Kowtowing to Chinese Maritime Power Is Not a Good Strategy

I came across an essay titled China is Not Alone in Adding to the Indian Ocean Woes in the Economic & Political Weekly’s 28th April edition.

The article makes three points regarding maritime power in the Indian Ocean region. Each of the three points deserve closer scrutiny and hence this post.

The first point is that maritime power rests not just on managing the maximum number of ships and submarines but also on the control over maritime finance and particularly on maritime services. In the author’s words:

War vessels and merchantmen are the two most visible elements of power at sea. However, the marine service industry, the most important arm of maritime power generally remains obscured. The marine service sector regulates and organises the diverse maritime cluster. This silent force operates in the realm of marine manufacturing, marine legal services, engineering, and technology, and supports the charter, insurance, sale, and purchase of maritime assets. It also determines freight and cargo rates. It is this sector that helped Britain sustain its empire for another 75 years, after the US had become the centre of international manufacturing by the 1870s.

This is a point well made. Given that India’s current approach does not factor in the significance of maritime service industry, effectiveness of India’s exercise of maritime power will continue to be limited in the short-term.

The second point is that India should not solely be focused on China’s maritime expansion in the Indian Ocean:

We are afraid of the Chinese empire-in-the-making while being oblivious to the dangers that the existing American empire poses to the Indian Ocean region. We are so bothered about the Chinese developing a base in Djibouti, but have been oblivious of the fact that France and the US already have a base over there… We do not know how Chinese hegemony will work in the future, but we know the exploitative and heinous character of the French and the British Empires. The question is, why are we not as afraid of the West as we are of the Chinese?

From a realist perspective, this argument makes sense. Increase in power of the other states affects India’s ability to achieve its own objectives. The law of the jungle is indeed the nature of international relations but even so — and this is what the article misses — a bigger animal eats the smaller animal only when it is hungry. And as things stand, there’s only one state with the hunger for expansion in Indian Ocean. So, India must swing on this issue with the US and other powers to restrict the most imminent threat. This collaboration is also necessary to address the first point — building a maritime ecosystem (including a maritime services industry) of its own.

The third point the article makes is:

We cannot move ahead on the presumption that the Chinese empire will be bad. Who knows, it may be a little better and more peaceful than the wretched, iniquitous world that Anglo-American capital has created. The Indian navalists must be a little more judicious and not allow the Indian Navy to be used as a projectile to counter China.

Now this argument is far removed from reality. There is enough evidence to suggest that a Sinocentric world order will not align with India’s quest for yogakshema — peace and prosperity for all Indians. For a start, look at the way China has alienated — simultaneously and purposively — a new generation of peoples in all of its neighbouring countries. Then look at how the Chinese Communist Party has imposed one language on a diverse set of its own peoples. And finally, just glance at its social credit system to see the Chinese vision for the future.

Of course, the US conduct on the liberal international order that it carried forward from Europe has hardly been untainted. But the failings of the US cannot not be used to give a free pass to China.The reason is that irrespective of what the US does, India is fundamentally aligned with the norm of a liberal international order, for its own national interests. We must question the US when it deviates from this norm. But in a Sinocentric world, this norm itself will cease to exist.

This is what I wrote in Pragati a few days ago:

Legitimacy for the Chinese way of reordering the world is constrained by an essentially hierarchical Chinese worldview — one that divides the world between ‘civilisation’ and ‘non-civilisation’ depending on the extent of sinicisation a region has gone through. This makes the idea of a Pax Sinica a repulsive proposition to most states, let alone illegitimate. So, even if China were to become the most powerful state in the world, it is unlikely that it will become the most authoritative actor.

 

 

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