The Mahan-Mackinder Debate on India’s China Deterrence

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The Mahan-Mackinder Debate on India’s China Deterrence

Why both sides may have got it partially wrong

The decision by the government of India to raise a mountain strike corps has triggered an interesting debate on just how India can effectively deter Chinese aggression on its border. The debate is between the Mackinderites and the Mahanians.

In an article in the Journal of Defence Studies in July (India’s Geostrategy and China – Mackinder vs Mahan), Zorawar Daulet Singh first staked out the Mackinderite position by arguing that India’s strategic plans for countering Chinese aggression must shift emphasis from “maritime dominance” to more “border-centric” formulations.

Then, Rear Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon, in a well-argued piece in The Hindu on July 29, chided the continentalists by criticizing the government’s raising of a mountain corps, which he felt served no useful purpose other than creating another unmanageable and ineffective asset. Menon argued that the effort and resources being lavished on forming an “air-immobile and single-axis” strike corps should have been spent on creating a more capable maritime force, which could be used to choke Chinese trade in the Indian Ocean. In a rejoinder to Admiral Menon’s piece a few days later, Singh reemphasized the futility of expecting Indian maritime strength in the Indian Ocean region to effectively deter Chinese adventurism on the border.

While both writers make compelling arguments, each appears to have missed out on at least one crucial aspect of the India-China conflict dynamic. In both cases, that aspect is a critical piece in the jigsaw of Sino-Indian strategic relations, the absence of which renders both maximalist positions untenable.

The Mackinderite Folly

To begin with, on available evidence, the Mahanians seem to have got it more right than the Mackinderites; simply because China is still most vulnerable at sea – regardless of its efforts at territorial integration and a consolidation of its land oil-supply routes. Fundamentally, a state’s strategic weaknesses exist, not so much in areas where its adversary is strong, but in domains where the nation itself faces a massive strategic disadvantage. That “weakest of weak spots” for China is its sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing realizes that its dependence on the Middle East and Africa for hydrocarbons is near total. With nearly 80 percent of its energy supply still arriving by sea, there is no escaping its dependence on the Indian Ocean SLOCs. What is more, the situation is unlikely to drastically change anytime in the foreseeable future. As strategic predicaments go, no ‘dilemma’ for Beijing is more ‘existential’ than its Malacca dilemma.

The proponents of continental deterrence are also guilty of an inadequate and somewhat flawed interpretation of Mahanian tenets. While Admiral Alfred Mahan’s tactics of large fleet maneuvers and big sea-battle are indeed passé, his strategic principles are as relevant as ever. These include the importance of the seas as a medium of power projection, employing sea-power to interdict trade, and the extraction of leverages using far-sea bases. Mahan’s strategic concepts make clear why all great powers during the past 500 years were maritime nations and dominated global trade. Globalization notwithstanding, nothing so drastic has occurred as to invalidate Mahan’s basic strategic cannon of national ascendancy through dominance of the seas. While it is true that the nature of warfare has undergone a profound technological and tactical transformation from the Mahanian era, the nature of material aspirations of nation states remains singularly unchanged. For Mackinderites to expect two competing nations like India and China to strike a “grand bargain” at sea is therefore a tad unrealistic.

Continental theorists cite China’s use of anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) tactics in an evolving military-technological environment as evidence of the invalidity of “offensive sea-control.” But the PLA Navy’s sea-denial strategy in the Western Pacific – aimed principally at thwarting the U.S. strategic “pivot” – is not a universal template for all adversaries. If anything, it is a muted form of sea-control that applies only to conflict scenarios involving a superior opponent. As followers of Mahan point out, sea-denial quickly morphs into sea-control when dealing with a weaker enemy in geographically favorable maritime zones. Importantly, the semantics of naval battle tactics hardly detract from the vital fact that just the threat of denial of critical sea-spaces is often enough to alter a nation’s strategic calculus.

The shibboleth of strategic weapons

The biggest flaw with the continentalists’ reasoning lies in their advocacy of “stand-off” deterrence against China via the “threat of punishment.” The equivalence that is sought to be drawn with the India-Pakistan nuclear equation – used as evidence of a weaker state using nuclear leverage to its advantage – is patently misleading, as the deterrence dynamic between the two South Asian neighbors plays out along a relatively well-charted (even if deeply contested) border. Mackinderites forget that when dealing with a border area that is vague, un-demarcated and claimed by both sides – as is the case with significant sections of the India-China border – it is inherently destabilizing to attempt to achieve higher levels of deterrence by employing strategic weapons. Worse, even if stand-off systems are brought into the equation, the absence of clear markers or red-lines to determine their use renders the deterrence posture not just ineffective, but also dangerous.

China’s apprehension that India could offset its disadvantages in the mountains by threatening Chinese SLOC in the Indian Ocean, is not just conceptually intuitive, it is an imminent prospect. To qualify the proposition, however, holding out the threat of strangling Chinese trade isn’t the same thing as staging a blockade, which even the Mahanians would agree is not a real possibility. On India’s part, it merely involves leveraging favorable geography to its advantage. More pertinently, it isn’t escalatory in the same way that the deployment of strategic weapons on the border with China could be. When it concerns nature’s partial gifts, nations do not take give or take offense; they simple acknowledge their advantages and limitations and plan accordingly.  Sadly, such isn’t the case with strategic weapons.

Flaws with the Mahanian Argument

As persuasive as India’s case in the Indian Ocean may be, however, the proponents of Mahan take the argument for greater maritime strike power too far. While strategic escalation along horizontal axes is a well-established principle in warfare, in tactical situations arising out of theater-level provocations, the response must be limited to a tactical riposte – unless both sides are prepared to radically escalate the conflict. It is something of a stretch to say that the response to a low-level provocation by China on the border can take the form of an Indian Naval blockade or interdiction of Chinese trade in the Indian Ocean.

The Mahanians also show little strategic empathy for the Indian army’s instinctive reflex of responding to a crisis by building troop levels. Here, too, there is an old-fashioned logic at play that savvy sea-power theorists are sometimes too uppity to acknowledge. In the Indian Army’s thinking, the massing of troops is the most effective means of sending a clear message of intent to a superior adversary without destabilizing the power-balance or unduly provoking a conflict. The recent Depsang incident is a case in point. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army reservations related to permanent infrastructure being created by the Indian Army on its side of the border were more pronounced than their objections to increased Indian force levels. But when it chose to signal its displeasure to India, it did so with a troop encampment in a contested zone.

In sum, whether one belongs to the Mahan or the Mackinder camp, the importance of peace-time theater-level tactics in a nuclear setting cannot be elided over. An acknowledged code of sub-conventional warfare between nuclear-enabled states is that both sides maneuver to achieve dominance over the other without disturbing the larger strategic balance. For if that happens, a minor incident can very easily spiral into full-fledged conflict.

By that token both extreme positions appear partly invalid.

Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.