The government of India’s decision to approve an expensive mountain strike corps has drawn mixed reactions. Rear Admiral Raja Menon makes a compelling argument against an Army-led, manpower-intensive approach to India’s Himalayan defence problem, in his article in The Hindu (editorial page, “A mountain strike corps is not the only option,” July 29, 2013).
Yet, the Mahanian prescription is also open to criticism.
A Mahanian solution to the China challenge is that India can compensate for its continental disadvantages by posing a nuisance to China’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) on the high seas.
While conceptually intuitive, the linkage requires equivalence: Beijing must value the integrity of its SLOCs enough to change its calculus on the mountains. Naval blockades are also complicated operations. The time horizon for success to the point that China would find its resource security threatened would be significantly longer than a swift and limited, continental operation whether pursued for punitive reasons or to change the Line of Actual Control. China’s growing, strategic petroleum reserve, though intended to offset market disruptions, will also be an asset in such a scenario. Further, China’s pursuit of new Eurasian lines of communication, both with growing energy linkages with Russia and connectivity through Central Asia, indicate a potential, declining dependence on Indian Ocean SLOCs at least for some strategic resources. Plainly put, a core interest cannot be secured by peripheral, horizontal escalation.
A competition for resources between the Army and Navy also reflects a deeper contest over the direction of India’s geostrategy. Should India’s priority be continental China or maritime China?
China’s lines of communication to South Asia emanate from its mainland. The corridor to Central Asia, trans-Karakoram linkages through Pakistan, or the corridor through Myanmar are all consistent with a continental geostrategy by China to secure and integrate its periphery. Arguably, the extension and further potential of these lines of communication into the northern Indian Ocean — the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea — cannot be tapped without Indian strategic acquiescence and cooperation.
Near sea lanes
Contrary to some observations, the maritime realm is not a zero-sum theatre where Indian and Chinese core interests clash. The geopolitical reality is that China’s SLOCs traverse near Indian naval deployments with more than 85 per cent of Chinese oil imports flowing through Indian Ocean sea lanes. Similarly, more than 50 per cent of India’s trade now goes through the Malacca and Singapore Straits. Rather than a source of conflict, this could form the basis of a maritime accommodation.
An interdependent world economy makes the idea of unilateral security over SLOCs illogical. The “Indo-Pacific” commons fell under the sway of the United States under unique historical conditions that are not likely to prevail indefinitely. While the “Indo-Pacific” maritime system remains in flux, its management cannot but be a collective endeavour where no single major power can be excluded. Within that logic, it is probable that different regional powers will assume greater burdens in their regions.
Furthermore, the evolution of military technology underscores that Mahanian ideas are nearly obsolete. The historical Mahanian logic of offensive sea control — “defined as the ability to use the seas in defiance of the will of others” — via large surface fleets is passé. U.S. historian Alfred Mahan’s ideas were derived from a specific, historical context that no longer prevails given the evolution of the military-technological environment.
Continental-based extended-range missile forces, fourth and fifth generation aerospace capabilities, undersea capabilities like attack submarines, land, air and space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting capabilities, anti-satellite weapons, and, cyber capabilities make the idea of sea-control a deeply contested concept. The maritime force structure of tomorrow is likely to trend towards disaggregated and less vulnerable platforms rather than concentrated firepower in large carrier-based fleets. Therefore, sea-denial along with limited power-projection capabilities is perhaps the most that contemporary rising powers can realistically aspire to.
Indeed, China’s strategy reflects an “anti-naval,” regional, sea-denial approach than a quest for global maritime power. Land-based systems play an integral part in shaping China’s maritime strategy that is not emulating the large surface fleets in the Anglo-American tradition. As one western assessment notes, “the Chinese navy’s main purpose is still to protect China from U.S. sea-based strike power.” Another authoritative U.S. study finds, “China’s new navy relies more on unmanned cruise and ballistic missiles than on manned aircraft, and more on submarines than surface vessels.”
Curiously, some analysts invoke the Mahanian image of China’s lone aircraft carrier as a guide for China’s maritime future. But blue water projection beyond regional seas is of secondary priority for Beijing. The core objective of Chinese strategy for the foreseeable future is on sea-denial focused on the Western Pacific and the U.S. Navy.
There is no doubt that India needs to address the China challenge asymmetrically, and, by relying on a holistic and inter-service approach to deterrence. Opening a new theatre of contention on the high seas, however, cannot be in either India’s or China’s interest.
(Zorawar Daulet Singh is a PhD candidate at the India Institute, King’s College London.)