The Maritime Domain – An Abiding Stage for Cooperation and Conflict


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(To be published)

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

                                                (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War)                                               

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

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

Geopolitics a New Slant

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

The Maritime Domain

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

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

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

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

The Economic Motif: Strategic Competitiveness   

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

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

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

 Multi-Polarity and the Prospects of Stability

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

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

Looming Contestant: China

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

 Contestant Groupings

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

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

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


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