Tag Archives: geopolitics

The US-India Logistics Agreement and its Implications for Asia’s Strategic Balance

The following article was originally featured by the Pacific Forum-CSIS’s PacNet series and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.           

By Abhijit Singh 

Recently, editorial columns in Indian newspapers have become a battleground for strategic commentators to debate the merits of India’s defense logistics pact with the United States. Despite a public declaration by the Indian government regarding the “non-military” nature of the Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement (LEMOA), the pact hasn’t resonated favorably with a section of India’s strategic elite, who reject the idea of providing the US military with operational access to Indian facilities. New Delhi might have much to gain from the LEMOA, which could be critical in establishing a favorable balance of power in Asia.

The critics argue that the arrangement does not benefit India in the same way that it advantages the US military. As a leading Indian defense analyst put it, “the government seems to have been guided more by the fear of being accused of succumbing to pressure from Washington and less by an evaluation of whether this might benefit India’s military.” As a result, Indian defense ministry officials find themselves under pressure to explain why they believe an agreement with the US on military logistics is in India’s best interests.

New Delhi’s stock response has been that the pact is strictly “conditional,” and allows access to supplies and services to the military forces of both countries only when engaged in a specific set of predetermined activities. At a press conference in Washington after the signing of the agreement, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was at pains to explain that the agreement has nothing to do with the setting up of a military base. “It’s only about logistics support to each other’s fleet” he averred, “like supply of fuel, supply of many other things which are required for joint operations, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.”

And yet there is little denying that in today’s maritime environment, every ‘place’ that provides logistics support essentially performs the role of a peacetime military base, albeit in limited ways. This is because operational logistics is the life-blood of contemporary maritime missions. Any ocean-going navy that can secure logistical pit-stops can guarantee itself a wider operational footprint in distant littorals. In fact, leading maritime powers, including the United States, Russia and China, are reluctant to set up permanent bases in distant lands because what they aim to achieve in terms of strategic presence is made possible through low-level repair and replenishment ‘places.’  To be sure, with over 800 foreign military installations, the US still has a globe-girdling presence, but few of its existing overseas facilities are permanent military bases.

To better appreciate why foreign military bases do not enjoy the same appeal as in earlier times, one must study the history of their evolution. The permanent naval base was a product of 19th-century politics when Britain, the leading maritime power, set up a network of military bases around the world to sustain its global supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, Britain was replaced by the United States, which soon came to dominate the world’s economic and strategic landscape. The US system of military bases consisted of several thousand installations at hundreds of basing sites in over 100 countries. The logic of the military basing system was intimately related to the dynamics of conflict. A military base was seen as a forward deployment position to enforce a denial regime on the enemy. It was a useful way of keeping the pressure on adversaries, and it allowed the US military to dominate the international system and prevent the rise of another hegemon.

But the logic of overseas bases has eroded. The absence of a real war in the intervening years has seen the law of diminishing returns kick in vis-à-vis foreign military bases, and an attenuation of their animating rationale. After struggling with rising domestic opposition to its military presence in Asia, the United States has been looking for more pragmatic options.

Since prolonged military presence on a foreign land isn’t a practical solution to any of its strategic problems, the US has been prioritizing logistics pacts that involve continuing support of rotational troops but no permanent deployments. These are variants of the “Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreements” (ACSAs) – or logistical arrangements for military support, supplies, and services (food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment) – that the United States shares with many of its NATO partners. And yet, despite being avowedly in support of peacetime operations and regional humanitarian contingencies, these pacts have not changed the public perception that US military presence overseas advance America’s imperialist ambitions.

A case in point is the recent Extended Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Manila, which provides the US military access to five military bases in Philippines. Even though the agreement was signed in 2014, strong domestic opposition within Philippines from civil rights groups resulted in a legal stalemate at the country’s Supreme Court. In January this year, when the court finally ruled in the pact’s favor, its decision seemed motivated mainly by the China-factor – the increased threat posed by China in the Philippines’ near-seas.

While the defense pact has a limited objective – enabling US troops to rotate through the Philippines, ensuring a persistent but intermittent presence – the new military facilities in Philippines aren’t expected to be any less potent than the United States’ erstwhile permanent bases in the country. The infrastructure will facilitate a spectrum of peacetime missions in the South China Sea, including training and capacity building, area patrols, aerial surveys, and fleet exercises. It will also enable the Philippines to call upon the US for critical military assistance in the event of a crisis.

The United States isn’t the only country to depend on military logistics pacts to achieve broader strategic objectives. Increasingly, China is resorting to the same means. The PLA’s logistical base at Djibouti doesn’t just provide support for China’s anti-piracy missions, but also enables a round-the-year naval presence in the Indian Ocean. What is more, China’s recent commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean Region seem more in the nature of dual-use bases, which can quickly be upgraded to medium-grade military facilities in a crisis.

New Delhi must come to terms with the fact that LEMOA’s utility lies in facilitating greater US-India operational coordination in Asia. Notwithstanding Parrikar’s assurances to the contrary, closer maritime interaction between India and the US will increasingly involve operational access to each other’s bases for strategic purposes. Even if the necessary cooperation is cleared on a case-by-case basis and driven mainly by regional capacity building and HADR needs, the Indian Navy and the US Navy might find themselves acting increasingly in concert to achieve common strategic objectives in the regional commons.

This does not mean LEMOA promotes US geopolitical interests at India’s expense. If anything, the pact empowers the Indian Navy to expand its own operations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an aspiration that the Navy professed to recently when it released a map for public viewing that showed Indian naval deployments over the past 12 months, spread across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region.

Given the fraught nature of security in the Asian commons, India has been looking for ways to emphasize a rules-based order in the region. To consolidate its status as a crucial security provider, the Indian Navy will need to act in close coordination with the US Navy, the leading maritime power in Indo-Pacific, to ensure a fair, open, and balanced regional security architecture.

Abhijit Singh (abhijit.singh27@gmail.com), a former Indian naval officer, is Senior Fellow and Head, Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter at @abhijit227.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks with Indian Naval Officers as he tours Indian Naval Station Karwar as part of a visit to the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, April 11, 2016. Carter is visiting India to solidify the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.(Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

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

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

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

Editor-in-Chief’s Note

Part I of this two-part article introduced the geoeconomic and geostrategic imperatives that shape China’s geopolitical drives. It also presented the overarching concept of “reach” as an aid to understanding the international import of China’s military strategy. Read Part I here.

In this second and concluding part of the article series the author explores Chinese strategic intent and its ramifications. The article provides an account of the naval facilities China is promoting or constructing on disputed islands among littoral states of the Indian Ocean; assesses China’s economic linkages with African nations; and projects the growth curve of the Chinese Navy, all of which are important to keep in view while analyzing the trajectory of Chinese geo-strategic intent.

By emphasizing the factor of temporal strategic-surprise (in contrast to spatial surprise), the author offers clues to understanding the links between China’s military strategy and her geopolitical international game-moves as they are being played out within a predominantly maritime paradigm. As in the famous Chinese game of Go—perhaps a more apt analogy than chess—the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space. The author explores the spatial and temporal dimensions of the Chinese strategy and the related vulnerabilities of the opposing Indian establishment.

In his 2006 dissertation written at the US Army War College then-Lt. Col Christopher J. Pehrson, USAF, termed the Chinese geostrategy the “String of Pearls.” This expression, first used in January 2005 in a report to U.S. military officials prepared by the U.S. consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton, caught the attention of the world’s imagination. Pehrson posited China as a slightly sinister, rising global power, playing a new strategic game, as grandiose in its concept, formulation and execution as the “Great Game” of the 19th century. Despite vehement and frequent denials by Chinese leadership of any such geostrategic machinations designed at the accumulation of enhanced geopolitical and geoeconomic power and influence, the expression rapidly embedded itself into mainstream consciousness.

Image Courtesy: Chinausfocus.com
China’s One Road, One Belt economic infrastructure initiative. (Chinausfocus.com)

As a net result, for over a decade, China has chafed under the opprobrium heaped upon it for a concept that (to be fair) it had never once articulated by the state. However, in a brilliant rebranding exercise by Beijing in 2014, the world’s attention is being increasingly drawn away from the negative connotations associated with the phrase String of Pearls and towards the more benign-sounding 21st century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt, also known as “One Road, One Belt.” This presents an alternative expression, while it nevertheless covers essentially the very same geostrategic maritime game-plays that Colonel Pehrson explained a decade ago. The new expression emphasizes transregional inclusiveness and evokes the romance of a shared pan-Asian history with the implied promise of a reestablishment of the economic prosperity that the Asian continent’s major civilizational and socio-cultural entities, namely China and India, enjoyed until the 18th century.

Each “pearl” in the String of Pearls construct—or in more contemporary parlance, each “node” along the Maritime Silk Route—is a link in a chain of Chinese geopolitical and geostrategic influence. For example, Hainan Island, with its recently upgraded military facilities and sheltered submarine base, is a pearl/node.

It is by no means necessary for a line joining these pearls/nodes to encompass mainland China in one of the concentric ripples typified by the Island Chains strategy. In fact, since the Maritime Silk Route is a true maritime construct, it is highly unlikely that the nodes would do so.

Image Courtesy: chinahighlights.com
The location of Hainana Province, China. (chinahighlights.com)

Other pearls/nodes include the recent creation of artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly islands incorporating, inter alia, the ongoing construction/upgrade of airstrips on Woody Island—located in the Paracel Islands, some 300 nm east of Vietnam—as also on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. Additional pearls/nodes have been obtained through Chinese investments in Cambodia and China’s continuing interest in Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra.

China’s development of major maritime infrastructure abroad—the container terminal in Chittagong, Bangladesh; the Maday crude oil terminal in Myanmar’s Kyakpyu port; the development of ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, Beira in Mozambique, Walvis Bay in Namibia, Kribi in Cameroon, the Djibouti Multipurpose Port (DMP), and the offer to even develop Chabahar in Iran (checkmated by a belated but vigorous Indian initiative), along with the successful establishment of a military (naval) base in Djibouti—all constitute yet more pearls/nodes. The development of an atoll in the Seychelles, oil infrastructure projects in Sudan and Angola, and the financing of newly discovered massive gas finds in offshore areas of Mozambique, Tanzania and the Comoros, are similarly recently acquired pearls/nodes. Even Australia yields a pearl/node, as does South Africa, thanks to Chinese strategic investment in mining in general and uranium-mining companies in particular, in both countries.

Chinese maritime policing vessel.
Chinese maritime policing vessel. (SCMP.com)

From an Indian perspective, China’s new strategic maritime-constructs (by whichever name) are simultaneously operative on a number of levels, several of which are predominantly economic in nature and portend nothing more than fierce competition. At the geostrategic level, however, the economy is at its apex and is China’s and India’s greatest strength and greatest vulnerability, at the same time; therefore, the economy is the centerpiece of the policy and strategy of both countries. This is precisely why, as the geographical competition space between India and China coincide in the Indian Ocean, there is a very real possibility of competition transforming into conflict, particularly as the adverse effects of climate change on resources and the available land area becomes increasingly more evident.

“Reach” has both spatial and temporal dimensions. The spatial facets of China’s geopolitical moves are evident, as illustrated in the preceding String of Pearls discussion. It is critical for India’s geopolitical and military analysts to also understand the temporal facets of this construct. The terms short term, medium term and long term are seldom used with any degree of digital precision. A nation tends to keep its collective “eye on the ball” in the short term and, by corollary, tends to assign far less urgency to something that is assigned to the long term. This ill-defined differentiation is how strategic surprise may be achieved in the temporal plane. For instance, in China, the short term generally implies 30 to 50 years. This is an epoch that is far in excess of what in India passes as the long term. Consequently, India fails to pay as close attention to developments in China as she might have were the developments to unfold in a duration corresponding to India’s own short term of 2-5 years. This distinction permits China to achieve strategic surprise, and this is as true of military strategy as it is of grand strategy and geoeconomics.

On the one hand, it should be remembered that these strategic constructs are not only about maritime infrastructure projects, involving the construction of ports, pipelines and airfields, though these developments constitute their most obvious and visibly worrisome manifestation. The strategy is equally about new, renewed or reinvigorated geopolitical and diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and nation states across a very wide geographical swath (including the African littoral and the island nations of both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean). On the other hand, China’s strategic maritime constructs have some important military spin-offs, which closely align to the furtherance of geostrategic reach. Thus, by developing friendly ports of call (if not bases), facilities and favorable economic dependencies in the various pearls/nodes, the logistics involved in the event of an engagement in maritime power-projection are greatly eased.

Type 904 (Dayun Class) Transport Ship (globalmil.com)

Supplementing the pearls/nodes are the Chinese Navy’s five impressive stores/ammunition supply ships of the Dayun Class (Type 904) and six underway replenishment tankers of the Qiandaohu Class (Type 903A). In addition, China requires ground control stations to meet her satellite-based needs of real-time surveillance. Unlike the United States, China simply does not have adequate ground control/tracking stations within the Indian Ocean to affect requisite ground control and real-time downlinking of her remote-sensing satellites. This forces her to deploy a number of ships (the Yuanwang Class) for this purpose. These constitute a severe vulnerability that China certainly needs to overcome. One way to do so is to establish infrastructure and acceptability along the IOR island states and along the East African littoral, as China is currently attempting to do.

The principal lack in the Chinese strategy to provide military substance to the country’s geoeconomic and geostrategic reach comes in the form of integral air power through aircraft carriers. China is rapidly learning that while one can buy or build an aircraft carrier in only a couple of years, it takes many more years to develop the human, material, logistic and doctrinal skills required for competent and battle worthy carrier-borne aviation. For nearly a decade now, China has demonstrated her ability to sustain persistent military (naval) presence in the Indian Ocean—albeit in a low threat environment. Combat capability is, of course, quite different from mere presence or even the ability to maintain anti-piracy forces, since the threat posed to China by disparate groups of poorly armed, equipped and led pirates can hardly be equated with that posed by a powerful and competent military adversary in times of conflict.

Despite the impressive growth of the Chinese Navy and the vigor of the Chinese military strategy, China may not, in the immediate present, have the combat capability to deploy for any extended period of time in support of its geoeconomic and geostrategic reach were they to be militarily contested by a major navy. However, as James Holmes points out, if India were to continue to cite shortfalls in current Chinese capability and conclude that it will take the PLA Navy at least fifteen years to station a standing, battle worthy naval squadron in the Indian Ocean, this would lull Indians into underplaying Chinese determination and the speed of that country’s military growth. This would carry the very real consequent possibility of India suffering a massive strategic surprise. Is that something that India can afford?

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

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.

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Here at CIMSEC, we often take time to learn from what was, and what might be… but why not delve into the world of what could have been?

What if Athens defeated Syracuse and her allies during the Sicilian expedition? What if Rome had mastered steam? What if the Holy League had lost the Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire? What if Commodore Perry had been killed after his arrival in Tokyo? What if ADM Makarov caught a break against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War? What if a major What if Iran had staged a far more effective war on commerce during the Tanker War? What if China had hit the American carrier during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis?

Any age of maritime history, any region – we are looking for stories of the battles and borders that never were, the diplomatic accords that never reached the table, and the nations, lives, and ideas that were never born. You can write about the world or the individual lives of those living in it. History is your canvas to revise and we look forward to hearing your stories.

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