Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century: Strategic Transactions China, India and Southeast Asia

Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century

Author(s): Vijay Sakhuja

ISBN:          978-981-4311-09-0

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Year:          2011

Price:        $59.85

Reviewed by Chia-Hui Francis Lin, PhD, The University of Melbourne, Australia

Maritime rejuvenation of China and India is argued by Vijay Sakhuja in this book as a representation of Asian maritime power’s rise in the 21st century through highlighting their high economic growth, burgeoning maritime trade, distinguished maritime science and technology base, and the evolvement of their military-industrial-technological transformation. Five scrutinising categories are designed by the author in the book to legitimise this argument: (1) the maritime trading system, (2) economic growth, (3) the cultural political context, (4) security strategies, and (5) the partnership established between East and Southeast Asia. To unfold these categories, Sakhuja analysed the concept of maritime power, the relationship between maritime power and geography, China and India’s naval strategies, their force structures and capabilities, their economic and political (including diplomatic and military ones) components of maritime power in the Asia-Pacific, the impact of information-based technologies on China and India’s growth of maritime power, and lastly he dissected this phenomenal rise of Asian maritime power through an explicit discussion of China and India’s geostrategic contexts.

To begin with a triangular interaction which theorises the ideas of globalisation, maritime economy and national security, the concept of maritime power (sea power) contextualises this study and is followed by a tangible geographic examination. Codifying an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is becoming a global strategy to ensure a nation’s geopolitical maritime “territory”. However, in the discussion of Chinese and Indian maritime powers’ geostrategic contexts (or more precisely, their territorial evolutions), the author’s use of terms and his counterbalance between individual political slant and objectiveness of historic facts become problematic. For instance, the indiscreet uses of “Mainland China” in the book, particularly in the chapter which emphasises maritime power’s geographic significance, mislead the readers at times that whether the author is depicting China’s geographic characteristics or this nation’s intended geopolitics. Similarly, illogical uses between “Jinmen” and “Quemoy” (p.48), and “Taiwan” and “ROC” (p.184) in the book confuse those who are unfamiliar with Taiwan’s history, its political competition with China and its de facto scenario of independent state sovereignty. Not to mention the author’s misunderstanding of Jinmen’s territorial attachment to China in 1958, which in actual fact has already been administrated by Taiwan in 1949 after the Battle of Ku Ning Tou (p.48). Moreover, the lack of illustrations in the book, e.g. the geographic, political and economic relationship between China, India and Southeast Asia (p.295) is problematic for the discussion. Some other similar awkward uses of terms and misstatements of historic facts also exacerbate the quality of the argumentation.

The third chapter is a big part in this book talking about protective strategies of the EEZ based on the imperatives of China and India’s inevitable globalisation along with their recent economic growth and naval development. The discussion begins from a very explicit theorisation of a nation’s force structure. Seven aspects listed by the author, namely a nation’s national interest, its existing force level, its existing geographical situation, the conditions of its de facto rivals, various threats and challenges based on these conditions, a nation’s superior weapon systems, and the budgetary resources of a nation, outline a clear theoretical framework. Hence, China’s naval strategy on “deterrence” is clearly highlighted by Sakhuja through his examination and exemplified in his argument that “the threat to China’s costal safety comes mainly from Taiwan” (pp.86-87). On the other hand, India’s “tous azimuts” (all-out) naval strategy is pinpointed afterwards by the author indicating that war fighting and conflict will be taken place if deterrence fails. Lastly, apart from the idea of deterrence and warfare, the author’s depiction of China and India’s national interests which are embodied in these two nations’ economic and energy security, presence in areas of interests, and multifaceted naval diplomacy summarises the relationship between a nation’s established maritime power and its force structure.

With regard to China’s and India’s correlation between economics and maritime power, Sakhuja indicates India’s advantage taking of its low labour costs, when compared to China’s market-oriented policy, i.e. liberalisation of China’s economy and availability of funds. Sakhuja also mentions different roles of marine leisure industry in China and India. Marine tourism in China, the author argues, is still in its infancy but potentially marked, while this industry is still neglected and overlooked in India. Other comparisons between economic involvements in these two nations’ established maritime power are highlighted through China and India’s social political characteristics, such as China’s flowing labour and India’s shortage of seafarers, China and India’s national maritime policies (“Ocean Agenda 21” and NMDP), and the contextual differences between achievement and reliance when one looks fishery as a text in these two nations’ maritime contexts. Nevertheless, the most significant point which is summarised by Sakhuja regarding economic involvement in maritime power is, arguably, China’s presence and India’s absence in the construction of international standard maritime infrastructure. As modern port infrastructure is worldwide recognised as an indicator of a nation’s maritime power, China and India are different in terms of different levels of economic involvements in it.

As for China’s naval diplomacy, its “radical” or rather “active and pragmatic” attitude highlights China’s role in Asia which is very similar to the role of the United States in the world. As an expected super force in the world, hesitation to use force is never considered as an option in China’s naval diplomacy, its codification of “anti-separation law” in order to deter Taiwan from announcing ideological independence is strong evidence. On the other hand, a rather “less ambitious” thinking is sketched by India’s employment to support various international operations such as to help recover the 2004 tsunami damages in eleven Indian Ocean littoral countries. In terms of political strategies, maritime power distinguishes China and India through their treatments of it as either a state apparatus or a bridge towards international relations.

Interestingly, the idea of hybridising imported sensors and weapons is a consensus of building maritime technological platforms between China and India. China’s warfare technologies of information and communication, which have been shifted from platform-centric to network-centric and progressed in the field of software and hardware related infrastructure and services, and India’s clear thirst for industrial-technological infrastructure, which can be fully self-supported, both address this intention of employing technological hybridisation to reinforce their established maritime power. However, the question that whether this action is based on a defensive or an offensive attempt, both in China and in India, is still an open debate.

In Chapter 7, Southeast Asia is analysed as a form of China’s and India’s “cultural hinterland” through the author’s discussion of Asian maritime history, which is surely a subject worth exploring. But it is also notable that this chapter is the only part in this book addressing “Southeast Asia” – such a keyword which is subtitled in the book’s name. The relationship amongst China, India and Southeast is concisely analysed by Sakhuja from the ancient Chinese Shih, to the influential Arthasasthra in India, to the concept of Mandala, and lastly to the idea of Negara (literally state or polity) in Southeast Asia. Although the discussion is connected to the contemporary establishment of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), it is a pity that the author did not spend more energy to unfold this theoretical marriage. For instance, the influence of Shih in the Asia-Pacific such as Japan’s Furinkazan, and a postcolonial discussion of maritime power such as Ashis Nandy’s argument about India and the British Empire as intimate enemies, would be relevant contexts of seeing China, India and their “cultural and maritime” Southeast Asia.

In summary, this book has an inevitable role in the field of Asian marine studies that locates the positions of China, India and Southeast Asia as the most remarkable representatives in the 21st century. Particularly, Vijay Sakhuja’s conclusion in this book denoting China’s “threat” and India’s “rise” is fairly an accurate depiction reasoning these two nations’ significance in the modern Asia-Pacific and the phenomenal Asian maritime power in the world today.

Suggested citation:

Chia-Hui Francis Lin. Review of “Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century: Strategic Transactions China”, India and Southeast Asia” by Vijay Sakhuja, East Asia Integration Studies,