Mackinder versus Mahan: How will the dice roll?

With the government’s long awaited approval of the Mountain Strike Corps, an interesting debate within the strategic community has sprung up showcasing the Mahan-Mackinder divide in the context of India’s China Policy. The debate was initiated by Rear Admiral Raja Menon’s opinion piece in The Hindu which argued that India’s weakness on the LAC can be balanced by further strengthening its relative edge in the naval domain. Expressing his skepticism on the efficacy of the option of establishing a strike corps in handling the Chinese threat, he avers that China’s weaknesses in the Indian Ocean could be exploited by Indian Navy (IN) with the investment to the tune of Rs. 60,000 crore by strengthening its Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) interdiction capability. This stand continues to be debated by numerous other commentators and scholars.

Menon champions the idea of establishing a strong blue-water navy to effectively choke SLOCs that would have an adverse impact on China, to an extent that these events hamper China’s moves on the LAC. It is without doubt that such a capability is of utmost importance to India. However, projection of the argument as a zero-sum game between the Army and Navy is discomforting. Prudence in decision-making would always point towards a multi-pronged strategic approach to address a security challenge as opposed to adopting a unidirectional prescription.

Many commentators have offered varied counter-responses. Zorawar Singh highlights the practical problems associated with the idea of deterring China by strangling SLOCs. He states:

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… 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. 

Adopting a similar line of argument, Bharat Karnad points out that “sinking few Chinese warships is unlikely to “recompense” for the loss of territory along the LAC.”  Another problem associated with the idea of taking a purely naval solution is the possible skepticism of the Indian government about ‘when’ and ‘at what stage’ to actually activate its naval strategy.

The Indian government is also not likely to open a naval front to handle a border issue till the situation escalates unprecedentedly

India and China share a territorial problem and not particularly a naval one. It is not possible for a quick assault by the PLA to be greatly affected by the IN at the initial stages when China could occupy maximum territory. At this juncture, one can also not overlook India’s trend of strategic restraint which would have a crucial impact on the IN’s role at various stages of any war between India and China. The Indian government is also not likely to open a naval front to handle a border issue till the situation escalates unprecedentedly. It can thus be surmised, that New Delhi would exercise this option only when the conflict reaches a level where India has suffered massive losses, thereby compelling New Delhi to extend the land conflict to the naval domain. Even if the IN is given a ‘go ahead’, it would require few days to be fully prepared for action; meanwhile the PLA could have achieved its military objectives.

Analysts such as Abhijit Singh have extended the debate further by focusing on Mahan vs. Mackinder debate. Singh effectively points out the folly inherent in both schools of thought but it would be worthwhile to dig deeper and revisit some Corbettian prescriptions that bring forth a sense of much-needed moderation and balance to the debate. The principles of maritime warfare as proffered by Julian Corbett also highlight some lacunas in the original argument.

Relying heavily on the navy for deterrence against China would be an injudicious proposition when viewed through the Corbettian lens. Corbett asserts that achieving complete command of the sea by a navy is seldom achievable, thereby urging naval analysts and strategists against viewing war at sea in the shades of black and white. Considering the presence of neutral powers during a naval conflict (by virtue of their geography) and the issue of global commons, it is unimaginable for any single power to undisputedly dominate the waters or reduce it into one’s ownership. This remains in stark contrast with the nature of war on land. Armies can contest over land and ownership without getting into the complexities of neutrals. Also, the symbolic value of capture of territory is bound to attract more public outcry in a country which may not remain the case on water. These aspects underscore the importance of possessing ‘boots-on-the-ground’.

If India adopts a Mahanian strategy focusing on building its naval strength, it could end up weakening its military capabilities vis-à-vis China

It is worthwhile to put into perspective China’s reliance on sea-route for its energy needs. China is currently dependent on maritime transport for almost 40 per cent of its oil which is bound to increase in the future, with its projected dependency between 65-80 per cent by the year 2030. Furthermore, India’s dependence on imported oil is expected to increase to 85 per cent by 2020 itself. The idea of India blocking SLOCs used by China may end up affecting its own economy and supply of resources. The more important question to ask is for how long would it be possible for New Delhi to sustain the blockade? The damage done by blocking an SLOC would not only affect Beijing but also other countries in the region. This reality would put both countries under enormous pressure to avoid such an action. If India adopts a Mahanian strategy focusing on building its naval strength, it could end up weakening its military capabilities vis-à-vis China. In the absence of a strong ground force, India could find itself vulnerable against any future Chinese military action. Hypothetically speaking, new mountain strike corps can also be used for offensive purposes or for taking the battle into Tibet, if push comes to shove. This becomes important given the fact that in Tibet’s rarefied atmosphere, both the PLAAF and the IAF would be fighting on an even keel given that they would have to shed a lot of their weapons weight.Therefore, obviating the formation of a mountain strike corps could lead to huge strategic losses for India’s military in the future.

Corbett’s view aptly sums up the debate. He states,

“It is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone; unaided naval pressure can only work by a process of exhaustion… a paramount concern of maritime strategy is to determine the mutual relations of one’s army and navy in a plan of war. Afterward and not till then, ―a naval strategy can begin to work out the manner in which the fleet can best discharge the function assigned to it.” 

The recent signing of a joint doctrine by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force on pooling resources for operations along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim is a step in the right direction. The need is therefore to work towards greater integration of the armed forces to effectively deter the challenge from China. Prioritising one service over the other would be akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

Source: ISSSP Reflections, October 21, 2013,

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