Special Commentary: Gwadar and China’s Search for a Maritime Lebensraum

19 Feb, 2013    ·   3821

Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar analyses the country’s naval growth model and the larger characteristics of its maritime strategy

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

The end of the Cold War brought in its wake prognostication of the emergence of one world in which harmony, democracy, an end to conflict and of man’s ideological evolution with the grand formulation that western liberal democracy had prevailed (Fukuyama, 1989: 4, 18). Some saw a multi polar order and the arrival of China; others forecast a clash of civilisations (Huntington, 1997: 30-39). However, these conjectures found little use in understanding the realities of the post Cold War world, as each represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day is ‘uncertainty’ as marked by the tensions of multi polarity; tyranny of economics; anarchy of expectations; and a polarisation along religio-cultural lines, all compacted in the cauldron of globalisation.

The West saw in globalisation, a process which transformed the world in their mould through the adoption of western values, free markets, rule of law, flow of western capital and embracing of democratic norms. While globalisation with Chinese characteristics is about state capitalism, supremacy of central authority, controlled markets and currency and influence through power. It factored endemic instability, underscoring the premium on military power and the fundamental contradictions that existed, perceiving them as threatening the Chinese State and its dispensation, and as an impediment to growth and development. Against this backdrop, is the politics of competitive resource access which rationalised the use of military power. It is in this perspective that Chinese maritime strategy must be gauged.

Economic Power and China's Case for Lebensraum
China’s quest to secure rights of passage to the sea is to insure against the uncertainties of access to resources. It has led the country to the ‘Northern Passage’ (Shankar, 2012); significantly, the route avoids two sensitive ‘choke points’, the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal. China also theorises that the road to securing lines of communication is through a strategy of ‘Access Denial.’ The strategy was founded on China's security concern with Taiwan where its logic is obvious. But, enabling such a strategy on a global scale invites confrontation.

Today, China is the world’s largest exporter; its economy is second to the US and it is the third largest energy consumer. When we look at the growth pattern of India since liberalisation, we note a similar trend. Indeed, with one third of this growth being powered by trade to the East and China, our largest trading partner, the requirement to secure these interests becomes vital. In this circumstance, the race to garner resources by two very large economies is fraught. But the real alarm is that China seeks to influence and dominate international regulatory and security institutions without bringing about a change within its own biological morphology.

China’s disputed claims on the South China Sea (SCS); its handling of internal dissent; and proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases, that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within. The emergence of China from out of its defensive maritime perimeters, as defined by the first and second island chains, into the Indian Ocean is seen as the coming ‘Third Security Chain’. Gone is the ‘power bashfulness’ that marked the Deng era, in its place is a cockiness that is discernible by the contemporary conviction that “the-world-needs-China-more-than-China-the-world”.

Evolution of China's Maritime Strategy
China published its sixth Defence White Paper in January 2008. The paper notes that struggle for cornering strategic resources, dominating geographically vital areas and tenanting strategic locations have intensified. Power as a natural currency of politics remained the preferred instrument. Under these circumstances, the portents for conflict are ever present and would therefore demand preparedness, modernisation and strategic orientation of a nature that would serve to neutralise friction (Cheng-Kun, 2008: 49-60). Central to the Paper is that “influence of military-security factors on international relations is mounting”. ‘Active Defence’, embracing the development of bases overseas to launch strategy along with advanced assault and enhanced strike capabilities, remained the means. Doctrinal underpinnings to realise such capabilities and the development of ‘Access Denial and Control’ strategy are now at the core of Chinese military thought (Cheng-Kun: ibid).

Two events of the 1990s have shaped Chinese strategy. From the Gulf War of 1991, China took home a reason for strategic pre-emption (Wilson and Xue, 2006: 237). The second was the Taiwan crisis of 1995-1996, where the US deployment of two carrier groups in the Strait embarrassingly infringed sovereignty. These episodes triggered the ‘Access Denial’ strategy. The development of capabilities, in material terms, operational precepts and strategic alliances threaten to upset the status quo. Operating from infrastructure cultivated in Sittwe and Aan in Myanmar, Hambantotta in Sri Lanka, Maroa in the Maldives and Gwadar in Pakistan gives legs to long range access denial.

Specific operational deployments to muscle China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean may include one carrier group; Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarine on deterrent patrol; nuclear powered attack submarines on sea lines patrol with cooperating surface groups and maritime patrol aircrafts; long range maritime strike aircrafts operating from Aan or Gwadar; one amphibious brigade standby with transports on hand at one of the ‘string of pearls.’ A regiment of ASAT missiles, along with cyber teams to wage information warfare that will seek to paralyse hostile operations.

To Counter an Enabled Theory
The principal demand of maritime operations is to attain a strategic position that would permit control of oceanic spaces. It therefore comes as no surprise that China develops forces and alliances necessary to realise an ‘access denial’ strategy. Consistent with theory is their shipbuilding programme of escorts and scouts to exercise control; and aircraft carriers assisted by strike and denial forces for security of control. Control and security of control is the classic model that China’s naval growth has been inspired by.

China has unambiguously articulated its three strategic objectives; stability, growth and regional pre-eminence. The problem with such sweeping strategies, specifically the coming ‘Third Security Chain’ superimposed on access denial, is its blindness to recognise that we are dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons”. The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high. The only consideration that could deter a collision is the ability of India to attain a strategic posture that serves to stabilise. India’s relationship with the US provides opportunity to establish cooperative security in the region that could counterpoise China’s self-centred view of globalisation.