August 7, 2013
Zorawar Daulet Singh
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 inThe 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.