the latter’s correlation with their nuclear policy (Pakistan Army Green Book 2020). And what is the Pakistan sponsored terror objective other than to weaken the democratic fabric of the Indian state, subvert society and to bring about  conditions for secession of Kashmir. It is not a coincidence that these very same objectives find recurring mention in the strategic aims of the military. Pakistan, decidedly, has legitimate security interests, but when these interests are revisionist in nature, be it an aggressive quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan or attempting to destabilise India through the use of state sponsored terrorists and propaganda or even to suggest that there is a nuclear dimension to these dynamics is to plead a stimulus much deeper than a politico-ideological pledge. What is emerging and must be recognized is that with Pakistan there is a virulence that ought not to be allowed to thrive under the duplicitous belief that it’s nuclear arsenal guarantees that it can be both legatee of international largesse and continue to cavort with jihadists.

The Quad and AUKUS

The formation and management of alliances is a natural event in globalized circumstances that have antagonistic inflections. The benign instruments of an Alliance are diplomacy and statecraft in order to bridge differences in cultures, interests and ideologies, as well as accepting values; its coercive tool is power. The Indo-Pacific provides an arena in which a contest of interests, values and realpolitik is being played out. The vision of the Indo-Pacific is a single strategic space, where change in dynamics in one area would inevitably affect the stability in the other. There are two underlying incentives that promote groupings in the region. Firstly, the United States, Australia, India, and Japan have a vested interest in upholding the rules and norms of the current order; augmenting existing institutions; ensuring freedom of navigation and trade; and promoting connectivity, economic development, and security within existing rules and standards. Secondly, this same group believe that China’s rise and the reach of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) poses a disruptive threat to the region by attempting to carve out proprietary routes and establishing controlling nerve centres that could dominate commerce and energy flow. This has impelled nations abiding by the idea of a ‘rule based’ order to one side against a revisionist China on the other. The coalescing of a trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and participants of the strategic security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) introduces a new dimension of strategic commitment to this shared sense of purpose that aims at balancing Chinese hegemonic designs in the region. At the heart of the matter lies resolve to sustain the status quo without giving-in to China’s aggressive policies. Indeed, such a cognate endeavour must cause serious damage to Beijing’s pride and agency.

The AUKUS and the Quad have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the member states 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 eight nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) to Australia by the US and the UK. Clearly, the SSNs will not be available 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’ technology-sharing mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines military, cultural and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The determination 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 belligerent 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”.

The Indian Perspective – A Vexed Strategic Context

              Whether the strategic burden to restrain China is better served by shifting from a hitherto largely continental outlook to an oceanic one must be weighing on the Indian planner’s mind. Particularly so, in the Indo-Pacific and where to commit to greater reliance on forming alliances to thwart revisionist designs in the region, is at the fore.

              A singular feature of deterrent relationship in the region is its  character. As is well known today, it was the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship which fructified in the latter’s nuclear weapons program. It is in this context that the Sino-Pak nuclear weapons program must be seen as the two faces of ‘Janus.’ Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists a doctrinal linkage between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No First Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First Use capability as far as India is concerned.

The link between sub-conventional warfare and nuclear war fighting is at best a tenuous one. Conceptually, no amount of tinkering or reconstitution of nuclear policy can deter terror attacks. Clearly it is the policy that harbours terror groups as instruments of state that has to be targeted. Pakistan has today inducted tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) into its arsenal with the stated purpose of countering an Indian response to a terror strike. Almost as if to suggest that they control the levers of nuclear escalation. This is an odd proposition since India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, (this is not only stated by most scholars in the know, but is also the bed rock of a nuclear deterrent relationship). Also, TNWs involve decentralization of control and dispersal, both of which dilute command and control and multiply the risk of the weapon falling into wrong hands. In the end analysis, the use of nuclear weapons introduces a new and uncontrollable dimension. Logically, if a Pak sponsored terror attack is the triggering event of a sequence of reactions, then it must equally be clear that their nuclear red lines give space for a conventional response. After all, the premise that a terror attack is seamlessly backed by nuclear weapons is not only ludicrous but is not even the Pakistan case. For, when dealing with the threat of use of nuclear weapons, to suggest that ambiguity and first use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting almost in conventional terms is an option. This, by most, is denial of the nature of nuclear weapons (characterized by mass destruction and uncontrollability).

              India’s nuclear doctrine was made public on 4th January 2003. The doctrine presents two perspectives. The first part deals with ‘Form’; with nuclear exchange avoidance, credibility and minimality as governing considerations. Sensitivity to the multilateral nature of settings and yet not show  diffidence to the existential nuclear challenges that mark the regional scenario is intrinsic to policy. Credibility as a function of surveillance, effectiveness, readiness and survivability completes the institutional structure. The doctrine provides for alternatives and a guarantee that the second strike would cause unacceptable damage. Also included are certain philosophical goals that underscores belief in the ultimate humanity of things. The second part of the doctrine deals with ‘Substance’, with operationalizing the deterrent and Command and Control as the main themes. Development of a ‘triad’ of strike capabilities (air, land and sea) is an essential feature such that credibility is neither compromised nor preparedness undermined. As mentioned earlier a clear division is made between the Controller and Custodian with multiple redundancy and dual release authorization at every level. Command of the arsenal under all circumstances remains under a political prerogative with alternatives provided for the nuclear command authority. To recapitulate the salients of the Indian nuclear doctrine are listed below:-

  • Nuclear weapons are political tools,
  • The nuclear policy follows a ‘Punishment Strategy’. Its governing principle would be No First Use.
  • Retaliation to a first strike would be massive and would cause unacceptable damage.
  • The use of chemical, biological or other WMD may invite nuclear retaliation.
  • Nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear weapon states.
  • Unilateral moratorium against nuclear testing and continued stringent controls over proliferation.
  • The goal of global nuclear disarmament remains.

As mentioned earlier, a deterrent relationship is founded entirely on rationality. On the part of the deteree there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks and on the side of the deterrer rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of risks. The exceptional feature of this cognitive transaction is that the roles are reversible with the crucial proviso that it is in the common interest to maintain equilibrium in the relationship. The determinants of a durable deterrent co-relation are for the association to withstand three pressures that are an abiding feature of contemporary politics in the region:

  • The deterrent must be stable by which is implied the doctrinaire underpinnings; command, control and arsenal stewardship must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies and opacity promotes unpredictability, a speculative bulge in the arsenal and the temptation for pre-emptive action.
  • Crisis stability entails the abhorrence of a predilection to reach for the nuclear trigger at first provocation. In this context decision time must give adequate leeway for recognition of having arrived at a ‘redline’ through transparency and unambiguous signalling.
  • Technological intrusions place the planner on the horns of a dilemma. As a rule technology’s impact on the arsenal and command and control systems serves to compress time and increase overall effectiveness. This intrusion is inevitable. What is undesirable is that it also invites covertness whereas its impact demands transparency.

The three dynamics above have a common thread which could be exploited to enhance stability. This common thread is the need for transparency. During the Cold War the two protagonists managed these dynamics through the brute power of arsenal, dangerous tripwire readiness and incessant provocative deployment. Any solution on these lines is neither exceptional nor tenable and from a contemporary point of view absurd. If stability is the aim then clarity and precision in mutual dealings provide opportunity to develop and solidify the deterrent relationship.

              Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. This must remain an abiding principle that ought to push leadership into a situation which abominates its use. However given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the emasculated nature of civilian leadership in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear violence to military perfidy is more than just an aberrated faith. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of reinforcing assured retaliation to nuclear violence, at the same time to harmonize with certain foundational rules of conduct.

The Quest for Strategic Leverage at Sea

Contemporary thought on maritime warfare 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. Escorts provide the ability to accomplish control; while on the Aircraft Carrier and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depend security of control. Control and security of control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces.

Julian Corbett’s (Some Principles of Maritime Strategy) formulation of Denial-Control-Power Projection, adapted for the present, of ‘control-for-causes’ is sophisticated for 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  ‘Wars’ 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 contemporary warfare.

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/groupings such as the AUKUS and the Quad. Current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus six 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.


              The reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability. Uncertainty in international relations often leads to unintended consequences. 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. On the other hand China, is a declared revisionist authoritarian 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 structures without bringing about a change within. This cannot be allowed to pass devoid of a strategic riposte. 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 boost profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. And herein also lies the necessity to rein-in China through unified action that threatens regime existence by challenging its bellicosity in the Indo-Pacific.

The Quad and AUKUS-Compacts to Collar China


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at

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

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.

Rumpus in the South China Sea


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the October issue of DSA available on their site

Keywords and phrases: Paracels sea battle, Domino Theory, Saigon Military Mission, Pacification and development of Vietnam, Shanghai communique, China control of Paracels, century of humiliation.

The Battle for the Paracel Islands: Setting the precedence

In January of 1974 during America’s war in Vietnam, an obscure naval battle was fought in the South China Sea involving an intense clash between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and South Vietnamese navies near the disputed Paracel Islands. The short but fierce battle left China in control of seemingly unremarkable spits of land and surrounding waters. The incident merited little global attention, especially when compared with past titanic struggles at sea, such as those of the two world wars. Unsurprisingly, the battle remains an obscure, if not forgotten, episode. However in naval history it defined China’s early steps to arrogate the South China Sea. It is, therefore, important that we examine this naval battle keeping in perspective the backdrop of the larger war being waged on the Indo-China Peninsula and the US geo-political moves to open-up the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In response to the stunning victory by North Vietnamese communist forces in June 1954, bringing to an end nearly a century of French colonial rule in Indochina, America, feared the strategic collapse of western influence against the surge of Communism in South East Asia. It contrived a foreign policy that came to be known as the “Domino Theory”. Subsequent events however suggest that the concept was ill-advised and today stands discredited; the view was that the fall of Indochina to communism would lead rapidly to the collapse of other nations in Southeast Asia (including Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) and elsewhere (Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and even India). US President Eisenhower, in 1954 declared, “The possible consequences of the loss “are just incalculable to the free world.”

 American answer was the Saigon Military Mission, a covert operation to conduct psychological warfare and paramilitary activities in Vietnam to prop up the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam. It marks the beginning of the American war in Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954 effectively divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel. By 1967 a wily programme for the ‘pacification and development of Vietnam’ was initiated that was primarily a US military coercive effort to compel security and stability of South Vietnam’s rural population. US troops were surged to approximately 485,000. The casualties bore grim testimony to the utter failure of the scheme, by 1968 over 20,000 US troops had had been killed.

It wasn’t till 27 January, 1973 that President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending ‘direct’ U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It may be recalled that Nixon opened the doors to China in February 1972, during which he met Chairman Mao and signed the Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai. The communiqué set the stage for improved Sino-US relations both economic and political. Normalization of relations and the accession of China into the global marketplace was the end purpose. Clearly there was no intention to initiate any action that might jeopardise Nixon’s grand scheme.

Harking back to the Battle for the Paracel Islands. The archipelago lies in the South China Sea approximately equidistant from the coastlines of the PRC and Vietnam. With no indigenous population, ownership has been in dispute since the early 20th century. Between 1932 and 1956 the Islands exchanged hands contentiously between the French, Japanese, Republic of China (Taiwan) and South Vietnam. By 1956 France and Japan abdicated their claims which left China and South Vietnam with small garrisons on Yongxing and Shanu Islands. The Paracel Islands are located 300 kilometres south of Hainan Island, and 370 kilometres east of Da Nang. The archipelago is composed of coral islands, reefs, and banks divided into two island groups. To the northeast is the Amphitrite Group, in which Woody Island is the largest feature. To the southwest is the Crescent Group, consisting of Pattle , Money and Robert Islands on the western side and Drummond  Duncan  and Palm Islands on the eastern side. About eighty kilometers of water separate the Amphitrite and Crescent Groups (see Chart 1)

Chart 1  PARACEL ARCHIPELAGO                                                          (source‘

On 16 January, 1974, two Chinese Kronshtadt-class submarine chasers and two minesweepers along with a force of maritime militia were ordered to protect fisherman operating off the Paracel Islands. It was also a part of a force build-up in the eastern part of the archipelago. Beijing had decided to solve the Paracel Islands territorial dispute by force if the opportunity presented itself. Saigon in the meantime despatched a Frigate with South Vietnamese Army officers and an American observer to the Paracels on a surveillance mission to investigate reported Chinese activities in the area (the role of the American officer on the frigate was never clear). They discovered two Chinese “armoured fishing trawlers” off Drummond Island in support of a detachment of troops who had occupied the island. Chinese soldiers were also observed on nearby Duncan Island, with a landing ship and two additional Kronstadt class submarine chasers in the vicinity. This was reported to Saigon who despatched two more frigates and one corvette to confront the Chinese ships in the area and evict their troops on the islands. By 18 January the Vietnamese force concentrated off the Islands. In the meantime the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had also landed two battalions of marines supported by a large number of irregular militia.

The combined Vietnamese force of three frigates and one corvette vastly outgunned (5 inch and 3 inch guns) the PLAN force of two minesweepers, two Kronshtadt class submarine chasers (Soviet origin, main armament 85 mm and 37 mm guns) and the landing ship. In the run up to the battle, South Vietnamese troops attempting to establish a bridgehead on Duncan Island were beaten back by Chinese marines and irregulars.

On the morning of 19 January the Battle was joined when a gun duel broke out between the two forces.  The lighter and faster Chinese flotilla manoeuvred close in to the South Vietnamese force; their agility permitted them to close the larger South Vietnamese warships to within their gun range. The Vietnamese could not bring their heavier guns to bear. All the while the Chinese maritime militia on board their armed and armoured trawlers were deployed close-in to ensure a very confused picture. Tactically, once range was closed to half-mile, the Chinese vessels’ rapid-firing light weapons and speed gave them a decisive advantage. The PLAN had within 40 minutes bested the South Vietnamese fleet. By late evening 20 January, all of the Paracel Archipelago was under Chinese control.

China’s Grand Strategy Unfolds

China employed a mix of conventional and irregular forces to meet its operational objectives. Such hybrid methods foreshadowed the kinds of combined maritime warfare China would consistently employ in its grand strategy to annex the South China Sea. Indeed, operations in 1974 in the Paracels represent an archetype that could be employed again in the future. The battle was the first step in China’s effort to control and usurp the South China Sea as it territorial sea.

Using similar tactics, in 1988, China seized six reefs and atolls of the Spratly Islands after another skirmish with the Vietnamese at Johnson South Reef. In late 1994, they built structures on Philippines-claimed Mischief Reef, leaving a weak Manila no choice but to accept the fait accompli. In 2012, China compelled the Philippines to yield control of Scarborough Shoal after a standoff at sea over fishing rights in the area. Beginning in late 2013, China embarked on a massive land reclamation project in the Spratlys, building up artificial islands that added up to thousands of acres of land. Some of the man-made islands feature military-grade runways, deep-draft piers and facilities to accommodate warships.

China has laid claim to all the waters of the South China Sea based on a demarcation they call the ‘Nine-Dash’ line. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that the origin of the entitlement is bereft of legitimacy and could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims to the South China Sea. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, has “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Court.

Chart 2.  The Nine Dash Line

In brazen dismissal of the Tribunal’s ruling, China persists in its sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, its resources and de-facto control over the   trade plying across it amounting to US $5.3 trillion annually.

Satellite imagery has shown China’s efforts to militarize the  Woody Island while constructing artificial Islands and setting up military bases, rejecting competing claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Most of the world along with claimant countries demand the rights assured under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In  sum,  China’s  strategy  for  managing  its  claims  in  the  South China  Sea  has  emphasized  delaying  settlement  of disputes. And in time with swelling military capability, occupation of contested features, building artificial Islands and locating military bases for control of the waters within the nine-dash line. In the face of these aggressive moves the other claimant states are left in awe as they are handed down a grim reality.

To Untangle Beijing’s Behaviour

China’s century of Humiliation (1839-1949) coincided with the start of the First Opium War and ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. The conflict provided other colonial powers, a blueprint for usurping territories from the crumbling Qing dynasty. So, northern China was seized by the Czar, Formosa was taken by Japan; while Germany, France and Austria carved out coveted real estate through ‘loaded treaties’.

The period remains etched in Chinese institutional memory of a rapacious international system over which it had little influence. It has today shaped China’s geo-political thrust for controlling status in the very same system. More importantly, it provides a rallying point internally and a persistent reminder to its people of why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, Premier Xi Jinping’s declaration of 2017 that “…the world is not peaceful” is turning out to be an “engineered” self-fulfilling prophecy. When put on a strategic template the delaying actions to resolve simmering discords effected only to exasperate, Janus faced policies that serve to deceive and subvert alliances, coercive manoeuvres, lease-for-debt economic deals and flouting of international norms bear a bizarre semblance to the words of Sun Tzu: ‘The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages…He gathered information, sowed dissension and nurtured subversion. The enemy was isolated, divided and demoralized; his will to resist broken.” (Griffith, p 39).

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. 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.”

Paradox of China’s Actions: A Conclusion-An Unintended War

The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and enabling its Coast Guard Law (January 2021) are moves to establish proprietary control, 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 maritime 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 such as the QUAD 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, China’s Coast Guard Laws, contravention of the UNCLOS 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.

              We are not in Sun Tzu times neither are strategies so opaque nor are Xi’s people willing to tolerate an autocratic ruler indefinitely. Yet China would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s sage words of avoiding a reckless path to an unintended war.