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Full text of Theme Address delivered by Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai at International Conference “Curr

C3S Article no: 0151/2016

(The Theme Address was delivered by Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai at the University of Madras on 18 November 2016 at the International Conference “Current Developments in China: Regional Implications on Security and Stability” organised by Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), National Maritime Foundation- Chennai Chapter (NMF) and the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, University of Madras.)

Commodore RS Vasan, Regional Director, Chennai Chapter National Maritime Foundation, Director Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), Dr Utham Kumar, the Head of Department, Defence and Strategic Studies, University of Madras, Distinguished Speakers, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s indeed a pleasure to see this congregation of scholars, think tanks, academicians and educators, coming together in the hallowed portals of Madras University, to debate and review Current Developments in China and focus on the Regional Implications on Security and Stability.

I come here from the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, in the Nilgiris, where I have been the Chief Instructor Navy for over two years.  I am a graduate of the same College and have servedon the faculty at the College a little later.  Much has changed since then and now.  We were at that time very tactically focused and the word operational level’ had not entered our military lexicon.  A whole new world of learning and education was opening up. In this tenure as Chief Instructor, I now see a changed world that has rapidly changed with the rise of China, especially in the economic and maritime fronts, and, India too, slowly, but surely, climbing the ladders with immense promise, but with much remaining to be done.

Analysing the changes and preparing for a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world has seen us migrate from an earlier focus on training to education.  I have written an article for the College Professional Journal the Trishul, that was titled, ‘Professional Faculty at DSSC Wellington – A Necessity of Professional Military Education’[1].  In that article I articulated a wayahead to build on the Clausewitzian view that “No activity of human mind is possible without a certain stock of ideas; for the most part these are not innate but acquired, and constitute a man’s knowledge”[2].  To this end, I quoted Kaufman and stated that ‘military professionals and commanders become better thinkers when they are forced to account for ideas and beliefs in front of peers and outsiders in an academically rigorous environment. The resulting intellectual humility and good learning habits thus serve to shape leadership style and persona, and perhaps destroy any trappings of hubris born of narrow operational experience and entrenched provincial thinking’.[3]

It may interest the audience to know that much of the Anglo-American approach to the study of war emerged from the study of strategy and sea-power at Oxford and the US Naval War College.  This approach was the result of a collaboration between Professor H. Spencer Wilkinson, a Professor of Military History at the University of Oxford, and Admiral William S Sims, the President of the US Naval War College (1917, 1919-22).  Admiral Sims was an avid reader of the reviews and writings of Spencer Wilkinson in The Times and would in 1918 write to him seeking his ‘ideas on education for Officers for the Navy’ and the ‘principles of the art of warfare’ at the Naval War College.  This correspondence would be the foundations of the ‘intellectual legacy’ of the US Naval War College, and its students developed a good understanding of the relation between sea power, strategy and policy that would serve them well in the Second World War and over the years.[4]

It is to this end that I find this seminar, at the University of Madras, timely and purposeful.  We can learn much, in a collaboration between Madras University, the think-tanks and Indian PME institutions such as DSSC, Wellington, if we are to get to terms with the rapidly changing strategic environment around us.

The evolving environment has profound implications as India pursues a grand strategy aimed at uplifting her teeming millions from poverty, hunger and deprivation of necessities like health, education and a decent way of life.  Maritime security and stability are central to our hopes, our dreams and our efforts, given the economic imperatives.

Since this seminar examines China and regional implications on security and stability, let me place a view about China that could hold lessons for us we attempt to replicate the China economic miracle.

Ed Luttwak in his classic ‘The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy’[5] has opined that the three-sided growth of China’s economy, military strength, and political standing was perfectly complementary in the 1980s and 1990s, but that was so only because China was not yet rich, or powerful, or influential by American standards—or by Japan’s.  Till then there were many a mutual benefit.  But, China’s rise has passed a level, that does not find acceptance with equanimity by other powers—that is, beyond the ‘culminating level of unresisted Chinese achievement’, whether in the economic, military, or political sphere, activating the ‘paradoxical logic of strategy’[6]through the reactions of all the other powers, large and small, which have started to monitor, resist, deflect, or counter Chinese power.

The 2008 financial crisis, the seeming downfall of the “Washington consensus” and the apparent vindication of the “Beijing consensus” (appears to have) greatly emboldened the Chinese ruling elite, inducing a real behavioural shift that became manifest in 2009–2010.[7]

In 2008, Admiral Wu Shengli had visited my ship INS Mysore in Mumbai.  He had queried me as to how long would it take for China to operationalise an aircraft carrier.  I had opined that it could take anything up to 15 years for an ab-initio raising of a viable carrier force.  Later in Jan 2009, as the ship was exiting the Gulf of Aden after an Anti-Piracy Patrol deployment, the first Chinese presence in the Gulf of Aden was rapidly steaming into the area.  China had decided to change gears and accelerate her path to greatness and world power.  They appear to have chosen to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy[8], “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.”

This visit of PLA Navy Chief Admiral Wu Shengli to India from November 1- 5, 2008 was interestingly a few days before 26/11, and the Mumbai terror strikes.  To bring in the Pakistan angle into the debates that will follow, let me provoke, by stating that it wasn’t just China but her strategic partner Pakistan too that would use the moment (in 2008) to undertake a deadly proxy terror strike in Mumbai.

We need to be very mindful in any analysis of how successive Chinese and Pakistani regimes have maintained and deepened their strategic entente to this day. John Garver in his book, ‘Protracted Contest’ states that “The Sino-Pakistan entente evolved from a ‘near joint Pakistan-Chinese war against India in 1965’ to covert Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program after India’s first nuclear test in 1974.’[9]  Given that he is present here in our midst, I would wait to hear from him as to what is his current prognosis on the Sino-Indian issue in 2001.

It is essential that Indian scholars monitor the shrill debate that continues to develop on various maritime issues between Chinese scholars and Western analysts. “Chinese analysts are apparently responding to Beijing’s increased heft on the world stage and its willingness to throw that weight around. China’s navy and the shore-based elements of its sea-power, including missiles and aircraft, have vaulted ahead of their regional counterparts. The non-military implements of Chinese maritime power, such as the China Coast Guard, have bulked up. By the end of this decade, China will be better positioned materially to influence the course of events unfolding around its nautical periphery, giving it more leverage in (re)shaping the larger maritime order.”[10]

“In hard power terms, the U.S. Navy remains unrivalled, while China’s naval forces are relatively weak. In normative terms, the vast majority of nations appear to agree with the US interpretation of the navigational rights in the EEZ. By contrast, only a decided minority, numbering between 17 and 26 states, assert restrictions on military activities in their EEZs, similar to those asserted by China.  For now, China possesses neither the power nor the kind of international following necessary to offer credible alternatives to the US-led liberal maritime order.”[11]

India happens to be one amongst this list that seeks prior notification: for warships to enter the Territorial Sea, for military operations in the EEZ, and even our promulgation of Gulf of Mannar as Historical Waters.  These Indian promulgations have also been part of the worldwide challenge that the US has made through its yearly Freedom of Navigation (FON) ops.[12]

In recent times, we have seen some official statements that articulate a differing Indian policy position. The Indo-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (Jan 2015) states that ‘Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea’.[13]This has been reiterated in other joint statements and at fora like the Shangrila Dialogue, the Raisina Dialogue, etc.

India on gaining independence in 1947, emerged into a world where ocean policy was under churn and with states waking up to promulgations such as the Truman Proclamation of 1945 by which the United States claimed sovereign rights over the resources of the continental shelf adjacent to its coasts.  What followed was a cacophony of extended national claims over the resources of the seabed and subsoil, especially given the discovery of petroleum and natural gas in the shallow waters of the geological continental shelf.[14]

India too in sync with its growing maritime stature and responsibilities need to revisit its ‘prior notification’ declaration and must holistically adapt ‘Freedom of Navigation’ as a mantra for global security, stability and well-being.   At the RaisinaDialogue, the Indian Foreign Secretary stated; ‘A connected Asia must be governed by commonly agreed international norms, rules and practices.  Respect for the global commons should not be diluted under any circumstances.  Much depends on the commitment of nations to uphold the freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes.’[15]As India and the Indian Navy grows in leaps and bounds and finds itself in the limelight again at sea, there is a need to look at past principles and evolve for the future.  This evolution is essential if the country and her Navy must play the role that it envisions for itself, in sync with national interests and maritime imperatives.[16]

While Chinese and Indian maritime interests are a natural outgrowth of impressive economic growth and the attendant appetite for energy, mineral resources, (and markets), their simultaneous entries into the marine realm also portend worrisome trends. James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara have contended that Indian Ocean stability will hinge largely on how India manages its maritime rise.  They state,“On the one hand, if a robust Indian naval presence were to fail to materialise, New Delhi would necessarily be forced to surrender its interests in regional waters, leaving a strategic vacuum to the United States and China. On the other hand, if powerful Indian naval forces were one day to be used for exclusionary purposes, the region would almost certainly become an arena for naval competition. Either undesirable outcome would evolve in part by how India views its maritime prerogatives and by how Washington and Beijing weigh the probabilities of India’s nautical success or failure in the Indian Ocean.[17]

In a paper that I presented at the IMF Seminar in Pune last week, I had developed on Indian imperatives towards maritime security while discussing an ‘Effective Cooperative Maritime Constabulary Framework for the Indian Ocean Region’.  In doing so, I highlighted the changing face of twenty-first-century naval strategy and maritime security, in particular with the rise of the PLA Navy and the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.

The sea is of significant economic value, and it’s this,that ushered in the age of globalisation.  In fact, naval strategy and maritime security play a vital role in guardingglobalisation and the benefits that have accrued to many including China and India.  This tie between economic prosperity and naval strategy is nothing new or unique.  We as a nation would need to fathom and further this linkage carefully as a mandate of our economic imperatives.

The Sea has always been central to human development as a source of resources and as a means of transportation, information exchange and ‘strategic dominion’. It has provided the basis for humanity’s prosperity and security, and this is even more true in the early twentieth-first century, with the emergence of an increasingly globalised world trading system.[18]

While this is indeed a maritime century (as evidenced by Indian realisation and the belated investment in the marine sector as we see in the SAGAR MALA Project), and being maritime opens up immense opportunities, it also brings vulnerabilities.

Maritime powers depend on a complex network of shipping that imports raw materials, food and uncompleted goods and exports finished and manufactured products.  This dependence can be a delicate system, and a source of vulnerability especially when the distracting effect of continental threats, or governmental neglect, or the appearance of a stronger maritime adversary produces a navy of insufficient strength to protect the wider maritime system on which it ultimately depends.”[19]

Among the many factions that have emerged in such discourses, are the Chinese scholar sceptics who voice their misgivings about the oceanic order, as has prevailed, and America’s role in it. They argue against the negatives of globalisation and reject Western liberal internationalist assumptions about the world. They distrust US stewardship of the seas and urge Beijing to revise the order in their favour. Some want Beijing to lead instead. Contrary to Western expectations that Beijing will become a “responsible stakeholder”, this growing body of work points China in a worrisome direction. If such an unhappy worldview takes hold within the policy-making process, then the latest maritime confrontations and crises involving China may be a harbinger of things to come in Asia. Indeed, the sceptics have egged on Chinese assertiveness at sea. That their views have gained traction in the wake of Chinese provocations in the East and South China Seas is perhaps no coincidence.  “These sharply worded commentaries stand in stark contrast to the innocuous official statements on maritime issues. Under former President Hu Jintao, Chinese government mouthpieces frequently promoted “harmonious oceans”. President Xi Jinping has championed the construction of a “maritime silk road” as a signature initiative. The disparity between officialdom and the analysis emerging from Chinese scholars as brought out raises questions that need close and careful analysis by Indian students, and academics, like you all, and what it portends for India and her ambitions.”[20]

Ruchir Sharma argues in an article entitled ‘1914 Revisited: Open World Order is Breaking Apart’ that we are onto an era of deglobalisation. He states that ‘with global demand weak, and many nations erecting import barriers, trade is slumping. Measured as a share of global Gross Domestic Product, trade doubled from 30% in 1973 to a high of 60% in 2008. But it faltered during the crisis and had since dropped to 55%.In an echo of the 1930s, the slowing of trade, global investment and migration are further weakening the world economy’. He opines that ‘there are many reasons to expect that this new age of deglobalisation will last, as the post-war order is under assault, from both modern autocrats in emerging powers like Russia and China, and populist candidates in Western democracies.Changes in China’s economy will further slow trade in a major manner’. Given the implications of deglobalisation, especially to developing countries like India, we could do well to facilitate an environment that aids maritime mobility and global trade flow stability.  Markets, sources and global transportation networks need to be protected to promote the continued growth of the Indian and global economy.[21]

While maritime order and the norms that prevail are not permanent, we have to carefully assess the efforts of powers like China to modify the current order to accommodate its interests. The effect of what China attempts and seekscould adversely affect the existing order that in many ways have permitted growth and prosperity for many developing nations including China.  By trying to change a rules-based system, is China undermining the norms that sustain the international system that fostered globalisation and connected resource areas, manufacturers and markets leading to global growth? Stakeholders and beneficiariesof the maritime order would need to be wary of such efforts.

Territorial and maritime disputes and the competition over natural resources will increasingly have a bearing on maritime peace and security. Given its importance to security and stability, the maritime order will need to be anchored in international rules and regulations, such that differing perceptions and promulgations of powerful states are moderated.  The jockeying for influence and relative advantage without a framework of rules and regulations is asking for balance-of-power politics to be a very destabilising inevitability. It’s a defining moment in history, and we have to contend with the task of establishingstabilityand a power equilibrium in the face of significant maritime challenges.

India needs to step out and play a much larger role.  It can and should assume much greater responsibilities in its near Areas of Interest.  It is, therefore, necessary to maintain a careful balance between the precise needs of the immediate future and the preparations and adaptations required to meet the uncertainty of longer term threats to national growth and development given its global linkages and implications.  In this, our national interests lie in supporting the international system that fostered and furthered global prosperity.

Towards this, I have argued, elsewhere, that India, and the Indian Navy will have to take the lead in the IOR, given its central position, overseeing and fashioning capabilities and capacities to fill the void that may come about.  Geopolitics could once again see extra-regional maritime players abandoning the region, given competing interests, and demands in East Asia, Middle East and in Europe (with Russia restating its claim in the global system); and, given the capacity/capability shortfalls in the IOR.

In summary, India’s grand strategy envisages economic growth, as an essential condition for improving the lot of the Indian populace.  Economic growth and prosperity, requires stability of global systems of governance, of markets, of resources and sources.  The whole globalised system that has permitted shared prosperity, thus far, needs to be protected if we are to continue to reap the benefits of a developed economy.  Towards this, maritime security and a naval strategy catering for a balanced role (including forward presence and expeditionary capabilities) of her maritime forces across the spectrum of operations and conflict are essential.


[1]Pillai, Sudhir. “Professional Faculty at DSSC Wellington – A Necessity of Professional Military Education’, Trishul, Vol XXVII (2), Spring 2015, pp 48-57.

[2]TJ Otte, “Educating Bellona: Carl Von Clausewitz and Military Education”, in Military Education: Past, Present and Future, ed. Gregory C Kennedy, and Keith Neilson (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2002), Kindle edition, Chap. 2.

[3]Kaufman, Aaron J. “Learning from Our Military History: The United States Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Potential for Operational Art and Thinking”. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth KS, 2013. p. 175.

[4]Ramsey, Paul M. “Professor Spenser Wilkinson, Admiral William Sims and the Teaching of Strategy and Sea Power at the University of Oxford and the United States Naval War College, 1909-1927”Strategy and the Sea;  Essays in Honour of John B, Hattendorf. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2016. Pp 213-225.

[5]Luttwak, Edward N.The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy.Harvard University Press, 2012.

[6]See also.. Luttwak, Edward N., ‘Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace’, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[7]Luttwak, Edward N. The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy. Op cit.

[8]U.S. Defense Dept, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008 (Washington, D.C.: 29 February 2008), p 8.

[9]Garver, John W. Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twenty-first Century. University of Washington Press, 2001.

[10]Toshi Yoshihara. ” Chinese Views of the U.S-led Maritime Order – Assessing the Sceptics”,Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security, ed. Krause, Joachim, and Bruns, Sebastian, Routledge, NY and London, 2016.


[12]Kraska, James. Maritime Power and the Law of the Sea:: Expeditionary Operations in World Politics. Oxford University Press, 2011.Pp 431-441.

[13]‘US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’. Accessed at on 20 Mar 2016.

[14]Sharma, O. P. “India and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Ocean Development & International Law 26, no. 4 (1995): 391-412.

[15]Speech by Foreign Secretary at Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi (March 2, 2015).  Accessed at on 20 Mar 2016.

[16]Policy promulgations of this nature followed weak or underdeveloped mechanisms for such deliberations(besides geopolitical mind-sets) by the Government of India.  Such policies were also symptomatic of rudimentary institutional maturity through the early years since independence.  The Indian Cabinet, in 1981, would set up the Department of Ocean Development, towards determining policies regarding ocean development, for framing laws and regulations, to oversee technological advances, further collaborations concerning living and non- living resources, etc.  However, the Department did not assume the mantle of a central coordinating agency or a think tank manned by experts and instead meandered off to R&D in the marine sciences, survey and exploration of deep seabed resources, and in promotion and consolidation of Antarctic Research.Strategic and military nuances would elude India as ocean policy would get debated.

[17]Holmes, James R., and Yoshihara, Toshi. “China and the United States in the Indian Ocean: An Emerging Strategic Triangle?” Naval War College Review 61, no. 3 (2008): p 40.

[18] Till, Geoffrey. Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century. Routledge, 2013.


[20]Yoshihara, Toshi. Op cit.

[Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai, Indian Navy is Chief Instructor (Navy), DSSC, Wellington. He has held important staff, command and instructional appointments in his distinguished career. He has commanded warships (Ganga Devi, Udaygiri, Ranjit and Mysore), and a naval air station INS Garuda. He has also served in frontline ASW squadron 330 and Helicopter Training School 561]

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