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Inaugural Address by Amb Sujan R. Chinoy on Deciphering China – The Maritime Context

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  • Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy
    November 26, 2020
    Inaugural Address by Amb Sujan R. Chinoy, DG, MP-IDSA

    Webinar Jointly Organised by
    Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB), Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and Press Institute of India (PII)
    Deciphering China – The Maritime Context
    26 November 2020; 0935-0955 hrs

    Good morning.

    Mr Sashi Nair, Director, Press Institute of India, Chennai,

    Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chairman, National Maritime Foundation (NMF),

    Commodore R.S. Vasan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S),

    Esteemed Participants,

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    I am grateful to the Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB), Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and Press Institute of India (PII) for inviting me to deliver the inaugural address on the theme of “Deciphering China-The Maritime Context”.

    Today, the world is undergoing a fundamental transformation. A fragile international compact has been further weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The priority in every country is to contain the pandemic and stimulate economic recovery.

    Yet, amidst unprecedented change in a world in flux, this fateful day of the 26th of November is accompanied by keen remembrance for all those who lost their lives in the gruesome terrorist attacks on Mumbai by sea-borne terrorists from Pakistan. This heart-wrenching anniversary reminds us that terrorism remains one of the greatest threats to peace and progress everywhere. It also reminds us that India’s vast coastline and the seas beyond are so important to our national security.

    Friends, today, under the overhang of great uncertainty, international relations are increasingly characterised by a proclivity to ‘weaponise’ trade and technology. There is little doubt that the world is rapidly cleaving itself into mutually exclusive camps, especially in 5G and AI. Overall, power is fractured. Hedging and multi-aligning are part of every country’s strategic toolkit.      

    Even before the politics of the pandemic took center-stage, the US-China trade war had been hugely disruptive. Efforts at de-coupling from excessive reliance on tenuous and exploitative trade ties will continue, and building alternative and resilient supply chains are key objectives for many a nation, but all this will take time.

    In our part of the world, China’s rise has not been smooth. The West took 150 years to achieve an enduring balance of power through a long process of industrialization, war, and multiple treaties to forge peace. In China’s case, change has been so rapid that it is not just the outside world that has found it difficult to adjust to China’s rise. China itself seems quite unprepared to accurately comprehend the implications of such fundamental changes in its power and influence. China expects the entire world to adjust to the accretion in its economic and military heft. However, in its haste to scale to the top, it is unwilling to acknowledge the achievements or accommodate the aspirations of other countries, especially democracies that offer an alternative model to China’s centralised authoritarian systems of growth and governance. It is also perhaps over-reaching.

    China aims to become a moderately developed country by 2021, the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party’s establishment. Furthermore, it seeks to modernize its military forces by 2035 and to realize the “China dream”—the emergence of a strong, modern, and rejuvenated Chinese nation—by 2050. The party’s mantra of “community of a shared future for mankind” seems an ill-concealed effort to reinvent the Middle Kingdom, with China at the centre of a new world order. Policies such as Made in China 2025 and the creation of vast physical and digital infrastructure networks linking China’s manufacturing nodes with global markets through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are part of the stratagem.

    China’s rise reminds one, at once, of the experience of the colonial powers and later, the reactions against Wilhelmine Germany and Imperial Japan.

    In the past, colonial powers such as the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British were motivated to acquire extraterritorial privileges and to consolidate their presence using mare liberum and mare clausum strategies in the Indian Ocean. These privileges enabled the colonial powers to secure trading rights and monopolies over raw materials for manufacturing centres back home, and markets for finished products. Today, China appears to be driven by similar neo-colonial considerations through the twin-prongs of the BRI, that is, the continental Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road.

    Historically, China was primarily a landward-oriented power, except for the short interlude during the Ming Dynasty marked by the voyages of Admiral Zheng He in the opening decades of the 15th century. However, within a hundred years of Zheng He, the Ming emperors had abandoned their naval fleet and left it to rot, apparently out of concern at the implications of global trade, the change in China that it was bound to bring about, and, the rise of a merchant community in China. For the next two hundred years, China retreated into a shell, just as the European powers were hitting their stride and exploiting an industrial revolution backed by endless supply chains extending to their colonies.

    As successor to the Ming, the Qing dynasty was obsessed with expansion of its continental power. It undertook territorial campaigns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia. The Qing’s limited experience with naval power was not exactly an exhilarating one. It was marked by a major land-sea defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895 resulting in the Treaty of Shimonoseki and the loss of Taiwan, Penghu and the Liaodong Peninsula. It also resulted in a loss of influence in the Korean peninsula.

    Some of the earliest military engagements that the People’s Republic of China entered into after its formation in 1949 were continental in nature. Many were aimed at gaining control over a periphery that China had long coveted. This included the Korean War between 1950-53, China’s assistance to Vietcong during the Vietnam War in 1960s and early 1970s, border conflict with India in 1962, and invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

    This is not to say that the People’s Republic of China did not give thought to maritime issues. In fact, it inherited all the maritime territorial claims of the Republic of China, just as it did its specious continental claims. Traditionally, the PRC and Taiwan both had identical revanchist claims over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and over the disputed islands, rocks and natural features in the South China Sea. But until recently, the People’s Republic did not have the capacity to assert itself. 

    All this has now changed.

    After the September 2001 attacks, the US’ priority shifted to the war on international terror. It left a vacuum in the Asia Pacific which was systematically exploited by China.

    Simultaneously, China has used the last two decades to transform its brown water navy into a blue water one. China’s naval modernisation has enabled it to expand its focus and area of operations from its ‘near sea’ to the ‘far seas’. China believes that a strong, powerful and modern blue water navy is a key instrument in the realization of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Accretion in naval power has allowed China to significantly ramp up its presence in the Indian Ocean, where no less than 32 task forces have rotated over the last decade under one pretext or the other. China has also tried to promote the Artic Silk Road, by declaring itself as a “near Artic State” in 2018.  

    Today, China remains one of the fastest-growing navies in the world. In sheer numbers, it is also the largest navy, having overtaken the formidable US navy. Even with a surge in Chinese naval capabilities, the American navy as well as the navies of several other countries, including Japan, remain well ahead in sophistication. US carrier battle groups are far more numerous; its aircraft carriers are at least twice the size of China’s nascent aircraft carrier fleet and far more advanced.

    China may not yet be a peer of the US in naval power, but it has certainly sought to bridge the gap through asymmetrical means, by developing anti-access area-denial strategies, anti-ship and carrier-killer missiles and by developing capacities to target space-based ISR assets of the adversary.

    In recent years, there has been a fresh spurt in US naval commitment to the region. It is reflected in the renaming of its Pacific Command from USPACOM to USINDOPACOM. The outgoing U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite has announced that the navy should create a new fleet within the Indo-Pacific theatre to take some pressure off the 7th Fleet. Under a Biden administration, the US should work to strengthen its alliance partnerships in the region.

    Today, it is China’s own actions that are defining the evolving strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific. The Belt & Road Initiative, “debt trap” diplomacy with island nations, China’s fictitious territorial claims and island-grabbing spree in the South China Sea, its quest for ports and basing rights along the Indian Ocean littoral, and a divide-and-rule stratagem in South-east Asia and South Asia are actively shaping the contours of the Indo-Pacific vision of many countries. Effectively, one can say that it is China’s actions that are giving a sense of purpose and direction to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

    A fundamental fact of the last two decades is that an ambitious China has been virtually seeking the expulsion of the US, and other major powers from its periphery. This has huge implications for the region’s peace, security and prosperity.

    China has long regarded US presence in the Asia Pacific as an impediment to its domination of Asia. This is ironic, because the US and others such as France and Britain have historically been part of the region, and the US has been a key factor in the region’s economic prosperity and political stability after the end of the Second World War, including China’s. Other European powers such as Germany which are showing interest in an open and transparent rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, also have deep stakes and are integral to the region’s future. We must welcome them.

    This naturally grates against China’s narrow definition of “Asia for Asians” which is a China-centric concept that excludes several genuine stakeholders with long-standing interests in the region.

    For India, China’s growing forays and presence in the Indian Ocean region are a matter of growing concern. China’s disruptive forays in Sri Lanka and Maldives and the growing area of operations of Chinese submarines, its deep sea mining in the central Indian Ocean, its efforts to acquire OTR and berthing facilities, from Hambantota to Gwadar to Djibouti, are all matters of concern. Of course, China has a right to engage in normal activity in the region, like all others. However, it is the lack of transparency and China’s opaque motives that lead to apprehensions. It is difficult for China to convince the world that its objectives are anodyne when it deploys submarines in the Indian Ocean on the pretext of conducting anti-piracy operations, and attempts to take over ports through debt-trap diplomacy.

    In the South China Sea, the sharpening regional geopolitical contestations are reflected in China’s preposterous claims and the building and militarisation of islands. China has consistently sought to fracture ASEAN consensus on its periphery and manipulate the outcomes in the Code of Conduct that is under negotiation. China is a member of UNCLOS yet engages in activities that violate the sanctity of UNCLOS. It has refused to accept UNCLOS rulings.

    Ironically, alongside friction with China, ASEAN’s dependence on China is growing at the same time, for economic prosperity as well as security. The ten ASEAN states seem to speak out as a group but individually, they all seem to want to avoid taking sides between China and the US.   

    It is interesting to note that China is the only major power directly involved in the Code of Conduct negotiations with ASEAN. Yet, what happens in the South China Sea is of direct consequence to the whole world. One suspects that ASEAN centrality could be exploited by China to dilute narratives in the Indo-Pacific that could prove inimical to Chinese interests. 

    In the Pacific, a new contestation pits US programmes such as the BUILD Act, ARIA and Asia EDGE against the inducements offered by China to small island nations. Japan and Australia have also joined hands with the US in the Blue Dot network and the Indo Pacific Business Forum to promote infrastructure and connectivity. This region is somewhat distant to India’s individual interests, but yet, India has been enhancing its presence in the Pacific Ocean through friendly port calls, participation in the RIMPAC exercises and building a stronger partnership with Australia and New Zealand, the traditional powers in the South Pacific.

    My remarks would remain incomplete if I did not say something about the QUAD. China’s suspicions about both the Indo-Pacific and the QUAD run deep. It views the Indo-Pacific concept as a direct threat to the BRI. China believes that trilateral and other dialogue structures involving the US, Japan and India and the US, Japan and Australia, are aimed at strengthening the QUAD which it considers as an Asian NATO. China can be expected to continue to use its old “wei qi” mind-set to view the QUAD as “encirclement” of China. This is ironic since China has actively sought to use a “wei qi” stratagem to buttonhole others in the region. 

    In recent years, nuanced differences among the QUAD countries seem to have narrowed down.

    The very fact that China no longer describes it as “ocean foam” that would “soon dissipate” is testimony to the fact that the QUAD is gradually acquiring traction.

    China would not have failed to note that it was India’s decision that permitted the QUAD to meet at the ministerial level last year. Again it is movement in India’s position that has permitted Australia to participate in the 2020 Malabar exercise. For long, China has taken it for granted that the Asia-Pacific is its oyster with China its pearl. It does not have the same confidence about the Indo-Pacific which is a broader, more egalitarian and more representative geography which recognises the potential of India, Indonesia, and many others.

    In terms of next steps, there is scope to convene a QUAD meeting in the 2+2 format, with foreign and civilian defence officials participating alongside at the level of the Director Generals to begin with, and gradually elevating the dialogue to Permanent Secretary/Vice Minister and then moving up to Ministerial-level.

    One should avoid calling the QUAD a coalition of democracies though, even if the four countries at the “core” are democracies. This would ensure a more comfortable fit with other countries at the periphery, such as Vietnam, that may not be democracies. After all, the Indo-Pacific region has all manner of political and economic systems.

    At the core, the focus of the QUAD must be on the strategic character of the grouping. At the periphery, the QUAD could build a network of cooperation that takes into account pressing economic and developmental aspects in the Indo-Pacific. In effect, I advocate a harder core and a softer and inclusive periphery for the QUAD in the QUAD Plus format.

    It is clear that an ensuring security architecture for the 21st century will continue to be predicated on openness and transparency, rule of law, freedoms of navigation and overflight, and, unimpeded commerce on the high seas. And, India’s contribution to this will be of great significance.

    Thank you.