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In response to the recent unpleasantness in the Himalayas this past summer, India has taken a number of strategic steps at sea to signal both its displeasure with China and its resolve to counter what it perceives to be a growing Chinese threat 1. For example, the Indian Navy dispatched frontline warships to the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits, a route the Chinese Navy uses to enter the Indian Ocean and a crucial sea trade route for China. It also conducted exercises near the Andaman Islands and deployed its MiG-29K fighters to those islands. Finally, the Indian Navy participated in a joint exercise with the US Navy’s USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG).
While triggered by the Galwan incident, however, these maritime moves were not merely a knee-jerk response to it. Rather, they were the product of a relatively new Indian maritime strategy – a strategy based less on the writings of the nineteenth century US naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan and more on those of his contemporary and rival, British naval historian Sir Julian Corbett.
The Wellspring of Indian Maritime Strategy: From Mahan to Corbett
From the time of Independence until the early 2000s, Indian naval strategy was shaped largely by the writings of writings of Mahan2. Mahan’s main arguments, though radical at the time he first made them in the nineteenth century, are relatively straightforward. Great powers, he argued, even reflexively inward-looking ones like the United States, have vitally important maritime interests – interests that must be defended against the potential predations of its rivals and adversaries. Mahan believed that in the American case, these interests were global in nature and that therefore the US Navy had to dominate the world’s oceans. And this, he concluded, could only be achieved by sweeping the enemy’s main fleet from the seas in a decisive battle. For Mahan, mere commerce raiding and other piecemeal naval operations were distractions that could never prove strategically decisive. Concentration of forces, and what he called ‘offensive defense’, were the keys to ‘command of the seas,’ which in turn was the only proper goal of great power naval strategy.
While Indian navalists have never viewed India’s maritime interests as being global in scope, they have nevertheless internalized other key elements of Mahanian thought. From the time of Independence onward, dominating the Indian Ocean has been viewed as being key to India’s national security. For most of that period, Pakistan was India’s primary geopolitical rival and Indian naval strategy thus focused on establishing Mahanian-style ‘command of the sea’ in the Indian Ocean by destroying the Pakistani navy in one or two decisive actions. After 1971, concern over the intrusion of the US Navy into the Indian Ocean complicated that naval strategy. But the strategy, and the Mahanian logic that underpinned it, remained in place.
In recent years, however, that Mahanian logic and its derivative naval strategy no longer seem fit for purpose. Now that China is the principal threat to Indian security, Indian navalists have been increasingly drawn to the work of a different sea power theorist, the British naval historian Sir Julian Corbett3. Although Corbett agreed with Mahan on the need to control vital sea lanes for both military and commercial purposes, he parted company with him when it came to the latter’s view that naval strategy was all about achieving total command of the seas by smashing the enemy’s naval power in one or two decisive battles. For Corbett, as for Clausewitz, the most fundamental principle shaping all strategy was the primacy of politics. He therefore believed that what he called ‘maritime strategy’ should always be shaped by the nation’s specific political goals, purposes, and constraints – and by the nature of the threats faced. This being the case, Corbett argued, in certain circumstances a nation’s maritime strategy might well involve bringing the enemy’s main fleet to battle and destroying it in a decisive engagement, as Mahan advocated. But in different circumstances it might also be focused on achieving merely temporary and local “control of the sea,” enforcing blockades, defending the homeland, raiding the enemy’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs), or defending one’s own commerce against enemy raiding. It might also involve a robust diplomacy designed to maximize one’s own freedom of action while limiting that of one’s adversaries. According to Corbett, it all depended on the political aims being pursued and the political realities of the moment.
The appeal to contemporary Indian naval and political leaders is obvious. While Pakistan’s navy was vulnerable to being swept from the sea by Indian naval forces, China’s is not. The PLA Navy is much larger, and in many ways more capable, than its Indian counterpart – and has been for some time. Nor do the trend lines favor India. If anything, China’s expanding base and port infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region, coupled with its growing investment in naval force projection capabilities, mean that the balance of power is likely to swing even farther in China’s favor. In short, the strategic reality today is that the Indian Navy simply cannot hope to sweep the Chinese fleet from the Indian Ocean in a single decisive battle. And it cannot, therefore, hope to establish command of the seas. The growing realization of this new reality is ushering out the age of Mahan in Indian naval circles and ushering in a new, more Corbettian, age.
This is not to suggest that Corbett has displaced Mahan in the Indian maritime imagination. Nor is it to suggest that there has never been a powerful undertow of Corbettian thought running through the thought world of the Indian naval community since the founding of the Indian Navy. Indian navalists inherited many Corbettian ideas from Britain’s Royal Navy at the time of independence and those ideas continued to shape Indian thinking in subsequent decades. Rather, it is to argue that Indian maritime strategy is now a uniquely Indian mixture of Mahanian and Corbettian thinking, perhaps with a good dollop of KM Panikkar4, India’s most famous maritime strategist, thrown in for good measure. If we are to understand India’s maritime response to the Galwan incident in particular, and growing Chinese assertiveness more generally, we must understand not only the elements of this strategy, but its conceptual wellsprings as well.
What, then, is contemporary Indian maritime strategy? And how is it Corbettian?
Maritime Interests and Threats
India’s maritime strategy5 (and official Indian documents now invariably use the Corbettian term ‘maritime strategy’ rather than the Mahanian ‘naval strategy’) is focused on two primary objectives: protecting India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and securing India’s seaborne trade routes. Those same documents enumerate a number of threats to those interests. Some of these are labeled ‘non-traditional.’ These include seaborne terrorist, piracy, and unregulated economic activities. Others – threats posed by ‘states with organised military capability and resources, [and] which harbour adversarial posture and inimical intent towards India’ – are labeled ‘traditional.’ The tone and tenor of Indian maritime strategy statements make clear that, while non-traditional threats require attention, traditional threats remain of paramount importance.
Official Indian statements also make clear where the principal source of traditional maritime threats lies: China. Official documents do not mention China by name, of course. But the subtext to all these documents, and the explicit text of many unofficial analyses besides, is that the primary threat facing India in the IOR is a China that is at once increasingly capable and increasingly ambitious. To be sure, India’s traditional traditional adversary, Pakistan, is not entirely missing from the picture. Increasingly, however, that country is viewed as a client or agent of China – at least when it comes to maritime security issues.
And what is the nature of this growing Chinese threat? Official and unofficial analyses are in broad agreement that the main threat posed by China in the maritime domain is the PLAN’s growing capacity to deny India the freedom of the seas that its national development requires. Specifically, Indian navalists view China’s growing ability to interdict India’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) as the principal threat India faces in the Indian Ocean and indeed throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region. From New Delhi’s perspective, India’s primary areas of maritime interest are the country’s territorial waters and EEZ; the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Andaman Sea; the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, and Red Sea; and the South-West Indian Ocean. Indian naval analyses, both official and unofficial, emphasize in particular threat posed by the PLAN’s growing capability to control strategic ‘chokepoints’ such as the Straits of Hormuz, the Bab-el-Mandeb, the Sunda Straits, and the Lombok Straits. The concern in this regard is that China is deploying submarines and surface combatants in ways that threaten to deny Indian ships access to the wider world while ensuring Chinese warships and merchantmen access to the Indian Ocean6.
While China’s growing sea denial capabilities and ambitions are India’s primary source of maritime insecurity, there is a broad recognition that India’s maritime interests might also be threatened by IOR littoral states falling into China’s political orbit. The fear is that if China is able to transform deepening economic relationship into strategic partnerships not only will the PLAN have greater freedom of maneuver in the Indian Ocean, but China will be able to reshape the entire regional balance of power in ways that are detrimental to Indian maritime interests.
In sum, the Chinese threat to Indian maritime interests is that China appears poised to complete the strategic encirclement and containment of India, by dominating the IOR through the deployment of powerful naval forces and employment of deft maritime diplomacy. Given India’s ever-increasing dependence on seaborne trade through, and resource development in, the Indian Ocean, this is viewed in New Delhi as a very grave threat to Indian economic and strategic maritime interests.
In order to address these threats, the Indian Navy has adopted a maritime strategy based on four main missions7 – all of which are primarily focused on countering the growing Chinese threat in a Corbettian fashion.
The first of these is ‘sea control,’ the key concept underpinning all of India’s maritime strategy. This defensive mission involves ensuring that Indian and friendly naval forces have the temporary and local command of the ocean necessary to ensure maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. It comprises control of the surface and underwater environments, the airspace above the area of control, as also the electromagnetic environment. Sea control is not an end in itself. It is an enabler that affords freedom of action to those who possess it, but denies it to those who do not.
The second mission is ‘sea denial,’ another undeniably Corbettian element of maritime strategy. Sea denial is an offensive mission that involves degrading the ability of enemy naval forces to operate in a defined maritime space for a limited period of time. At the operational and tactical levels, sea denial may be used to the freedom of action of enemy forces. At the strategic level, it entails SLOC interdiction to weaken the enemy’s war-waging ability8.
The protection and interdiction of sea lines of communication is the third pillar of Indian maritime strategy. Regarding protection, the mission is to ensure the safety and security of Indian shipping by providing escorts, attaining sea control in key areas, and otherwise neutralizing threats to Indian shipping and SLOCs. Conversely, Indian maritime strategy also entails targeting the enemy’s use of sea routes for executing its operational plans and sustaining its war effort. The strategy envisions interdicting enemy SLOCs off it ports, at key choke points, and on the open seas.
In order to carry out these missions, the Indian navy currently maintains a complement of 132 ships, 220 aircraft, and 15 submarines. Since 2017, it has deployed 14–15 mission-ready warships to such strategically vital areas as the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea; the North Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal; Madagascar; and the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Reflecting older but still-lingering Mahanian influences, many of these vessels are optimized for the sea control, or even command of the sea, mission. Increasingly, however, India is emphasizing the acquisition and deployment of sea denial platforms such as submarines and shore-based anti-ship missiles9.
These mission-ready deployments have in turn been enabled by the development of naval facilities on the Lakshadweep archipelago off the western coast, and on the larger Andaman and Nicobar archipelago on the other eastern side of the Bay of Bengal at the head of the Malacca Strait. They have also been facilitated by the negotiation of access to support facilities with sympathetic partners like Oman, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Singapore. Together, these might be said to constitute an Indian “metal chain” or “iron curtain” to counter China’s “string of pearls.”10
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Indian maritime strategy emphasizes the important role played by diplomacy in securing a nation’s maritime interests. Corbett, of course, placed great emphasis on the diplomatic dimension strategy in general and naval strategy in particular. His view was that all elements of maritime power and influence – including diplomacy – should be employed in the service of the nation’s overall political strategy. Reflecting this logic, India has pursued a maritime diplomacy that attempts to counter not only China’s growing military presence in the IOR but its increasing geopolitical influence more broadly.
This has primarily taken the form of a concerted effort to widen and deepen maritime cooperation with like-minded great powers. In this context, India is deepening its defense ties not only with the US, but with France, Australia, and Japan as well. The Quad is being expanded into the Quad-Plus, which will include South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand11. India has entered into two significant military pacts with Australia – the Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement – that are viewed as the first step in the deepening of the defense relationship between the two Indo-Pacific maritime powers12. India has also further strengthened its strategic position in the Indian Ocean with two new trilateral maritime security arrangements. The first of these is the India-France-Australia trilateral dialogue that was held in September 202013. The focus of this meeting was to find ways to enhance economic and geostrategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, explicitly to deal with the COVID pandemic, but implicitly to deal with the rising Chinese threat. The second minilateral was the planned meeting of the Indian, Indonesian, and Australian foreign ministers to foster enhanced maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Finally, India has overcome its longstanding reservations and invited Australia to take part in the next MALABAR exercise in the Bay of Bengal14.
India’s maritime response to China’s growing assertiveness in both the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean has been forceful. It has not, however, been capricious or impulsive. Rather, it has been a measured and multidimensional response reflecting an established maritime strategy that is clear eyed about both the nature of the threat to Indian interests posed by a rising China and the steps India must take to meet this threat. It has also been a very Corbettian response indeed.
Prof Andrew Latham
Professor Latham is a professor of International Relations specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars. He was formerly the Non-proliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies. Professor Latham regularly writes — and speaks to the media and community groups — about war, disarmament, and strategic affairs, with a special focus on issues related to arms control and weapons of mass destruction (North Korea), great power rivalries (U.S. vs. China; U.S. vs. Russia), conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transformation of war (cybersecurity, space, hybrid war), and U.S. Defense policy.