New Delhi: When you embark on military expansion, you should be sure of threats, present and future, and their amplitude. While ideas for expansion cannot be always original, they should try to cater to the unique geographies and strategic requirements of every state. China has confirmed its quest for a global navy in a recently published white paper. Its contents are not surprising and affected countries, including India, will take defensive measures. It is the white paper’s lack of originality which is rather surprising. Originality made China an economic superpower. That is lacking here.

All the world’s great navies have followed their destinies through well-crafted paths. Great Britain, knowing it could never be a formidable land power, instead tried to leverage its island situation by relentlessly building the first global navy. The navy delivered the Empire. Remarkable administrators managed a far-flung Empire with minimum force. If Great Britain had to expend on a large army, its naval breadth would have been compromised. But since all things come to an end, so did the great Royal Navy. It floundered as the Empire sank out of sight.

Its global successor, the United States navy, had no far-flung colonies to protect. But the Cold War was a global war, containment was a global strategy, and the United States military had to be everywhere -- or near everywhere -- to contain Soviet expansion. This started the race for bases, capital ships and so on, and the United States built a formidable naval presence worldwide.

But when the Cold War ended with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the global threat facing the United States disappeared. Militaries need threats to survive. The US navy had to reorient itself to the changed situation and it focussed on regional challenges. One of those regional challenges was China seeking to own the East and South China Seas. Owing to legacy issues, it has never been easy for the United States to bring down its count of super-sized aircraft carriers, the largest that the world has seen, but compared to the threats, eleven aircraft carriers do seem excessive.

China is now following the US example with foreign bases, investments in tonnage, and so on, but what is the starting rationale? A military expansion plan has to be based on a threat. So what is that threat? The white paper points to US actions in the South China Sea. So far so good. But what has a Djibouti base in the Horn of Africa to do with the South China Sea? It has plenty to do with trade with Africa and the Middle East in oil, manufactured goods, commodities, and so on but throws the South China Sea threat out of focus. It oughtn’t to be mixed up with patrolling to keep sea lines open.

The Indian concern would be that Chinese patrolling in the Indian Ocean region would end up projecting power unless countered even should it not spring nasty surprises (like overthrowing the elected government of Maldives). Countering is easier said than done, costs money, and India is not a rich country. It has gotten a lot poorer in the last five years. And countering China blindly is to follow China’s countering of the United States eyes wide shut. There is only so much India can do to counter China in the parlous state of its economy and it must do what gets it “more bang for the buck”. Merely doubling the number of ships and aircraft is no solution because it may not happen.

And once the United States gets serious about countering the Chinese threat in the South China Sea after having comprehensively laid low its economy, China will find its global naval plans going up in smoke. Naval power cannot exist in isolation of sovereign strength. For all its economic miracles, China finds itself at a crossroads today. Taiwan is drifting farther away from reunification. Hong Kong has mounted a serious challenge to China’s central authority. The situation in Xinjiang is ripe for Western exploitation. And Tibet will not keel over and permit Beijing to install its own Dalai Lama.

So China’s ambitions for a global navy have several weak links. Bases and far seas’ deployments bring their own additional problems. They also lead to a situation experienced by all world powers and it is called “imperial overstretch”. That is altogether another story.