The Evolution of a New Triple Entente


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: “A New Triple Entente,” India-China relations, Anti-Access Denial Strategy, China Maritime Strategy, China-USA relations

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“The only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of forces.”[i]

The Alliance System

The history of armed conflicts in the twentieth century may not have brought about any deep seated changes to contemporary understanding of the true nature or rationality of power and its application. But, there is an instinctive grasp amongst nations that a conflict between an assemblages of States can only lead to immeasurable catastrophe which could and would serve to repudiate the purpose of military action. This discernment was central to the theory of balance of power. Up to the turn of the twentieth century it was this system of alliances that sought stability within the power equations of the era. The existence of an international order whose stability was predicated on a system of  grouping of States not only influenced the nature and intensity of wars that were fought but made transparent the conditions under which these may occur and also, ironically, presented a template for resolution. Seen in this perspective, the same circumstances that held the promise of stability additionally carried with it the calamitous prospects of horizontal and vertical expansion of the intensity of war. The two World Wars exemplified the limits of intensity and its expansion. At the heart of the arrangement lay four dominating impulses; politics, imperialism, territory and economics. If one or even two of these stimuli were to be detached, it would be interesting to see what nature of balance would emerge and whether it would find relevance in the contemporary milieu that obtains in the East Indian Ocean and the West Pacific region.

In the run up to the First World War, two treaties of alignment were central to order. These were the ‘Triple Alliance’ between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on the one hand; while the ‘Triple Entente’ between France, Britain and Russia sought equilibrium in a world that was threatened by subjugation unless an equally imposing opposition coalition could challenge and maintain the status quo. This context not only laid down the broad contours for strategic planning by both Unions but also had the potential to set into motion a significant chain of irrevocable military actions if one or the other perceived a threat of war. Consequently a crisis invariably tested the politician’s ability to restrain the military. Underscoring the dilemma that confronted the dual alliance was; “how effectively could an alliance designed to cope with the contingency of war serve interests in the day to day diplomacy of peace.”[ii]

The Fear of Nations and the Death of an Enlightened World Order

Some of the symptoms of the anarchic nature of things are a vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence as exemplified by China in Africa; the competition between autocracy and liberalism; an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the chaotic flow of technologies and information. As these struggles are played out the first casualty in the post Cold War era is the still born hope of a benign and enlightened world order. The endemic instability world wide is characterized by the number of armed conflicts that erupted between the periods 1989 to 2010, which total 49.[iii] The nature of these wars, more than anything else, reflected what I term the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’ for they ranged from wars of liberation and freedom to insurgencies, civil wars, racial-ethnic-religious wars, proxy wars, interventions and wars motivated by the urge to corner economic resources. In all cases it was either the perpetuation of a dispensation, political ambitions, or the fear of economic deprivation that was at work below the surface.

In this era the fears and anxieties of nations are driven by four vital traumas. At the head of these is the perpetuation of the State and its dispensation. In second place is the fear and understanding that impedance to the nation’s ambitions of growth and development may come about due to internal or external stresses or a combination of the two. The third trauma is that the remaining interests that the State considers critical must be recognized and accepted by the International system; this distress places the system in a quandary, particularly so when interests overlap at which time there is a real potential for friction and conflict. Lastly, is a conundrum faced by all major powers that is, does military power prevail?

It will not fail anybody’s notice that both India and China fall into this very same cast ensnared by the ‘four traumas’, with one very critical difference, and that is the cooperative stimulus along with an egalitarian tradition is strong in India’s case, while China has not displayed respect for either. Against this backdrop, when the politics of competitive resource access is put into the same pot as survival and development of State, to which is added the blunt character of military power, we have before us the recipe for friction and conflict. It is against this canvas that the development and structuring of Indian engagement with like minded powers must be contextualised.


The New Triple Entente and Concept of Anti-Access Denial

As the curtains fell on the twentieth century the character of strategic alliances had transformed in two of its earlier facets. Gone were the imperialist motives that readily recognized and accepted the risk of war and the urge to territorial conquest and expansion. In its place was a fresh premise; one that was governed by political compatibility, economic mutuality and collective security. The emerging convergence of interests in both the political and economic arena between India, Japan and the USA makes the prospects of a new ‘Triple Entente’ strategically of the essence.

Having also brought about a modicum of coherence to the need to contend with and normalize China’s aspirations (which it has so clearly spelt out), it would now be appropriate to define and derive objectives of the concept of Anti-Access Denial as applicable to the larger regional Maritime Military Strategy. Anti-Access Denial by the Alliance will seek to contest and deny China’s ability to unilaterally project military power to secure her 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 predominant in form and irresistible in substance. The strategy’s first impulse is to avoid a hot conflict.

To ‘contest and deny’ 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; security of the narrows and of the ‘string of pearls’ that would be needed to assure sustenance of forces (on which is founded the integrity of the Third Island Chain). Use of aggressive means is clear enough, but prying open faults that could destabilize and therefore distract the main exertions, are not at all patent. The Alliance will have noted that in China’s case both internal as well as external stresses obtain that could be leveraged in order to undermine their primary thrust to contest, deny and to project power; more importantly the envisaged Alliance too has fissures that China not only has the resolve and capability to exploit but also has a willing ally in Pakistan and North Korea to queer any pitch.

‘To raise the cost of military intervention’ is a matter that resides in the mind of political leadership, yet there will always be a threshold, the verge of which is marked by diminishing benefits of intervention or power projection. It will be noted that it was a similar calculus that must have come to play in the 1995 Taiwan Strait crisis that inhibited and forced China to reconcile to humiliation in the face of a possible debilitating confrontation. Also the logic of weakening out-of-region motivation sets in, diluting the efforts of the intervener. Lastly the threat of ‘use of force’ must not only be credible but also the ‘value exchange’ in terms of losses must weigh against the power projecting force. The objectives of an ‘Anti-access Denial’ Strategy may therefore be summarized as follows:

  • To devise operational and material Alliance doctrines and strategies to deter, threaten, (and should the need arise) strike and neutralize Chinese aircraft carriers that may menace Alliance interests in the IOEO.
  • To deploy denial and control forces that effectively exclude the ‘string of pearls’ ports. Platforms of  choice would be conventional submarines, maritime strike aircrafts supported by long range surveillance efforts.
  • To disable operational networks through ASAT and active cyber action.
  • To surveil and seed the straits with seabed sensors, surface and air scouts.
  • To disable energy and resources traffic through non lethal methods and to ensure that own escorts keep open Alliance right of passage on the sea.
  • To raise the cost of military intervention will suggest a strategic posture that by disposition, demonstration, marking and resolve, declare our orientation, will and intent that the cost of intervention will far outweigh its benefits.

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 an Anti- Access Denial Strategy.  While the short answer may be “when Alliance interests are threatened” this does not in any way assist the planner in resolving the quandary. Two factors must, however, lead; the first is that initial moves must be so calibrated that the intervener is made aware that a threshold is being approached and that the next rung in the escalatory ladder is a ‘hot’ exchange. This may take the form of ‘marking’ or through hotline communications. The second is by initiating demonstrative action which may serve to disable operational networks or even measures instituted in some other theatre.

A maritime Anti-Access Denial strategy unlike a continental standpoint, abhors ‘Lakshman Rekhas’ for there are no readily definable geographic ‘redlines’, what is of greater import is context, circumstances and events, which brings us back to the original dilemma of characterizing the conditions that would bring the strategy into play. In any event, we have in an earlier section noted China’s security narrative and the challenge that a rising China poses. Both advocate the centrality and compelling force of an aggressive drive to corner resources. Under this order of things, the Triple Entente may define ‘red lines’ as follows:

  • Any large scale military attempt to change the status quo in territorial configuration.
  • Large scale military build up either at Hambantota, Gwadar or at Sittwe.
  • Aggressive deployments that disrupt energy and resource traffic or dislocate networks.
  • Any attempt to provide large scale military support, covert or otherwise, to promote an insurgency.

In execution, Alliance Anti-Access Denial Strategy will be implemented in three distinct phases. The First will involve selective Anti-Access Denial deployment, surveillance and marking in the IOEO; the second will entail demonstration through cyber action and possible ASAT intervention; the third and last is hot action including sea control, enabling Exclusion Zones and SLOC severance.


The ultimate reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability in relations between nations. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibles. China has unambiguously articulated three canons that make for its strategic objectives; stability, growth and regional preeminence. In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies, specifically the coming ‘Third Island Chain’ superimposed on a long range power projection, and access denial is its blindness to recognize that, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons.” The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high.

Contemporary challenges in the IOEO are dominated by what direction China’s rise will take. Of significance is that the potential for a collision is a reality and the only consideration that could deter it, is the ability to attain a strategic posture in the IOEO that serves to stabilize. India’s relationship with the USA and Japan provides the opening to establish a ‘Triple Entente’ that realizes political compatibility, economic mutuality and collective security in the region in order to counterpoise China.

Download full article here: The Evolution of a New Triple Entente

End Notes

[i] Gooch G.P. and Harold Temperley (eds). British Documents on the Origin of War 1898-1914, Vol III, London 1928 Appendix A, p 402-3.

[ii] Bridge F.R. From Sadowa to Sarajevo; The Foreign Policy of Austria-Hungary 1866-1914. London 1972, p 360.

[iii] The World at War United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varrying degrees of intensity.

Sea-based thinking: The new basis for our Revolution in Social and Military Affairs


Dr. V. Siddhartha

The Need For a New Geopolitical Perspective

China began to lay its plans for geo-political land-based dominance when it defeated us in 1962 (we forget—as always—that this event occurred a mere dozen years after the post-revolution order under Mao Tse Tung consolidated itself in China), became a nuclear-weapon power in 1964 and broad-based its strategic relationship with Pakistan shortly thereafter.  To be sure, the pace of this drive for dominance was slowed by China’s disputes and rivalry with (the then) Soviet Union. But never was this objective changed, notwithstanding the disaster of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the several other crudities of the Mao era. The United States recognized early-on the eventual emergence of China as Number One, so much so that it aligned with Pakistan in 1971, so as not to jeopardise Pakistan’s crucial help to US plans to ‘open to China.’

The demise of the Soviet Union has accelerated China’s plans and programmes to fill the “vacuum of political dominance” felt to varying degrees with the sequential collapse of Japanese, Dutch, French, British and US power in the region from Indonesia through South East Asia to Myanmar. China’s grand vision of land-based dominance is to be actuated by extensive high-speed rail links, attendant communication spines, power networks and oil pipelines along a great arc from South East Asia up through Southern China, turning through North-Western China, out across the southern flank of the CIS to the Caspian Sea and beyond. These are the New Silk Roads for which plans will fructify by 2020.[1] The recent rescue of the beleaguered South East Asian currencies by China has signaled that the Renminbi is being set to replace the Yen and to coequal the Dollar and the Euro in a world monetary triad to underpin the global economic-military power triad of US-Europe-China. The resulting physical and banking infrastructure will render hostage to China’s will, India’s relations—trade, economic, technological, military and political—with nearly forty countries to India’s North, West and South-East.

Any attempt by India to “muscle into” this China driven land-based geopolitical project will be held firmly in check through the two surrogate prongs of the Chinese land pincer on India: Pakistan-Iran to the West; Bangladesh-Myanmar to the East. China will not waste its own economic and military resources to contain India—we are not important enough to China to warrant its expenditure of that much attention.

The only geostrategic room left to India is the Sea. Indira Gandhi’s uncanny feel for the geo-strategically important—and fortuitous circumstance—enabled India to establish itself as pioneer investor in the Indian Ocean; erect a station on Antarctica and do several other things in good time in ocean exploration and development. These measures have so far prevented the established maritime powers from imposing restrictive regimes on India in the oceans in general and in the Indian Ocean in particular.

Although the base that has thus been established in the seas around us is a good one, its full development and strategic use is vulnerable to the myopia of our defensive, reactive, constricted, almost apologetic, land-based thinking. The needed revolution that has to occur in our military affairs is the shift from land-based to sea-based thinking. A particularly effective way to drive home this perspective is to view the Indian landmass from the North looking South.

To oversimplify (but not by too much), if the land-based arc from Singapore through to Europe is going to be China’s arena of dominance, the one from Singapore through to Cape Town, along the Indian Ocean littoral is the geo-strategic space needed for India’s geo-cultural-economic renewal. Many assets—military and non-military—will need to be developed and deployed in that space, with the Indian Navy as its military core. We barely have till 2020 to fill-out that geo-strategic space.[2]


“Vice Admiral V.K. Chandraskatta, fleet commander…came from a country with a warrior tradition little known outside its own borders, Indians had stopped Alexabder the Great, blunted his army, wounded the Macedonian conqueror, perhaps fatally, and put an end to his expansion, an accomplishment the Persians and the Egyptians had singularly failed to do. Indian troops had fought alongside Montgomery in the defeat of Rommel—and had crushed the Japanese Army at Imphal.

Vice Admiral V.K. Chandraskatta sat on his leather chair on the flag bridge of the carrier Viraat…just for his country to be self-sufficient in food had taken-how long? Twenty-five years. And that had come only as charity of sorts, the result of Western agro-science whose success grated on many minds, as though his country, ancient and learned, couldn’t make its own destiny. Even successful charity could be a burden on the national soul.

The ‘New World Order’ said that his country could not. India was denied entry into the race to greatness by those very nations that had run the race and then shut it down lest others catch up.

But the entire Indian Navy had only forty-three Harrier FRS-51 fighters. He had but thirty at sea on both Viraat and Vikrant, and that did not equal the numbers of capability aboard a single American carrier. All because they had entered the race first, won it, and then declared the games closed, Chandraskatta told himself…it simply wasn’t fair”

(From Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honour” Harper Collins, 1994)

About the Author
Dr.V. Siddhartha served during 2007-09 on invitation of the Secretary General of the United Nations as a member of the Experts Group in New York of the Committee on UN Security Council Resolution 1540.  An Emeritus Scientist in DRDO, he retired in 2004 after working directly with four Scientific Advisers to the Minister of Defence over nearly twenty years. Dr. Siddhartha has been twice Consultant to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, on export control and S&T issues in international security, and on the Indian WMD Act, 2005.  A PhD from the Imperial College of Science & Technology, London, Siddhartha was a member of the pioneering Systems Planning and Analysis Group (SPAG) of ISRO, Bangalore over 1974-82.

[1] See also Batuk Vora, “China plans to transform ‘Eurasia,’” Mainstream, February 28, 1998. This article summarizes the essential elements of China’s ‘land bridge’ project extensively elaborated at the International Symposium on Economic Development of the Regions along the New Euro-Asian Continental Bridge, Beijing, May 7-9, 1996.

[2] For a concise survey of the architecture of the space see: Satish Chandra, Arunachalam and Suryanarayanan “The Indian Ocean and its Islands, Strategic, Scientific and Historical Perspectives,” Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1993.