Interviews | Security

Unsettled Waters: Understanding Eurasia’s Maritime Thrust

In a new book, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. explores how great power competition is driving greater naval reach of Eurasian powers.

Abhijnan Rej
Unsettled Waters: Understanding Eurasia’s Maritime Thrust

Ships from the Royal Australian Navy, Indian Navy, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, and U.S. Navy sail in formation in the Northern Arabian Sea during Malabar 2020.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

As strategic rivalries between major powers in a globalized world once again come into sharp focus, naval competition across Eurasia’s waters has become pronounced. While China’s naval fleet expansion, unprecedented in recent history, is often argued to be behind the shifting balance of power across the Indo-Pacific theater, other states, such as India, also aspire to acquire a navy commensurate with their national aspirations and commercial imperatives. Add to this the effect of climate change — which has led to a shifting Arctic landscape — and there is the distinct possibility that Russia too will seek to establish a robust naval presence.

In a new book ?“To Rule Eurasia’s Waves: The New Great Power Competition at Sea” (Yale University Press, 2021), Geoffrey F. Gresh, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, examines Eurasia’s maritime turn – its drivers as well as effects on emerging great power competition across several dyads. Gresh recently spoke to The Diplomat’s Security & Defense Editor Abhijnan Rej on how he sees naval competition in Eurasia’s seas shaping up. (The views expressed here are those of Gresh’s alone and do not represent official policy or his employer.)

Your new book is on maritime competition in Eurasia. Along with focusing on the growing naval reach and ambitions of China and India, you also discuss Russia’s. In your mind where do you see the Russian navy in 2030, both in terms of its capabilities but also how Moscow might wield them?

It’s hard to predict the future, but there are several key elements to look out for in Russia’s naval development efforts. First, as a rentier state Russia will continue to rely on its profits from the sale of oil and gas to pump back into its defense budget. If there is a more prolonged pricing slump, this could have significant repercussions from a defense planning and/or naval development standpoint. Second, Russia will continue to bolster its naval and military exercise regime with China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is keen to learn about Russia’s advanced weapons and naval technologies and vice versa. Since 2012, Russia and China have conducted the “Joint Sea” naval exercises along Eurasia’s eastern and western peripheries.

For the moment, the increased Sino-Russian alignment will greatly aid Russia in its future naval prospects as the two countries develop enhanced interoperability. Indeed, Russia has grand ambitions to revive its blue-water naval capacity. It will continue to invest in its rather robust submarine program that currently has six different submarine classes under development. By comparison, the United States has just one submarine class under construction. Even so, Russia continues to face significant structural hurdles in its larger warship-building efforts. It has an aging fleet and is consistently hindered by budget constraints, in addition to lacking a robust industrial base to both overhaul and develop new ships.

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Your book has a chapter on the Artic which you describe as “maritime Eurasia’s future frontier.” Tell us more about how you see great power competition in the Artic playing out in the medium-term horizon.

For now, Russia and China’s main interests are geoeconomically driven. Russia is taking advantage of a shifting Arctic landscape by reinforcing or strengthening 12 regional military bases lining the High North, which could protect or help Russian businesses access significant amounts of untapped natural resources, as well as secure the emergent sea lanes of communication. Russia possesses approximately 30 percent of the world’s natural gas and 13 percent of its oil reserves. Moreover, Russia’s Arctic holds approximately 90 percent of its natural gas reserves and 60 percent of its oil reserves. As Russia’s Arctic gas and oil come online increasingly over the next decade or more, these resources could account for an estimated 30 percent of Russia’s GDP.

Though increased investment and activity in the Arctic have started to take shape, the Arctic will not be entirely ice-free anytime soon, with additional critical hurdles to overcome — floating icebergs, extreme weather conditions, high insurance rates, poor infrastructure, and the costly fleet of icebreakers — that will pose challenges for Russia, China, and others. But the more rapid melting of the Arctic and updated predictions show that it could be ice-free during several summer months in the next few decades, according to some models. This will be a geoeconomic boon for Russia and China alike due to the Arctic’s critical natural resources, fisheries, rare earth minerals, and shorter shipping routes.

For China, it is equally motivated by the Arctic’s geoeconomics but it also sees its involvement in the High North as a symbol of its Great Power status. In a speech from 2014, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping used the term “polar great power,” asserting that China would soon become one.

The greater fear in all of this, however, is that as Russia and China pay more attention to the Arctic, the Arctic becomes increasingly militarized as both countries push, deliberately or not, to do more to protect their emerging geoeconomic interests. Each country also views the Arctic as a significant jumping-off point from which to project power farther in eastern or western Eurasia. If Russia, in particular, can reinforce its control or influence over the Arctic’s transit routes, it can then gain unfettered access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, thus contributing to the shifting world order that undermines the West across maritime Eurasia.

China’s naval modernization and fleet expansion, obviously, is a very big story. In the recent months, we have seen several top U.S. officials, including the former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and also Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley among others, push for a robust expansion of the U.S. Navy. How do you see the future of such plans? What role would the U.S. play in naval competition in maritime Eurasia?

In my personal opinion, I think General Milley and former Secretary of Defense Esper are right to view the rising importance of the navy in an age of great power competition. I think it is still early days in terms of how the U.S. Navy might reposition some of its forces between the CENTCOM and INDOPACOM areas of responsibility. More importantly, it will be up to the incoming Biden administration to determine exactly how they might reposture the force. This aside, I believe there is a lot more the U.S. Navy can be doing to promote and strengthen its ties with partners and allies across maritime Eurasia. Last month, for example, India hosted its annual Malabar Exercises, which included the United States and Japan as permanent members. But this year, Australia was included for the first time since 2007.? Australia’s inclusion was quite significant because it was the first time the reinvigorated “Quad” — or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia –conducted joint naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean. It was a sign of how concerned each member is regarding a rising Chinese naval presence across the Indo-Pacific. I think the U.S. Navy needs to conduct more exercises such as these with other partners and allies, in addition to promoting further exchanges, training programs, and intelligence sharing. U.S. naval technology transfers will be another critical component to supporting U.S. allies and partners.

Your book also dwells on India’s naval ambitions. But as you know, India’s strategic orientation and challenges are primarily continental, as has once again become clear from the ongoing standoff with China in Ladakh. In general, how do you see India, but also Russia, balancing continental and maritime imperatives especially given budgetary constraints?

With its growing economy and push to achieve great power status, India has had to think more broadly about its position and interests beyond the South Asian subcontinent. Indeed, since independence India’s national security orientation has largely been northward and westward toward China and Pakistan. But moving forward, and despite continued tensions with China in Ladakh, India should be prepared for the scenario of a two-front siege along its northern border and at sea. In 2017 toward the end of a clash in Doklam, for example, the PLA Navy reportedly sent a Yuan-class submarine and support vessel to Pakistan. China’s increased Indian Ocean presence is unlikely to abate anytime soon, thus necessitating greater efforts to secure India’s maritime domain.

Certainly, a challenge exists for India to balance its continental and maritime strategic imperatives under a budget-constrained environment. Moving forward, India might consider trying to strike a balance in its conventional versus unconventional naval modernization and development efforts. Though investing in conventional warships sends a message to China and others, the Indian Navy could also invest more heavily in both its marine force and amphibious capabilities, along with 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 antisubmarine warfare, but it could similarly invest in more anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) technologies across the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as one way to prepare for future challenges on the high seas.

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As for Russia, and despite some of its recent ship-building woes, I think it understands how to be an effective spoiler using its submarine force, for example. I believe that Russia has been smart about its naval expansion efforts, especially from a military basing perspective. Since 2014 and Russia’s takeover of the Crimea, it has expanded its Black Sea fleet that has now moved into Syria with the reinforcement and expansion of its naval base in Tartus. In addition to its growing presence in the Mediterranean, Russia recently struck a 25-year basing deal for 300 military personnel and foufr warships in the Port of Sudan. Maintaining these forward Russian bases will likely remain as a priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the future.

How do you see smaller regional powers coping with, and reacting to, a maritime Eurasia where big powers expand their footprint and, in the process, rub off against each other and with them? To what extent does sea denial capabilities help smaller powers in this scenario?

This will remain a delicate balance for all smaller regional powers. For now, some smaller states have viewed the growing competition between India, China, Russia, and/or the United States as a potential benefit, playing one country off the other. That said, most smaller nations do not desire to become entangled in any larger disputes between these great powers. I do not see how sea denial benefits a smaller country at present. Some of the countries I think about in this space are the Indian Ocean island nations such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. Each country has unique and distinct historical ties with India. At the same time, they have also begun to bolster ties — mainly geoeconomically — with China. They view China’s foreign direct investment, along with India’s aid and investments, as generally a net positive.? If some of these smaller island nations pushed for greater sea denial capabilities, it could potentially pose significant, albeit undesired, outcomes that are counterproductive.

In your book you rightly focus on geoeconomics and protection of sea lanes of communications as two of the three drivers of the naval push among maritime Eurasia’s big powers. But as the effect of the pandemic seeps into strategic planning, many countries, including India, are now planning to become more “self-reliant” and depend less on foreign trade. With possible future technological advances — such as discovery of new energy sources as well as automated manufacturing and large-scale 3D printing — it is not unlikely that we may get to a point where international trade, including through the seas, decrease. How do you rate this possibility and its impact on naval planning for the future?

At some level, I agree that many countries such as India will push to become more “self-reliant” and therefore depend less on foreign trade in a post-COVID world. That said, at present more than 90 percent of the world’s goods transit the sea, bringing into relief the continued importance of the stability and security of the global commons. Due to Eurasia’s growing and developing population — estimated at 60 percent of the world’s population, with China and India accounting for 40 percent of it — India and China in particular will likely still need to reach outward in their hunt for more natural resources, for example, to fuel their growing economies. As a result, I believe that maritime trade will remain an important element in any country’s orientation. Furthermore, it will necessitate the continued need to think about how a navy and/or coastal defense force defends a country’s sea lanes of communication and territorial seas.