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The Criticality of the IONS Maritime Security Construct

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Ret.)

Conceptual Underpinning

The concept of Constructive Engagement is foremost amongst the various strategies that India has adopted in the furtherance of her security. Consequently, this is a strategic concept that shapes much of India’s geopolitics. 

Traditionally, security used to be thought of only in terms of the defense of territory within a state system whose defining characteristic was an incessant competition for military superiority with other nation-states, all lying within a classic state of anarchy, devoid of superior or governing authority. Today, however, India and her Navy have swung around to a far more holistic approach. This changed approach finds its historical moorings in the famous “Common Security” report that had been authored as long ago as 1980 by the “Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues” chaired by the late Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Olaf Palme. This report emphatically drew attention to alternative ways of thinking about peace and security by formally acknowledging that common security requires that people live in dignity and peace, that they have enough to eat, and are able to find work and live in a world without poverty. 

While military maritime security does, of course, continue to enjoy primacy for India, existing as it does in a world-system defined by Westphalian concepts of national sovereignty, new terms such as ‘Non-Traditional Security’ and ‘Human Security Issues,’ largely drawn from the 1994 Report of the UNDP, have made their way into maritime India’s contemporary security-lexicon and lodged themselves within its collective security-consciousness. Maritime Security is now firmly established within a new construct that incorporates military, political, economic, societal, and environmental dimensions, and recognizes the many linkages between them.  

Thus, threats to human-security, such as religious extremism, international terrorism, drug and arms smuggling, demographic shifts — whether caused by migration or by other factors, human trafficking, environmental degradation, energy, food, and water shortages, all now figure prominently as threats that are inseparable from military ones. These have led to the formulation of new concepts such as ‘comprehensive security’ and ‘cooperative security.’ Clearly, however, security issues within the maritime domain need to be referenced more towards common interests rather than threats. At a regional level, it is these very Human Security issues that have been mentioned above that constitute common interests. It is a common regional interest to create and consolidate a region in which the comity of nations is both intrinsic and assured and where every nation, big or small, is treated as an equal. Multiple options of governance must be recognized functions of the independent choice of the people of each nation-state. The state protects the individual and the individual preserves the state in a symbiotic relationship designed to establish and spread stability across the region where malevolent non-State entities should find neither spatial nor temporal room for maneuver. In sum, then our common interests are the absence-of or freedom-from threats. It is therefore appropriate that within the maritime domain, the concept of Maritime Security is increasingly being described as a condition characterized by “freedom from threats arising either in or from the sea.”[1] These threats could arise from natural causes or from manmade ones, or from the interplay of one with the other, as in the case of environmental degradation or global warming. Insofar as the targets of such threats (arising from a lack of maritime security) are concerned, these could be individuals themselves — or ‘groupings’ of individuals, such as societies and/or nation-states. When these threats address the regional fabric itself, nation-states find themselves increasingly enmeshed in a complex web of security interdependence, which tends to be regionally focused and a robust regional initiative ought to be a logical outcome of this regional focus.

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DHAKA, Jan. 11, 2016 (Xinhua) — Photo taken on Jan. 11, 2016 shows a scene of the fifth biennial assembly of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The fifth biennial assembly of IONS kicked off here on Monday. (Xinhua/Shariful Islam).

Multilateral Maritime-Security Constructs

Although the Indo-Pacific region has several manifestations of the regional drive towards cooperative security through Constructive Engagement, most of them lie in the Pacific. Examples include ASEAN, ASEAN+3, APEC, ARF, the 6-Party Talks, the East Asia Summit, etc. At the Navy level, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) is clearly an important multilateral security construct.

IONS
A visualization of member states of regional forums in the Asia-Pacific.

The Indian Ocean segment of the Asia-Pacific littoral is now beginning to catch up. However, for much of the Twentieth Century such sub-regional geopolitical constructs that did emerge within the Indian Ocean remained limited to West Asia and southern Africa (the Arab League in 1945, the SADC in 1980 and the GCC in 1981). There was nothing to be found at a pan-regional level that might knit together at least a significant proportion of the 37 littoral nation-states of the Indian Ocean and its rim. It was not until the closing years of the Twentieth Century that a Mauritian-led initiative fructified and led to the launch, in March of 1997, of the clumsily-named ‘Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation’ (IOR-ARC). However, for the first decade-and-a-half of its existence, this grouping confined itself purely to economic cooperation and specifically abjured security issues. It must, of course, be admitted that in 1997, the notion of security within the collective minds of the countries of the Indian Ocean was still very strongly biased towards military security alone. 2013 was a watershed for the organization, for in that year, the IOR-ARC was renamed ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association’ (IORA)[2] and identified six priority areas to promote the sustained growth and balanced development of the region, of which ‘maritime safety and security’ is the first priority[3]. The IORA also indicated that it was important that its work on maritime security and safety and disaster management should be aligned with and complement possible IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) initiatives in these areas. However, not much seems to have been done to date. The IORA does not have a working group to deliberate on these issues, nor does it have an institutional link with IONS[4].

IONS: Development

In February of 2008, driven by the need to address regional vulnerabilities by capitalizing upon regional strengths, the Indian Navy made a stupendous effort to assemble in New Delhi the Chiefs-of-Navy of very nearly all littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region. Sitting and discussing together — for the first time ever —  both in ‘assembly’ and in ‘conclave,’ the chiefs launched the Twenty First Century’s first significant international maritime-security initiative — namely, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, or ‘IONS.’ That the launch of so important a regional initiative was able to meet with such wide acceptance across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean was in itself a unique phenomenon — but one representative of a region that is beginning to come into its own and seems ready to evolve a broad consensus in facing the myriad security challenges within the maritime domain. 

The acronym ‘IONS’  is an appropriate one, since the etymology of the English word ions is drawn from the Greek word ienai meaning go, and implying movement.  The fundamental concept of IONS, too, remains one of ‘moving’ together — as a region. Under the IONS construct, the 37 littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region have been geographically grouped into four sub-regions, as depicted:

West Asian Littoral East African Littoral South Asian Littoral South-East Asian & Australian Littoral
1 Bahrain 1 Comoros 1 Bangladesh 1 Australia
2 Iran 2 Djibouti 2 India 2 Indonesia
3 Iraq 3 Egypt 3 Maldives 3 Malaysia
4 Israel 4 Eritrea 4 Pakistan 4 Myanmar
5 Jordan 5 France 5 Seychelles 5 Singapore
6 Kuwait 6 Kenya 6 Sri Lanka 6 Thailand
7 Oman 7 Madagascar 7 Timor Leste
8 Qatar 8 Mauritius
9 Saudi Arabia 9 Mozambique
10 UAE 10 Somalia
11 Yemen 11 South Africa
12 Sudan
13 Tanzania

The formal launch of the IONS initiative was effected through the inaugural ‘Conclave-of-Chiefs.’ This conclave is held once every two years, with a new chairperson at the helm. As had been the intention from the start, it is at this ‘Conclave-of-Chiefs,’ removed from the glare of the media, that the most meaningful progress occurs in accordance with a formalized ‘Charter of Business.’ It is a matter of very great satisfaction that the Charter-of-Business has already been adopted, especially if it is recalled that the WPNS Charter took 12 years (from 1988 to 2000) to receive formal approval from all its constituent members.

Delegates pose for a photograph before the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Conclave of Chiefs. The regional forum was held during Sea Power 2015.
Delegates pose for a photograph before the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Conclave of Chiefs. The regional forum was held during Sea Power 2015. Photo Source: Royal Australian Navy.

Every Conclave-of-Chiefs — there have been eight held thus far — is supplemented by an IONS Seminar, which the Chiefs also attend, along with a galaxy of luminaries in various disciplines relevant to security within the maritime domain. The inaugural IONS Seminar was jointly conducted by the Indian Navy and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), at the Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, on 14 and 15 February 2008. The theme of that seminar was “Contemporary Transnational Challenges — International Maritime Connectivities” — a subject that has grown in relevance over the years.   

IONS is a unique regional forum through which the Chiefs-of-Navy of all the littoral states of the IOR can periodically meet to constructively engage one another through the creation and promotion of regionally relevant mechanisms, events, and activities related to maritime security. Yet, given the diversity of the region as a whole, there has been an acute awareness of the need to make haste slowly. Successive Conclaves-of-Chiefs have, therefore, very deliberately spent time and great effort in building the foundation of the construct through an incremental series of small but crucial confidence-building steps. 

Although IONS was an Indian initiative, it was designed from the very beginning to be a pan-regional construct rather than a country-specific one. Hence, the chairmanship of IONS rotates sequentially through each of the four sub-regions. This also ensures that the somewhat different priorities given even to common challenges, and, of course, such maritime-security challenges as are unique to a given sub-region, are all given the emphasis and attention they deserve. The first rotation through all sub-regions has already been completed with the Chiefs of Navy of India (2008-2010), the UAE (2010-2012), South Africa (2012-2014), Australia (2014-2016) all having sequentially chaired IONS. The chairmanship is currently held by the Chief of the Navy of Bangladesh (2016-2018). Pakistan participated for the first time at the level of its Navy Chief in 2014.

Conscious of the need to avoid being perceived as merely a one-in-two-years talk-shop, each Conclave-of-Chiefs sets forth a consensual agenda of specific activities designed to keep the region involved and engaged with various elements of maritime security. Some activities — such as the IONS Essay competition — might appear unduly humble in their scope, but they are essential to sustaining awareness of this regional construct and what it stands for, especially amongst younger generations of maritime security experts whose involvement will be crucial for IONS to continue to be perceived as relevant across generational shifts of personnel.

The Need for more Proactive Initiatives

And yet, it must be admitted that the movement has sometimes erred on the side of excessive caution. As the midwife of the IONS construct and its permanent secretariat, India must take its fair share of blame for allowing the movement to drift. Indeed, it has appeared — on more than one occasion — that the Indian Navy, having created such a fine instrument, has demonstrated a certain lack of initiative and dexterity in wielding it.  Opportunities have consequently been lost. For instance, the anti-piracy missions stretching from the Gulf of Aden all the way to the waters of Seychelles and Maldives, were an excellent opportunity for national maritime security agencies — even while operating essentially alone — to have done so under a nominal IONS-umbrella.  

Likewise and more recently, in January 2016, the U.S. Combatant Command AFRICOM, sponsored a maritime exercise named CUTLASS EXPRESS, whose scenarios were designed to test the ability of participating naval ship-crews to respond to illicit trafficking, piracy, illegal fishing, and search-and-rescue (SAR) situations. While there is little doubt that this is beneficial for stability as a whole, it also represents yet another lost opportunity for India to have taken the initiative to leverage IONS into undertaking activities that go beyond baby-steps.

Exercise Milan 2014 for 17 navies of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, organised by Indian Navy, at the Andaman and Nicobar Command of the Indian Armed Forces.
Exercise Milan 2014 for 17 navies of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, organised by Indian Navy, at the Andaman and Nicobar Command of the Indian Armed Forces.

Even in a region as sensitive (if not outright ‘prickly’) as the Indo-Pacific, HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) exercises and operations are amongst the most readily acceptable and regionally useful activities. Building upon the effectiveness of the humanitarian relief provided by the hospital ship, the USNS Mercy in the aftermath of the tsunami-earthquakes of 2004 (Indo-Pacific) and 2005 (Java, Indonesia), the Hawaii-based headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) launched “Pacific Partnership” HADR missions to provide succor and relief across the PACOM ‘Area of Operations’ (AOR). It invited the militaries of all nations within its AOR to partner in these annual humanitarian missions. The Mercy deployed on these missions every alternate year, while the US Navy deployed an LPD in the ‘gap’ years. India initially responded admirably, sending multi-disciplinary medical and associated support-personnel, drawn from all three Armed Forces, aboard the USNS Mercy and the USS Peleliu, for three years — 2006, 2007, and, 2008. The contribution of Indian Armed Forces medical and support personnel in providing medical succor and humanitarian relief to stricken people in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, the Marshall Islands, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia, over the last three years has been both significant and extremely well-appreciated. However, even the noblest of initiatives are subject to political and perceptual vicissitudes. Thus, after these three years, Indian participation ceased — presumably because the exercise, no matter how regionally relevant in terms of humanitarian assistance and no matter what the fringe benefits were, was a U.S.-Flag multilateral-construct and not a UN-Flag one. As a result, from 2009 onward, India was conspicuous by its absence and lost a host of opportunities to showcase its Armed Forces in their most acceptable role to a regional audience. In seeking to avoid being ‘seen’ as a partner-nation to the U.S. Navy even within a humanitarian paradigm, India chose not to be ‘seen’ at all — thereby throwing out the baby with the bathwater! 

This shortsightedness is doubly ironic because, as outlined in the foregoing paragraphs, the Indian Navy had already launched IONS in a hugely successful manner and, in the ensuing years the country had a golden opportunity to leverage the enormous potential of regional HADR maritime missions by launching HADR Missions within the Indian Ocean region under the aegis of IONS. Several IONS navies could meaningfully sustain such missions by sequentially (or simultaneously) fielding one or more of their amphibious ships. The Indian Navy has several large Landing Ships — including the LPD, INS Jalashwa — one or more of which could be deployed. Despite several such opportunities having been lost in the past, there is some solace in knowing that in Dhaka this year the Indian Navy  presented a guidance document on HADR to the assembled Chiefs of Navy — and not a day too soon!

Would the U.S. Navy be willing to partner such an IONS-led series of maritime HADR missions? The answer is an emphatic Yes. This is borne out by the continuing U.S. keenness to engage with India. Witness the U.S. DoD’s 2011 “Report to Congress on U.S.-India Security Cooperation,” Page 7 of which states, “In the next five years, the United States will continue to request India’s participation in future PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP missions, the annual U.S. Pacific Fleet HA/DR event in the USPACOM area of responsibility. Indian inclusion would provide an opportunity to apply HA/DR lessons learned in other forums to a humanitarian civil assistance scenario with overlapping skill set requirements, and prepare for combined operations in an actual HA/DR event.” [5]

Finally, it is well to recall that in the late 1980s, the eminent strategic analyst and prolific writer, Barry Buzan, articulated the concept of a ‘Regional Security Complex’ to describe “…a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another.”[6] It is probably premature to apply this term in its entirety to the Indo-Pacific but we certainly appear to be heading that way, and movements such as the IONS might well end-up consolidating the region into a ‘Maritime Regional Security Complex.’ Governments of the region and their Foreign Offices must provide the maximum possible traction to the IONS construct as this is the only one likely to yield regional coherence on issues of maritime security.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

[1] Address by Dr Manmohan Singh, erstwhile Prime Minister of India, inaugurating the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Seminar at New Delhi, 14 February, 2008; available at url: http://archivepmo.nic.in/drmanmohansingh/speech-details.php?nodeid=633

[2] 13th Meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Indian Ocean Rim Association — Perth Communiqué, 01 November 2013; available at url: www.iora.net/media/139388/perth_communiqu__2013.pdf

[3] IORA Website; available at url: http://www.iora.net/about-us/priority-areas.aspx

[4] Commodore Gopal Suri; “Case for a Regional Maritime Construct in the Indo-Pacific”, Vivekananda International Foundation Occasional paper – January 2016; available at url: http://www.vifindia.org/sites/default/files/case-for-a-regional-maritime-security-construct-for-the-indo-pacific.pdf

[5] http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/20111101_NDAA_Report_on_US_India_Security_Cooperation.pdf

[6] Barry Buzan; “People, States & Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era”;

ECPR Press, 2nd edition, University of Essex, Colchester, UK; Reprint: 2009, p. 160

Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century

Kumar, Yogendra. Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century. New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2015, pp. 258, 995 Rs.

20151051416Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime.....

By G. Parthasarathy

While the present discourse in India is largely on its civilizational past and on the contemporary challenges across its land borders, very little attention has been paid to the crucial and indeed imperative role of seafaring trade and maritime security, and indeed the entire spectrum of maritime affairs. Until recently, there has been little realization of the importance of these issues in safeguarding the Indian way of life and ensuring that India emerges as an increasingly influential power, dedicated to peace and cooperation with all. Even school textbooks contain very little information about India’s maritime traditions or the decline of India’s role in maritime trade with the advent of European Power across the world, particularly since the 18th century.

India’s maritime history began in the 3rd millennium BCE when the Indus Valley established maritime contacts with Mesopotamia. Following the Roman occupation of Egypt, trade flourished with the Roman Empire, not only with India’s west coast, but also with Tamil Pandyan Kings. The Chola Dynasty reached out beyond the shores of what is now Tamil Nadu between the Third and Thirteenth Centuries, extending its domain from Sri Lanka to Srivijaya (Indonesia) in Southeast Asia. Similar trade and maritime contacts flourished between rulers of Kalinga (Orissa) and the kingdoms of South and Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

Across India’s western shores, Quilon enjoyed growing trade links with the Phoenicians and Romans. Trade with Mesopotamia and the shores of Africa flourished.  Further north, the Marathas developed a maritime force that could challenge the ships of European powers like the Portugal and Britain until they inexplicably lost interest in maritime power. Trade flourished from western shores across the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean until European dominance of the sea lanes gained ascendancy. From the 18th century onward, India lapsed into a centuries long phase of ‘maritime blindness.’

India and China played a significant and even dominant role in world trade up to that point. India is estimated to have had the largest economy in the medieval world until the 16th century. English historian Angus Madison has estimated that India’s share in world income was then 27%, compared to Europe’s share of 23%. After three centuries worth of European domination, India’s share fell to 3% of the global economy. In 1950, China’s share in world trade was 1% and India’s was 1.9% – virtually double that of China. In 2014, India’s share of world trade had a fallen to 1.7 % while China’s had grown to 12.2%. This falling share of our world trade sadly reflects the relative decline of India’s regional influence in Asia and indeed globally since independence.

The book Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century, by former diplomat Yogendra Kumar, carries out a detailed analysis of these factors while spelling out the challenges and prospects for a future Indian role in shaping the governance of maritime affairs in the coming decades. In this endeavor, he casts the spotlight on the civilizational dimension of India’s role as a reinvigorated maritime power which, as part of its contemporary diplomacy, aims to subserve the larger Indian foreign policy which finds its inspiration from the lofty ideals of the country’s freedom struggle.  While most diplomats tend to focus primarily on the diplomatic dimensions of maritime security, naval officers focus more on actual maritime power. Having served on the Faculty of India’s National Defence College and worked with the National Maritime Foundation in Delhi, the ambassador has brought his experience to bear on his meticulous research, and his handling, at a senior level in the Indian foreign office, of several multilateral institutions analyzed in his book. His intellectual inquiry not only spans India’s recent post-independence past, especially post-Cold War maritime history, but also offers insightful comments on the capacities and shortcomings of the relevant maritime agencies as they face myriad existing and over-the-horizon challenges to national security. These strategic challenges get compounded, geographically and paradigmatically, as the country charts its course to emerge as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. These challenges are also evaluated from the point of view of failed political power transitions since the end of the Cold War.

In addressing the diplomatic dimension of the country’s maritime challenges, the author holistically examines the evolution and the potential role of all the key maritime agencies in today’s unique circumstances, framed by deep geopolitical turbulence and uncertainty, paying extensive attention to the Indian Navy, the Coast Guard, the Coastal Police belonging to the country’s maritime provinces, the Indian shipping services, and the Department of Ocean Affairs. Whilst the Indian Navy remains the centerpiece of his narrative, the array of these agencies signifies that a favorable maritime order can only be shaped by the breadth of these organizations. Thus, approaching this effort in balance-of-power or zero-sum terms will be counter-productive, even in a shortened time horizon. The ambassador’s thought-provoking analysis of the security paradigm involves an examination of causative factors, ranging from the phenomenon of failed/failing states, the fragility of multilateral institutions, to the whole range of so-called ‘non-traditional’ security challenges induced by revolution of technology, including military technology. The author also, significantly, posits that maritime security is a subset of wider international security, especially of the littoral regions. He points at the deteriorating relations amongst the major powers, creating a worrying, de-stabilizing maritime salience. He analyzes the impact of these rapidly mutating constituent factors on the doctrines and structures of the Indian maritime agencies; introducing an interesting discussion on the recommended role and capacities of the Indian foreign office as well as other government structures. The leveraging of both hard and soft power maritime capabilities in diplomacy would help regional stabilization, resting on India’s benign image and its historically non-disruptive political consolidation model.

Quite naturally, as he discusses the entire threat spectrum of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ maritime challenges, Kumar focuses on what we have done for the safety of our nationals living in our western neighborhood, where thousands have had to be evacuated from countries experiencing political instability and violence. India’s national maritime policies will also have to cater to the possibility of a much larger scale evacuation of Indian nationals should instability and violence spread to the Arab Gulf countries, where over 7 million Indians live, in addition to catering to the security of our sea lanes from where we get over 70% of our energy requirements of oil and gas. He also focuses on challenges posed by an emerging and assertive China as it proceeds with its ”One Belt One Road” initiative across our shores; in his discussion on naval grand strategy for India, the ambassador offers an interesting take as to how this challenge can be ‘finessed.’ The high seas are, after all, vast areas where powers can both cooperate and contend.

The most significant aspect of Mr. Kumar’s book on maritime challenges is his focus of attention on what needs to be done for restructuring institutions and building maritime capabilities in shipyards and research institutions,to meet the forthcoming challenges and opportunities in coming decades. With its ambitious plans for more Aircraft Carriers as well as both attack and ballistic missile submarines, the Indian navy has fortunately been more far-sighted that the other armed services in realizing that military power cannot be built primarily on imports of crucial defense equipment. Yogendra Kumar has quite appropriately noted that for the foreseeable future, India’s concentration will be on the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean. He also notes that in maritime affairs, there is need for both regional and global institutions in order for trade across the high seas remains unaffected. While institutions are being built for trade and cooperation across the Indian Ocean, India cannot ignore that over 40% of its exports are routed through the South China Sea, now the focus of escalating rivalries over maritime boundaries. As he reviews these governance mechanisms, the author makes concrete suggestions to make them, especially those concerning the Indian Ocean, capable of multilateral efforts and of thought leadership to stabilize and buttress the maritime order for salutary effect on the global security paradigm as a whole. His approach of ‘fore grounding’ the ‘non-traditional security’ agenda for these institutions over that of ‘traditional security’ agenda in their activities offers considerable food for thought for the proponents of hardcore security doctrines.

For that last-named reason, Yogendra Kumar’s meticulous study of maritime institutions, strategies and diplomacy is “essential reading,” not just for scholars and lay readers, but also for every young officer who wishes to make the Navy a fulfilling career.

G. Parthasarathy is a strategic analyst and columnist. He last served as the India‘s High Commissioner to Pakistan. He has also been Indian Ambassador to Myanmar and High Commissioner to Australia and Cyprus, with  earlier diplomatic tenures in Moscow, Washington and Karachi. During his diplomatic career, he has been Adviser to both India‘s Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

The Concept of ‘Reach’ in Grasping China’s Active Defense Strategy: Part I

This publication originally featured on Bharat Shakti and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.

The article will be presented in two parts. In this part, the author explores China’s dependence on crude oil that traverses across the oceans to feed the country’s growth. These circumstances have prompted China to develop its naval forces, since its greater security concerns are in the oceans. The author initiates his discourse on Chinese strategy by detailing the foremost core imperatives that drive the Communist Party of China and its stated core national interests.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Ret.)

Much thought needs to be given to possible politico-military circumstances under which the Government of India might realize that a Sino-Indian military build-up, stand-off or confrontation is no longer a mere skirmish between their respective armies but a clash in which the Republic of India in its entirety becomes engaged in armed conflict against the People’s Republic of China. Within the context of these circumstances—themselves a matter of both conjecture and debate—this article seeks to initiate an analysis of contemporary Chinese military strategy, using the concept of “reach.”

In common with many such analyses, China’s White Paper of May 2015 forms the basis of our understanding of China’s Military Strategy, i.e. the plans by which the country’s military seeks to achieve national objectives at the strategic level.

Image Courtesy: Reuters
Chinese military parade. Image Courtesy: Reuters

The core imperatives that drive the Communist Party of China’s relationship to the State and the State’s relationship with the world at large include: 1) regime survival 2) “saving face” 3) domestic stability and 4) territorial integrity.

These resonate well with the more formally-stated six core national interests of China: 1) state sovereignty 2) national security 3) territorial integrity 4) national reunification 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability and 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

The commonly used term core interest, as used by the Chinese leadership, does not have direct correspondence with the same term used by India or, for that matter, by almost all other nation-states. The People’s Republic of China uses the term “to signal a more vigorous attempt to lay down a marker, or a warning, regarding the need for the United States and other countries to respect (indeed, accept with little if any negotiation) China’s position on certain issues”—in other words, “issues it considers important enough to go to war over.”

Along with the exponential growth of China’s “outward-leaning” economy in recent decades the country has experienced an equally meteoric increase in the geopolitical clout that it wields. Geopolitics is largely the sum of geoeconomics and geostrategy. Consequently, as China’s geoeconomic power has affected and dwarfed other regional and State economies, its asserted geostrategy has incrementally incorporated an number of geographic regions as its “core interests.” Examples include Xinjiang, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, and very nearly the whole of the South China Sea.

Image Courtesy: Defence Alert
Image Courtesy: Defence Alert.

China’s geoeconomy has not only generated a more aggressive geostrategy but has also marked an inclination for other nation-states to acquiesce to China’s latest “core interest.” Within the Chinese state-apparatus, this acquiescence appears to have been understood as tacit acknowledgement of China’s intrinsic and inherent superiority to all other geopolitical entities and peoples. This concept of self is driven by the millennia-old Chinese belief that China is the “Middle Kingdom,” at the very center of global civilization, surrounded by barbarian vassals. It is a view that largely defines China’s sense of national identity. Thus, amongst the Chinese power-elites within the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Central Military Commission (CMC), the lack of any “pushback” from other global and regional powers to China’s assertions has led to a sense of disdain bordering on hubris.

Image Courtesy: NDTV
Image Courtesy: NDTV

In analyzing China’s military strategy, it is essential to understand three central features of the People’s Republic. The first is the critical importance of continuity and supremacy of the CPC. The second is the Chinese economy. The third is the uniquely Chinese concept of “face.” All three are closely linked. If the economy should falter or fail, the continuity of the CPC (regime continuity), or at the very least its continued supremacy, will become uncertain. Likewise, the Chinese sense of identity is inextricably linked to this concept of face and a national loss of face is likely to be far less acceptable than a mere “temporary” loss of territory or military assets. This critical feature offers India several military-strategic options in dealing with China.

The 2015 White Paper clarifies that China characterizes outer space and cyberspace as the “new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.” It likewise declares China’s intent to focus upon building a reliable second-strike capability. However, the sharpest thrust has been reserved for the oceans, which is understandable given the prominence that the 2015 White Paper accords to the contemporary strategic concerns of the People’s Republic. These strategic concerns include America’s pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s recasting of its military and security policies, and the resistance being offered by Philippines and Vietnam to China’s 9-Dash Line and its assertive activities in the Spratly Islands.

The Chinese Armed Forces are charged with the preservation and protection of the country’s core interests, and this tasking determines China’s military strategy. As war evolves towards “informatization,” a key strategic task of Chinese armed forces is safeguarding China’s security interests in new domains such as Global Positioning Systems, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Cyber/Information Warfare. The latest White Paper has also reaffirmed the centrality of active defense as the guiding strategy for China’s military forces. Thus, offense at the tactical and operational levels is consistent with an overall defensive orientation at the strategic level. By this logic, cyber-attacks are integral elements of the Chinese military’s efforts to “resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests” in cyberspace. Indeed, in the cyber and maritime domains alike, Beijing consistently rationalizes assertive activities as justified responses to prior provocations.

Despite the inevitable hype that has accompanied analyses of the 2015 White Paper, this is a Chinese strategic concept that predates the People’s Republic itself. Its first articulation within China may be attributed to Mao Zedong, the CPC’s founding chairman, who codified it in a much studied 1936 essay on the “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War,” which outlined “the strategy that the Red Army used in order to overcome stronger Nationalist and Japanese opponents—right from the Party’s inception in 1921 until its greatest triumph in 1949.”

Image Courtesy: AFP
Image Courtesy: AFP

“Active defense may be accurately described as a strategically defensive posture that a big, resource rich but (militarily) weak combatant assumes to weary and turn the tables on a stronger antagonist. Such a combatant needs time to tap its resources—natural riches, manpower, martial ingenuity—so it protracts the war. It makes itself strong over time, raising powerful armed forces, while constantly harrowing the enemy. It chips away at enemy strength where and when it can. Ultimately the weaker becomes the stronger contender, seizes the offensive, and wins. It outlasts the foe rather than hazarding a battle early on—a battle where it could lose everything in an afternoon.”

Obviously, a nation needs physical and strategic maneuvering space to work this strategy. Originally, this strategy was confined solely to the geospatial imperatives of the land war fought by the Red Army, wherein Mao’s peasant troops had the luxury of withdrawing into the remote interior of China. This move forced the enemy forces to choose between breaking contact and ceding the initiative or giving chase and overextending themselves. In the latter case, Red Army units, operating closer to their own logistics base could raid and harry the overstretched enemy, cut supply routes, and fall upon and annihilate isolated units. It was a strategy that the Russians, too, had used a century earlier when, in 1812, they seduced Napoleon deep into the Russian interior, leading to military disaster for France.

The term active defense remains contemporary in militaries other than the People’s Republic of China. The US Department of Defense, for instance, also uses the term, albeit predominantly (if not solely) with distinctly tactical connotations and defines it as “the employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy.” The Chinese, however, apply this as a general strategic principle applicable across all levels, from the tactical to the strategic. At the level of geostrategy, the required “maneuver space” shifts from the hinterland to the largely maritime expanse of the Indo-Pacific.

Here, the concept of strategic maneuver has intimate linkages with geoeconomics, much of which, as a result of the geographic element within that term, is maritime in nature. As the renowned Chinese Professor Lexiong Ni put it, “When a nation embarks upon a process of shifting from an ‘inward-leaning economy’ to an ‘outward-leaning economy,’ the arena of national security concerns begins to move to the oceans. This is a phenomenon in history that occurs so frequently that it has almost become a rule rather than an exception.”

Perhaps a good way to understand the application of this strategy at the grand-theater level is to simply abandon the lexicon of the standard Western approach to active defense, which in Indian analyses is all too frequently simply “copied-and-pasted,” and instead examine this stated strategy through a different prism, one that I call “reach.” We need to consider reach as an overarching ability with internal (e.g., political/societal) as well as external (geopolitical) facets and with spatial as well as temporal dimensions.

Internal reach may be considered as the ability to tap into the intrinsic sources of China’s strength—its people (including its global diaspora) and their conditioned sense of identity, their value system with the centrality that it gives to the concept of “face,” their industriousness, their innovativeness, their ability to reverse-engineer everything from contemporary and evolving concepts to cutting-edge and state-of-the-art military-hardware, their fierce determination to regain “face” that was lost in the Century of Humiliation and to not lose it ever again, etc. This is, in effect, the contemporary re-creation of the Chinese people as a roughly homogeneous mass—the peasant army in a modern, sophisticated avatar—no longer peasants but retaining the quality of “mass” all the same.

At the geoeconomic level, economic reach is the ability of China to build its own economy and sustain its economic growth by gaining and maintaining access to geographically diverse external sources of economic wealth (whether by way of access to raw materials from foreign lands or through market expansion of Chinese products in foreign lands). China’s geostrategy translates economic reach into geographical reality over a time frame that is predetermined by the state.

In other words, at the geostrategic level, strategic reach is the ability to shape the probable battlespace by enabling access and logistic support to Chinese commercial and State entities (including military entities) throughout China’s areas of geopolitical interest, so as to enable and/or facilitate economic reach while avoiding placing all geoeconomic eggs in a single basket.

In some cases, this geoeconomic reach can be realized within a purely land-centric (continental) frame of geographic access. For instance, Mongolia, which has substantial reserves of high quality coking coal, is an important focus of China’s overland strategic reach. Likewise, Russian overland exports of oil, gas and
minerals (especially iron ore) increasingly feed the voracious economic appetite of China and have catapulted China into
Russia’s largest trade partner, ahead of Germany. In the case of Vietnam, too, where the principal exports to China are oil and coal, a significant amount of the trade is overland, since the 1,300 km border is shared between the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi and eight provinces of Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam have invested billions in highway and railway infrastructure to facilitate their bilateral overland trade. China’s significant imports of refined copper and copper ore from Laos also move predominantly along overland trade routes.

myanmar-kazakhstan-oil-gas-pipelineHowever, to meet the ever-growing demand for mineral resources and petroleum-based energy that is required to sustain China’s economic growth, the bulk of China’s imports of these resources are being drawn from increasingly distant areas that are either accessible only by sea or where seaborne transit offers the most cost-effective movement in terms of volume, time, and space. In fact, the maritime component of her geostrategy is so large that China is increasingly forced to venture into the uncertainties of becoming very nearly a pure maritime power. In China today, there is widespread recognition that a competent and well-balanced blue-water navy is the only military instrument that can obtain and sustain a favorable geopolitical situation in all the dynamic shifts that characterize international relations between China and the nation states upon which her geoeconomy depends. Indeed, the economy is simultaneously China’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability, and therefore, it is the centerpiece of the country’s policy and strategy. This is, of course, true of India as well.

ESPOAn ever-increasing demand for energy fuels China and India’s economic growth. Although the share of coal is still the largest in the energy-basket of both countries, oil consumption is growing so rapidly that it is driving the foreign policy and security perspectives of both China and India.  In 1985, China was East Asia’s largest exporter of oil. In 1993, China became a net importer, and in 2015, she became the largest importer of crude oil on the planet. By April 2015, China was importing a staggering 7.4 million barrels per day (bbd) and by 2020, China will be importing an estimated 9.2 million bbd of crude-oil.

myanmar-china-oil-gas-pipeline-300x225For all the marvelous engineering, the three main crude oil pipelines into China (the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline (ESPO), the Kazakhstan-China oil Pipeline and the Myanmar-China oil pipeline), taken in aggregate, cater for a mere 15% of China’s crude oil imports. Almost all of the enormous quantity of crude oil that China imports either lies within or must travel across the Indian Ocean and must transit one or more of the chokepoints that connect the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. These are: the Malacca Strait, the Sunda Strait, the Lombok strait, and the Ombai-Wetar strait. Of these, the Malacca Strait and the Lombok Strait of are particular importance to China and constitute what Chinese leaders term the “Malacca Dilemma.”

It is prudent to remember that the terms “energy security” and “security-of-energy” are not mere semantic variations. Energy security is the degree to which the available or assured and affordable energy exceeds the demand. The security-of-energy, on the other hand, is the physical security of the energy as it flows across or under the sea or over the land. Consequently, China, as a country, concerns itself with energy security, while the Chinese Navy concerns itself with the security-of-energy.

Conscious of all this, China is executing a geostrategy that will enable her to assure her geoeconomic needs. As in the famous Chinese game of Go, the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space.

The second part of this article will explore China’s geostrategic execution further.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Topic Week Wraps Up on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

We received a strong and quality response to our Call for Articles requesting publications on India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific. Our authors were diverse in background and experience. Their analysis highlighted competition between India and China in the maritime domain, various foreign policy initiatives of the Modi administration, and India’s aspiration to assume greater influence and responsibility on the international stage. We thank our authors for their excellent contributions.

Below is a list of the articles that featured during the topic week, with relevant excerpts outlining the main thrust of each publication’s analysis. 

India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order by MAJ Chad Pillai

“As the United States increasingly faces challenges to its global power by Iran, Russia, and China, its relationship with India will grow in strategic importance.”

How The Indian Ocean Remains Central to India’s Emerging Aspirations by Vidya Sagar Reddy

“Safe maritime connectivity, external trading, and overseas investments require India develop political confidence in its neighborhood and a dedicated navy to ensure secure seas.”

India-China Competition Across the Indo-Pacific by David Scott

“Implicit competition in what has been dubbed “a new great game for influence in the Indo-Pacific” between these two rising powers is the order of the day in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the West Pacific, and the South Pacific.”

Sino-India Strategic Rivalry: Misperception or Reality by Ching Chang

“Whether the maritime competition between China and India is in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea may prove to be only an elusive speculation though seemingly plausible.”

Diluting the Concentration of Regional Power Players in Maldives by MAJ Ahmed Mujuthaba

“Even though it is popular for its crystalline waters and sun bathed beaches, recently Maldives has been appearing on the minds and finds of security strategists. So why have strategists shifted their gaze to this tiny tourist destination all of a sudden?  Two reasons: India and China.”

Strategic Maritime Balancing in Sino-Indian Foreign Policy by Ryan Kuhns

“Not only have the mountain passes and peaks of the Himalayas become zones for potential conflict, where in the past they served as natural buffers, but the shared space of the Indo-Pacific also links the interests and security concerns of present day India and China.”

India in the Asia-Pacific: Roles as a ‘Balancer’ and Net Security Provider by Ajaya Kumar Das

“While India’s ascendance to great power status will take time, owing to domestic constraints, how India positions itself in the Indo-Pacific balance of power and rises as a ‘net security provider’ will contribute significantly to its security and status.”

Modi’s Asia-Pacific Push by Vivek Mishra

“The Modi government’s strongly maritime oriented foreign policy launched in 2014 has proven somewhat rewarding, particularly in helping the Indian Navy transcend its image of a force that punches below its weight. The politico-strategic recalibration by India in its Asia-Pacific policy has sought to retool its mid-1990s Look East policy with more purpose.”

Understanding Sino-Indian Relations – A Theoretical Perspective by Byron Chong

“The analysis will show that Sino-Indian relations reflect a peculiar kind of stability: although their relationship will continue to be marked by distrust and intermittent disputes, the risk of escalation to war remains unlikely. In general, Sino-Indian relations are influenced by four factors: (1) their history of enmity; (2) strategic competition; (3) nuclear relations; and (4) trade.”

India as a Net Security-Provider in the Indian Ocean and Beyond by VADM Pradeep Chauhan (ret)

“The Prime Minister’s firm declaration of national intent for India to be a net security-provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond, means the various connotations of maritime security (defined as freedom from threats emanating ‘in’, ‘from’, or ‘through’ the medium of the sea can no longer be denied centrality in any serious consideration of India’s national security.” 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Reach the CIMSEC editorial team at Nextwar@cimsec.org.