The Perils of Strategic Narcissism
09 Jun, 2014 · 4498
Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar uses historical analogy to demonstrate the pitfalls of China’s current provocative behaviour
Vijay ShankarVice Admiral (Retd.)
China’s rise has powered an impulse to military growth and unilateral intervention which in turn evokes anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic milieu. The paradoxical effect is to undermine its own strategic standing.
The Franco-German War of 1870 forms a watershed in strategic thought. After the annexation of the North German Confederacy in 1866, Bismarck sought the Southern German States. He deceived the French into believing that a Prussian Prince would rule from the throne of Spain as a larger strategy of encirclement. By July 1870, France was conned into a seemingly ‘inevitable’ war. Germany through superior military craft and technology inflicted a crushing defeat on the host. In the process the balance of power in Europe was upset. The War, from deception, to alliances, provocation of crisis and defeat of the enemy forcing a one-sided negotiation could well have been scripted by Kautilya or, more significant to this narrative, Sun Tzu.
German victory ushered a strategic orientation to compete with the principal imperial power, Britain. Three strategic objectives swayed the rivalry: military dominance over land and sea; global economic and technological ascendancy in tandem with unimpeded access to primary resources; and thirdly, diplomatic and political pre-eminence. By 1890, Germany had established continental military dominance and a warship-build programme that would challenge British command of the seas. Economically, Germany had already overtaken Britain in heavy industries and innovation, capturing global markets and amassing capital. This in turn muscled influence and superiority in one sector after another.
A thirty-year projection in 1890 suggested that Germany, home to the most advanced industries having unimpeded access to resources of the earth, best universities, richest banks and a balanced society, would achieve her strategic goals and primacy. Yet precisely thirty years later, Germany lay in ruins, her economy in shambles, her people impoverished and her society fragmented. By 1920, her great power aspirations lay shamed between the pages of the Treaty of Versailles. The real lesson was that Germany’s quest for comprehensive power brought about a transformation amongst the status-quo powers to align against, despite traditional hostility (Britain and France; Britain and Russia) to contain and defeat a rising Germany that sought to upset the existing global order.
China in Perspective
Historical analogies are notorious in their inability to stage encores, yet they serve as means to understand the present.
Contemporary fears of nations are driven by four vital traumas: perpetuation of the State; impact of internal and external stresses; reconciliation with the international system; lastly, the conundrum of whether military power produces political outcomes. The paradigm of the day is ‘uncertainty’ with the tensions of multi-polarity, tyranny of economics, anarchy of expectations and polarisation along religio-cultural lines all compacted by globalisation.
If globalisation is a leveller to the rest of the world, to China, globalisation is about State capitalism, central supremacy, controlled markets, managed currency and hegemony. The military was to resolve fundamental contradictions that threatened the Chinese State. Significantly, globalisation provided the opportunity to alter the status-quo. Against this backdrop is the politics of competitive resource access and denial, which rationalised the use of force. It is in this perspective that the rise of China must be gauged.
China’s dazzling growth is set to overtake the US. Its rise has been accompanied by ambitions of global leadership. This has in turn spurred an unparalleled military growth. In this circumstance the race to garner resources by other major economies is fraught. But the real alarm is that China seeks to dominate international institutions without bringing about a change of her own morphology. China’s claims on the South and East China Sea; handling of internal dissent; proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases in point.
The emergence of China from its defensive maritime perimeters into the Indian Ocean is seen as the coming ‘Third Security Chain’. Gone is Deng’s ‘power bashfulness’; in its place is the conviction that the-world-needs-China-more-than-China-the-world. Its insistence on a bilateral policy to settle disputes even denies the natural impulse of threatened States to seek power balance in collective security.
The Sense in Cooperative Security Strategies
The standpoint that provocation and intimidation can benefit China by persuading the victim to negotiate outstanding issues from a conciliatory position is a strategically mistaken one. India, Japan, Vietnam and the South China Sea Littorals have demonstrated so. Far from acquiescing they have chosen to resist, adopting (in trend) a cooperative security strategy. This includes deliberate negative response to favour Chinese economic monopoly even when the benefits are obvious. While individual action may be insignificant, the aggregate of combined action may impede China’s growth which in turn question’s strategic stability of dispensation.
The parallels with the rise and fall of Germany is complete when it is noted that China’s Defence White Paper of April 2013 underscores the will to expand offensive military capability in pace with economic growth. Internationally, this can only be viewed as acutely threatening. The delusion that menaced States will not align to contend and defy China’s grand design is a strategically misleading notion.
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