26 April 2013

China strategy: Mackinder vs Mahan


INDIA’S geostrategy is being contested by Mackinder and Mahanian images and some of India’s strategic ambivalence can be traced to the lack of a well-defined geopolitical image to ground a debate on grand strategy. A Mahanian solution to the China challenge is that India can overcome some of its continental disadvantages vis-à-vis China by posing a nuisance to China’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) or even involving itself in East Asian disputes. The underlying logic stems from the idea of horizontal escalation where asymmetry in one theatre can be sought to overcome by escalating the conflict to a wider geographical domain. In sum, if China pursues adventurism in the mountains, India can respond on the high seas.

How can India deter serious Chinese conventional pressure from being applied on the frontiers? There is no alternative to deterrence capabilities in the continental realm where India’s core interests (territorial integrity in this case) can be threatened. Perhaps, a more systematic way to develop deterrence options is through a two-fold process. First, strengthen India’s frontier tripwires at key pockets across the LAC by enhancing logistics, heavy-lift capabilities and surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to increase the ability to move forces forward toward vulnerable mountain passes. This would raise some costs for China.

Second, rather than escalation in peripheral domains, the ability to vertically and horizontally escalate the levels of violence is an important element of enhancing deterrence. China is logistically capable of amassing a large volume of forces and firepower to any sector at short notice. To deter such a blitzkrieg scenario, India can signal a capability and a doctrine that enables it to respond in a domain that China truly values – its continental heartland.

This implies that India requires stand-off deterrent systems – such as longer-range missiles and greater reach in air power. Some of these capabilities already exist but they have not been directed toward political and deterrence objectives by a central policymaker. Consequently, the services – the Army and the Air Force in this case – have been left to indulge their parochial preferences that preclude a joint land-air doctrine. The Army remains wedded to a manpower-intensive approach to deterrence and the Air Force is content with accumulating ad hoc capabilities without contributing to a stable deterrence posture.

It is puzzling that India is developing out of area expeditionary capabilities without first addressing the heavy lift transport requirements for its core security needs. Perhaps, it was from such a fragmented assessment, that a widely read policy document in 2012 argued to promote asymmetric deterrence by preparing to “trigger an effective insurgency in the areas occupied by Chinese forces” in the event of an invasion! 

India should focus more on continental China rather than maritime China, and, it is the balance of power and influence on the Himalayan frontiers that needs constant strategic attention. The Mahanians have been urging India to discard its continental images and envisage a maritime role for India to become a “net security provider” in other regions. The Mahanians in some respects do reflect the wider changes in India’s economic and diplomatic profile that have dispersed Indian interests across the globe. It is true that a globalising India has an economic and cultural footprint in several continents and India’s institutions should reflect this. But it is by no means clear whether the maritime instrument, often projected as a potential guarantor of India’s expanding global interests, should be leading this process. And it is certainly not evident that India should pursue an extra-regional role before having produced a modicum of security and influence in its own region. —ZDS

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