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Continental and Maritime India: Linkages and Conundrums

  • Geopolitics
  • 13 d ago
  • 14 min read
Continental and Maritime India: Linkages and Conundrums | Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y. Shrikhande

INS Mormugao. | Press Information Bureau.

Sudarshan Y. Shrikhande
Sudarshan Y. Shrikhande - Rear Admiral, AVSM

India’s continentality and maritimeness in tandem are the key to its overall security, as well as vital to maintaining deterrence in South Asia, not in an absolute sense but adequately. On a larger IOR canvas, it will help regional states with a greater sense of reassurance. This assurance will be tested by rivals via proxies demanding more astute statecraft across the DIME framework. This would provide greater assurance not only to Indians but also across the populations of regional countries.


An astute maritime strategist, Julian Corbett famously wrote, “Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided – except in rarest cases – either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.”1 While Corbett was referring to the use of armies and navies in joint military strategies, a higher derivative of this statement could be used to examine the linkages and conundrums of national strategies that simultaneously contend with a nation’s continentality and “maritimeness.”2 I have coined the term maritimeness to describe the role of the sea as an environment as well as a vital geopolitical and geophysical entity across the dimensions of statecraft.

The Two Dimensions

Strategic histories of most nations show that continental (that is, territorial) dimensions and contexts are not only fundamental to a sense of nationhood (“because man lives upon the land”) but are central to our understanding of sovereignty and statehood.They loom large in our domestic politics.  

Nonetheless, the centrality of continentality can wax or wane, especially in the military dimension when viewed within the Diplomatic, Informational/Intelligence, Military and Economic (DIME) framework of statecraft. Similarly, maritimeness can also witness ups and downs.

Let usconsider four examples for our understanding – the Americans, the Russians, the French and the Germans and, the Chinese.

The Americans

Consider the fledgling United States (“the Thirteen Colonies”) and the home country, King George III’s England.3 The coloniser’s maritimeness was born out of becoming a trading nation that owned several ships, and had a strong, global Navy. It had a developing financial/banking system and global corporations – not unlike modern-day Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) – that were coming up against opposition to British ambitions in North America.

Continental pressures of expansion, resistance and battles with the French, the Native Americans and even the Caucasian settlers drew Britain into a continental War of American Independence. The War was primarily land-centric as far as the aptly named American Continental Army was concerned. In the War of 1812 (to 1815 in effect), maritime rights and freedoms, trade wars and naval battles were important triggers. However, the real fights were over territory.

During the US Civil War, there were naval battles, expeditionary landings, trade protection and interdiction efforts. However, the grim campaigns for the sustenance of the Northern states’ way of life and the South’s decision to secede resulted in the greatest number of death and destruction the Americans have suffered in wars thus far.4 It was only after the Spanish- American War at the turn of the 19th-20th Centuries that the US started to look more like a virtual island-nation with oceans on either side and relatively weak continental neighbours.

We must remember, nonetheless, that both Canada (1812-1814) and then Mexico (1846-1848) were subdued and then held in check by American armies until they became the ‘good neighbours’ that could almost always be taken for granted. In effect, the US was now more like Britain: an island that had prospered through its empire underwritten mainly by its maritimeness and secured by its global navy and national as well as colonial armies. The US then began to prosper through its maritimeness and its continental riches while ramping up its naval power. As we shall see a little later, these dynamics did not lead to assured outcomes for either in terms of statecraft.5                     

The Russians

On the other side of the Atlantic, lay the Russian and later the Soviet Empire. Even the Communists presided over a de-facto empire that was almost wholly created through statecraft comprising conquest, diplomacy, and the power of Russian/Soviet Armies instead of the Tsarist Navy. In fact, it is important to remember that “in 1462, the grand prince of Moscow ruled over 24,000 square kilometres. In 1914, Nicholas ruled over a territory of 13.5 million square kilometres. The Tsarist state was one of the most effective mechanisms for territorial expansion ever known.”6

Despite losing more than a dozen republics and several Warsaw Pact allies by 1991, Russia still remains the largest nation on Earth, albeit with new and legacy national strategic challenges. Russian and Soviet maritimeness was never quite as central to its prosperity noreven to itssecurityto an extent because circumstances – including the structure of the Imperial as well as Soviet societies – never made them as mercantilist asthe British (or earlier the Dutch) and the Americans. 

The French and the Germans

Briefly, these two imperial and then republican empires/nations offer a different combination of maritimeness and continentality. Through much of their existence, they have had powerful continental adversaries, sometimes on multiple fronts. Their expansionist ambitions led to both continental as well as naval power but brought them into greater confrontation with other powers in the maritime as well as continental dimensions. Given the greater degree of autocratic rule, they were less successful in the maritimeness of their national prosperity and security than the others mentioned before.7

Are the Chinese an Exception?

This is a difficult question to address. Historically, China has been a continental state often with multiple adversarial neighbours. While it traded extensively in ancient times, it was not particularly mercantilist in the Middle Ages and until about the 1990s. In the last few decades, the world has seen a more productive, economically active, richer, assertive and engaged China. This needs no elaboration.

It has also mitigated its adversarial environment along its continental borders, notably with Russia. After all, the world’s longest land border and relations between the two are now the strongest in decades. Chinese maritimeness has contributed to its prosperity and it seeks to enhance its maritime security not only in the Western Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Unlike the examples seen above, China’s mercantilism has been within the bounds of growing authoritarianism and the supremacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Its instruments for influence are different from colonial-imperial times and in these factors, we could count the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) as its foremost strategic initiative. 

Beijing’s steady—and no longer discreet—moves into territorializing the South China Sea (SCS) is without precedent. In a sense, these moves have shades of a new maritimeness but it is more an expanding continental strategy with some maritime characteristics. 

If incorrect, inflated and illegal claims in the SCS littoral have created domestic political pride within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), these create domestic political anxieties in some countries contesting these claims. Additionally, its closest maritime neighbours do not see eye-to-eye and behave as continental neighbours separated by relatively narrow bodies of water.

Higher-level Linkages

India has to consider linkages and conundrums of these two continental and maritime strands. They are complementary, not contradictory. Nor are they as exclusive or separated as the terms may suggest. The scholar Zorawar Daulat Singh makes an important point: “We also need to be careful how we think about the continental versus maritime binary.”8 He adds that, “the continental and maritime facets of India’s immediate geopolitical environment around the subcontinent entails opportunities and risks; opportunities for new geoeconomic connections but also risks of costly security competitions.”

These two strategies need to be seenin conjunction rather than competition. Part of the narrative in India overstates India’s maritimeness in terms of share of global trade which is still on the lower side, even as there is optimism about its growth. According to WTO’s Global Trade Outlook, India’s share of global trade was a modest 1.8% in 2023 for exports (global rank 17th) and 2.8% for imports (global rank 8). The running trade deficit influences overall economic sinews. Services trade (some of it via submarine cables) rose to 6% in 2023 from 4.4% in 2019. 

Due to low trade between India and its continental neighbours, goods and services trade is well below its potential. Of the four dimensions of the DIME framework, India has some way to go in the “E” for economics.

INS Sahyadri participating in India-Indonesia-Australia trilateral exercise. | Press Information Bureau.

INS Sahyadri participating in India-Indonesia-Australia trilateral exercise. | Press Information Bureau.

Diplomatic and Military Lines

Whether geo-strategic theorists like Mackinder, Spykman, Mahan and Corbett are directly applicable, it does not detract from the evidence that the Chinese seem to have studied them well to use as points of reference as well as departure.9

For some years now, China has been a veritable maritime neighbour of India and has influence around borders like a contiguous rimland with neighbours like Pakistan. This is as much an issue for the “M” in India’s DIME as it is for the “D” in diplomacy. Some other neighbours are also under Chinese influence in a way that is an additional challenge for India’s diplomacy.10

China is more of a maritime state than it ever was and has several legitimate reasons for being one, as India aspires for the same. However, it is the reality of China’s steady growth in ownership/management or partial ownership of ports, shipping, shipbuilding, insurance, its gradually increasing “places and bases,” growing military hardware, training, or the frequency, and scope of military exercises that creates concerns.

As a maritime state, it also exhibits a historic reality for India that maritime power and consequent maritime security in times of tension and conflict, depends on allies and partners by whatever nomenclature. 

This debate was not unknown or unactioned even in early medieval India. For instance, the Pandyan king Ganapatideva and his daughter Rudramba did much to control and even stamp out piracy to make the seas safer from China to Zanzibar. This included embassies to the court of Roman emperor Augustus (1st BCE) and other states in the Arab world and in some IOR islands seeking maritime security cooperation.11

All this suggests at least three important facets.

First, there was a wider Indo-Pacific canvas and proximate interests of Indian trading kingdoms within which the IOR was the focus. Without stretching the analogy, there was a good sense of an effective conception of what we now term ‘Freedom of the Indo-Pacific’.

The second was the realization that on the larger canvas of oceans, cooperation between states was not only desirable but also necessary. Hence, the expression ‘global navy’ is overstated. At no stage, even during the peaks of Pax Britannica or Pax Americana, was any single navy able to sustain the world order; this was true even during the two World Wars.

If there were no ‘Quads’ then, there certainly were double and triple alliances and groups of five. The securitization of maritime trade, the effective use of sea power and navigation freedoms have benefited from partnerships. India realized this in the 1971 War when the Indo-Soviet Treaty’s Article 9 was in play in the IOR with specific beneficial impacts in the Bay of Bengal.12

Third, even as there seem to be occasional misgivings in Indian scholarly circles about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the downplaying of the inclusion of ‘security’ as not having any military connotation,13 the Chinese seem to be furthering their own variants of the Quad, colloquially termed the PRIC (Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China).14

India’s Strategic Complexity

Like some nations or empires of history, India’s strategic situation has its greatest complexity and problems in its continentality. It seems unlikely that India can turn China and Pakistan into friendly neighbours like Canada and Mexico or the US. It would also be a mistake to think of the criticality of the continental dimension to the primacy of a continental strategy where military land power is then conflated with the Army while the other four dimensions of warfare are treated as adjuncts.

The reality of adversarial borders and the continental imperatives of national strategy seem to show a hierarchy of conflation. Thus, continental strategies are conflated with land power, in turn land power with the Army. This is not to overlook the need for a powerful army for India but to avoid ideas of the primacy of one dimension over the rest.

Furthermore, I want to explore the relationship between maritime and air dimensions. The air dimension of warfare has been vital across decades but there is no conclusive evidence that it is the omni-potent dimension. Victory in war requires more than superiority in the air or maritime theatre. There are some risks in over-interpreting the maritime dimension (especially in its naval derivative) as some sort of a game-changer or trump card. As seen earlier, good strategies are usually multi-dimensional with no clearly superior dimension regardless of context, circumstances, and an adversary’s counterstrategies.

I will elaborate with four illustrations:

1. What applied to imperial Britain, could not always be applied to other states. Thalassocracies were never so clearly non-continental or could afford to ignore land power as has been thought even in the case of Athens and Sparta. These sorts of binaries are tempting, but not supported by analysis. It is essentially correct that maritime democracies are more successful at trade for a slew of reasons; but China and a few Southeast Asian “tigers” in the 1970s and 1980s were big traders but not as democratic as they are now. The Chinese example has already been mentioned. What is more applicable is that democracies that trade and are involved in ensuring a better, freer life for its own citizens are more likely to partner with others to cooperate and avoid conflicts.

2. The history of wars does show that overwhelming naval power is vital but not the linchpin for ultimate military victory, which has often required a man with a weapon in hand. It can be said that at the end of the Korean, Vietnamese and the US conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Navy emerged stronger than at the start of the war but it could not itself ensure an overall strategic victory. Nations usually and ultimately have to win or lose on land but sea power and airpower or space and cyberpower could be vital players in that victory. Corbett’s words are insightful: “...  the world has become so deeply impressed with the efficacy of sea power that we are inclined to forget how impotent it is of itself to decide a war against a great Continental state, how tedious is the pressure of naval action unless it be nicely coordinated with military and diplomatic pressure.”15 What Corbett so clearly expresses is the need for DIME frameworks of national strategies to configure statecraft through multi-dimensionality, cooperation and consonance. This formulation works across the hierarchy of derivatives from national strategy to military strategy and its execution.  

3. Airpower need not be seen as a third dimension to the continental and maritime. In its application, it transcends both and is extremely important to military effectiveness and outcomes. 

4. For regions, geopolitical organizations and treaties, a maritime nomenclature could work better than a more directly terrestrial one. Thus, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is used by some and not by others like China and Russia. Or, NATO was less about the North Atlantic as it was about the USSR but seemed more suitable and has endured longer than the corresponding Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, better known as the Warsaw Pact. 


India’s continentality and maritimeness in tandem are the key to its overall security, as well as vital to maintaining deterrence in South Asia, not in an absolute sense but adequately. On a larger IOR canvas, it will help regional states with a greater sense of reassurance. This assurance will be tested by rivals via proxies demanding more astute statecraft across the DIME framework. This would provide greater assurance not only to Indians but also across the populations of regional countries.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


  1. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, Longmans Green and Co. (1911), 14.
  2. The author has used this term for a few years in papers presented as part of maritime strategy, some of it focused on the works of Julian Corbett
  3. For a long-standing analysis of faulty statecraft, see Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Abacus, London (1984); Chapter 4, “The British Lose America, 155-288.”
  4. Richard Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History: From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1765-1865, See Part VII, “Secession, Civil War and Emancipation.”
  5. Some of this and the subsequent discussion draws on the work this writer has presented in the two of the “Corbett@100” conferences at Canberra in Sept 2022 and at Newport, RI, in May 2023.
  6. Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals, New Haven, Yale (2000), 262.
  7. See, accounts of French empire- building that concerned Britain even into the 1870s in Lawrence James, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, London, Abacus (1994), 195. For German imperial ambitions and naval build up, see Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the coming of the Great War, London, Vintage books (2007)
  8. Zorawar Daulet Singh, “Geopolitics for a Multipolar Era,” NATSTRAT
  9. Sudarshan Shrikhande, China’s Synthesis of Mahan, Mackinder and Spykman: Matrimony that Spells Trouble for the World, Paper presented in a seminar hosted by the IN’s Naval War College, Goa in Oct 2017 with participation of the Carnegie Endowment, India and the CMSI, US Naval War College
  10. Pushan Das and Harsh Pant (ed); this writer’s chapter, in book Defence Primer 2018: an Indian Military in Transformation. Chapter is titled “Indian Vasuki and the Chinese Dragon.”
  11. For a good account of the diplomatic line of effort in ancient times, see V.R.Ramachandra Dikshitar, War in Ancient India, Madras, Macmillan(1944) pp- 292-296. Also see, Ghulam M. Suhrawardi, Bangladesh Maritime History, Victoria, Canada, Freisen Press (2015), 8.
  12. Here, the author refers to mentions made in multiple Indian and Western sources, including in the Indian Navy’s Official History, about the deliberate deployment of up to seven Soviet nuclear attack submarines to deter and constrict options that the US Navy could use including the ultimately ineffective deployment of the USS Enterprise carrier strike group.
  13. Sagar Shidore, Responsible Statecraft, 29 August 2020 Also see Shankyaneel Sarkar, CNBC18. At ministerial levels, Quad members quite correctly play down the organization’s military role and emphasize its common “human development” goals. China always refers to it as an anti-China group which also indicates they are concerned about it and see the deterrent potential in the grouping.
  14. Rajiv Bhatia, Hindustan Times, 19 July 2021
  15. Steven Haines & (late) James Goldrick (ed), Maritime Strategy for Medium Maritime Powers in the 21st Century; UK, Broydell and Brewer (prov); Chapter by Sudarshan Shrikhande, “Maritime-ness, Continentality and India as a Medium Power.”


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