The New Great Game at Sea

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Last month, India included Australia in its annual Malabar naval exercise for the first time since 2007. The exercise was held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and also included the United States and Japan, which only joined as a permanent member in 2015. Australia’s newly announced inclusion represents the growing concerns about China’s maritime rise across Eurasia, from the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean to East Asia and the Arctic. Malabar comes in juxtaposition to the annual exercise China hosts with Russia entitled Joint Sea. Since 2012, Russia and China have conducted the Joint Sea naval exercises as a way to bolster their relationship, while also gaining a greater understanding of their respective naval technologies and platforms. For the first several years, the Joint Sea drills primarily took place across East Asia, including the Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, East China Sea, and South China Sea. But for the last several years, the two countries have expanded their exercises first to the Mediterranean in 2015 and then to the Baltic in 2017. The exercises have also tied into a more permanent regional naval presence: Last month Russia announced a 25-year basing agreement in Port Sudan for four warships and 300 military personnel. This comes on top of solidifying its Black Sea naval dominance following its takeover of Crimea in 2014, in addition to upgrading and establishing a more permanent presence at the naval base in Tartus, Syria, shortly thereafter. At the same time, China constructed its first overseas naval base, in Djibouti, in 2017 amid further speculation that it is seeking other basing access points. These ever-expanding exercises and basing locations represent the emergence of a new “Great Game” at sea, where rising navalism threatens to further destabilize the broader Indo-Pacific and beyond. But the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, among others, can help balance these troubling trends through greater maritime cooperation and investment in naval modernization and expansion efforts, along with supporting new partnerships with like-minded regional powers.



Eurasia’s main continental rivals — China, Russia, and India — are leading this emerging dynamic of maritime great-power competition as they seek enhanced global prestige and great-power status. This drive for increased international prestige has resulted in growing investments in strategic instruments of national power, namely navies. This in turn has resulted in a dynamic of heightened navalism and naval competition across maritime Eurasia. Navalism is a concept that has long been in our lexicon but is infrequently applied today. As the historian Craig Symonds writes, “Navalists were generally concerned with image, honor, prestige, and diplomatic clout. … To them a naval fleet was physical evidence of national adulthood.” During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “navalism became a sort of ideology in which patriotism, economics, and self-interest embellished legitimate defense and security concerns.” As a country grew its economy internationally, there was a need to protect overseas markets, along with the sea lanes of communication that transported a nation’s commercial goods and treasures. As the maritime strategist Julian Corbett once wrote in defense of British navalism at the beginning of the 20th century:

[W]e had the power to close the oceans. … Instead of closing the seas we threw them open to all the world, and not only that: for during the long years of our peaceful domination the British Navy was set to work charting their remotest recesses, finding new paths, and clearing them of the dangers that beset honest trade from Algiers to the furthest East. And all this was a gift to the world for which no return was asked.

Since the end of the World War II, and certainly since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has taken on this similar role akin to the ancestral British navy, defending a free and open global commons for the benefit of world order and stability.

Today, navalism has morphed in part from what it was more than a century ago and can be broken down further into broadening investments in naval development (ships and personnel), naval or coastal defense technologies (weapons and cyber capacities), and general naval activities (naval diplomacy and exercises) in both regional and foreign seas. But at its core, historical navalism and enthusiasm for a nation’s navy still resonate today. The world’s great powers yearn for the creation and projection of a blue-water navy that will display global reach, power, and national heroism for all to see and admire. Navalism similarly ties into a larger historical trajectory of great-power status and naval mastery.

Since China launched its Maritime Silk Road initiative in 2013, it has faced mounting pressure to secure and protect its growing investments across Eurasia’s rimlands and waterways. Eurasia’s vast maritime regions include some of the world’s most important strategic maritime chokepoints, in addition to possessing 27 of 30 of the world’s largest container ports. Trade between Asia and Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East combined amounted to an estimated 27.7 million twenty-foot equivalent units on an annual basis in recent years, making the east-west and west-east trade routes some of the largest and busiest in the world. Some estimates predict that China will dominate 17 of the world’s top 25 trade avenues in future years. China was recently named as the world’s largest trading partner, surpassing the United States with about $4 billion in annual trade volume.

Even though China still lags behind the United States in defense spending according to some estimates, China’s current defense budget exceeds its primary regional neighbors combined, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Much of China’s increased defense spending has translated into more focus on maritime security, defending its geoeconomic investments, and power projection capabilities along Eurasia’s sea lanes of communication and other vital waterways. In the next several years, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, for example, will likely have more than 330 warships, with this number possibly ballooning to around 430 surface ships and 100 submarines by 2030 if current production rates continue. China’s navy currently has more than 300 ships, submarines, and advanced missile boats. China has succeeded in its naval modernization and expansion efforts in part by its purchase of advanced Russian destroyers, submarines, and anti-ship cruise missiles, which provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy with experience in operating sophisticated platforms. China’s first aircraft carrier was a retrofitted Soviet-carrier called Liaoning, entering the navy formally in 2012. In May 2018, the service began sea trials for its first indigenous aircraft carrier, the Shandong. The Shandong was quickly commissioned into service 18 months later at the end of 2019. Some scholars argue that China’s naval rise should be viewed more as a desire to be a “responsible great power,” upholding good order at sea through collaborative means such as those combating piracy or terrorism. But the growing consensus in the United States and elsewhere is that China has gravitated increasingly toward realpolitik, particularly as it grows its naval force projection and succeeds in using Russia to project a further sense of strength and unity across Eurasia.

By comparison, India is listed as the world’s seventh most powerful navy with 137 ships, including one commissioned aircraft carrier and another one currently undergoing basin trials. India’s defense budget expanded 5.5 percent to $63.9 billion in 2017, placing it in the top five worldwide, directly behind Russia. In 2018, India’s defense budget rose to $66.5 billion, while increasing another 6.6 percent in 2019. Naval development and weapons advancement have remained a priority despite fluctuations in the naval budget allocation over the years. India, for example, has successfully unveiled its supersonic BrahMos missile (part of a joint Indian-Russian venture) that can be used effectively in a multi-domain (land-air-sea) battle. Though India remains mired in bureaucratic red tape, in addition to maintaining a landward focus on its northern boundaries with China, some analysts believe that India will continue to make naval development and modernization an important future priority in the nation’s pursuit of great-power status.

As India, along with China and Russia, increasingly embrace naval power, it has resulted in a growing securitization of Eurasia’s many contested seas. Each power has similarly invested in increased public naval maneuvers and growing power projection capabilities — together with rising numbers of foreign military bases or strategic port access — tying into larger trends of emerging navalism. This intensified focus on demonstrating naval power in increasingly contested waters along with the adoption of enhanced naval weapons and coastal defense technologies will result in a greater likelihood of tense encounters between the United States, Russia, China, and/or India across Eurasia’s regional and territorial seas. Moreover, it is likely that Russia and China will become more overtly aggressive on the high seas amid rising tensions with the United States and its allies and partners. These factors raise the risk of the possibility of a collision between rival powers — inadvertent or otherwise — somewhere along Eurasia’s disputed waterways. In 2018, for example, a Chinese and U.S. warship almost collided while the United States was performing a freedom of navigation operation in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Last year, a Russian warship, sailing 1,180 miles (1,900 kilometers) from the Pacific Fleet’s home port in Vladivostok, maneuvered aggressively toward a U.S. warship in the Philippine Sea, almost resulting in a ship collision. It is a likely sign of what is to come.

This new maritime era has arrived in earnest and will necessitate deft policy prescriptions for the United States and its partners and allies as they manage the expanding — and at times aggressive — blue-water presence and naval capabilities of China and Russia across maritime Eurasia. With its economy under duress and the projection of a mounting federal deficit due to COVID-19, the United States will face significant domestic and financial challenges in the near term that will result in a need for greater U.S. foreign policy prioritization. Certainly, the United States continues to maintain strong relationships with South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states. But the United States should do more to continue promoting interoperability with these key partners and allies through additional joint multilateral exercises, weapons sales, advanced technological transfers, and greater intelligence sharing with critical partners such as India and other southeast Asian powers. Promoting more interoperability between the United States and its Asian allies will ensure better preparedness in the event of a major conflict. Furthermore, the United States should begin to think more strategically about expanding the scope and purview of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. Some officials have suggested to me that the Quad’s membership should be expanded to include other strategic allies, such as Great Britain and France, which also have strong interests across the Indo-Pacific. Some analysts have similarly called for the creation, albeit unlikely, of an “Asian NATO” that emerges from the Quad.

Aside from the Quad, the United States should encourage and support Japan above and beyond its current engagements. The United States, for example, should assist in promoting Japan’s economic development initiatives and broadening naval engagements across the Indo-Pacific. From Djibouti to India and Sri Lanka, Japan’s burgeoning presence is emerging as an important counterbalance to China’s expanding footprint. Since the Cold War, Japan’s imperial legacy has shaped and influenced its Maritime Self-Defense Force and its modernization efforts, along with providing the military with a clearer sense of mission and purpose. Today, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has largely prioritized East Asian security associated with protecting Japan’s archipelago and disputed maritime territories. The service has also placed growing emphasis on protecting the sea lanes of communication to ensure good order at sea across the global commons.

As Japan pushes deeper into the Indian Ocean, however, it has been more actively engaged in issues of international maritime security compared to its imperial naval predecessor. Some have argued that Japan’s navy has been constrained from further naval development or expansion by Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, while others have argued that Japan has always adopted a maritime strategic approach and posture that is inherently adaptable and flexible to maintain regional sea control as a core competency. Despite that, Japan still relies on the United States to fill certain naval warfare capability gaps. Moving forward, the challenge for both the United States and Japan will be how they envision Japan’s maritime posture and power projection capabilities across the Indo-Pacific. Japan has historically never pushed significantly beyond the Strait of Malacca except for a brief period during the height of World War II. Japan’s East Asian legacy contributes to the diplomatic delicacy of the overall situation as well. Nevertheless, owing to the deeply historical and increasingly institutionalized U.S.-Japanese naval relationship, it will make it harder for Japan, if it so desires, to take a more independent strategic approach to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. (For greater perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense currently maintains 121 sites in Japan, per official reporting.)

Aside from Japan, India should similarly do more to defend its territorial regions from the sea. India has historically oriented its national security priorities inward along its disputed Himalayan frontier with both China and Pakistan in Kashmir. Despite these sustained tensions, India should continue to think strategically about its future maritime security and coastal defense. China has already deployed significant reinforcements along its contested territorial borders, but in recent years China has begun to place greater emphasis on its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, whether through naval power projection or through its geoeconomic investments in countries such as the Maldives or Pakistan. In other words, India is largely limited in how much more pressure it can exert on China along their contested border. Be that as it may, the maritime space offers India a geostrategic arena to craft new ways to place pressure or the threat of pressure on China, since China is inherently vulnerable operating far from its shores. Indeed, India relies on the sea lanes of communication for its survival just as much as China and other nations, and so India should be strategic in how it might respond to China on the high seas in the future. However, India should still continue to focus on building up its maritime defenses, joint readiness, and other regional and global partnerships, including regional institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association, if it wants to properly manage the growing maritime competition with China. Moreover, India should be prepared for a worst-case scenario that sees the possibility of a two-front siege (on land and at sea). Some speculate that China might be able to lob missiles from Tibet at Indian warships traversing the Bay of Bengal. This is why India’s joint air-land-sea responses will be critical. Or worse, China might use Pakistan as a further means of threatening India with action — some Indians openly speculate that China is possibly plotting to assist Pakistan in developing its own anti-access/area denial capabilities that could deter India at sea in a future conflict.

Though investing more in India’s navy only feeds additional regional navalism, India is correct to be concerned about China’s maritime rise and how China uses Pakistan against India. The People’s Liberation Army or Chinese-backed private military corporations will likely become more active and aggressive in protecting Chinese investments and interests along the Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Road as they blossom into a robust development and trade network. In terms of structuring a future maritime force that meets India’s growing needs at sea, India should be careful not to fall entirely into the trap of investing solely in conventional ships and other related platforms. The bureaucracy should also be enabled to support India’s future naval modernization efforts. Though investing in conventional warships sends a message to China and others, the Indian Navy should invest more heavily in both its marine force and amphibious capabilities and its subsurface or undersea assets and platforms. India’s submarine arm, for example, could be larger and therefore more effective if more resources were allocated. India has already invested in anti-submarine warfare, but it could similarly invest in more anti-access/area denial technologies across the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as one way to prepare for future challenges on the high seas. Additionally, India should be investing more in the modernization of its naval force structure, with a focus on subsurface and other capabilities such as underwater drones to protect its maritime territories and coastlines and to gather better intelligence and maritime domain awareness. If India does not continue to support a more adaptive and innovative force structure, it risks being unable to effectively compete with China on the high seas.

Aside from strategic investments in its force structure, India should do more to promote joint exercises and capacity-building efforts with partner nations across the Indo-Pacific. India, for example, has smartly cultivated stronger ties with Indonesia, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first official visit to Jakarta in May 2018. During the visit, the two heads of state laid out a joint maritime vision for the Indo-Pacific, in addition to announcing the elevation of the bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” which included the signing of a defense cooperation agreement. Beyond Indonesia, India should continue its outreach and diplomatic efforts across Southeast Asia, including more partner capacity building with Vietnam and the Philippines. India could also act as a diplomatic intermediary for Japan in Southeast Asia, where Japan, owing to its fraught regional history, should take a more delicate and nuanced approach to its diplomatic engagement and outreach efforts.

Last, India should think strategically about how it addresses the ongoing military outpost versus basing debate across the Indian Ocean. India has been wise to conclude several basing access agreements with strategic partners such as the United States, France, and Oman. Modi and his cabinet have been astute in placing greater emphasis on building up the military’s and navy’s capabilities to operate from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, including the allocation of more resources for infrastructure projects and the conduct of nearby military exercises. Even if housing a more permanent force in the form of a base on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands proves more difficult and costly in the short term — at Port Blair, for example, no proper cover exists for ships, and it still lacks some basic infrastructure needs — it will be important that India bolsters its other capabilities, including maritime domain awareness and signals intelligence outposts. India has already begun to work more closely with the United States to interoperationalize communications and security, in addition to other basic information cooperation. Information sharing and gathering will be critical for India, the United States and regional powers alike. Similar programs should be financed and expanded to other Indian Ocean partners as well.

Though promoting the spread of navalism for allies and partners comes with certain risks, larger and more capable regional navies will help offset some of the global burden that the U.S. military faces as it continues to adapt to a new global strategy, especially in a financially constrained environment. Greater multilateral maritime cooperation among like-minded powers will do much to help manage China and Russia’s growing maritime presence amid the arrival of the new Great Game at sea.



Geoffrey F. Gresh is a professor of international security studies at National Defense University and the author of To Rule Eurasia’s Waves: The New Great Power Competition at Sea. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of his employer.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums)