Are any of Mahan’s Principles on Sea Power still Relevant in the 21st Century?

By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke

Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840 – December 1, 1914) was a United States Rear Admiral who was dubbed the “most significant American strategist of the nineteenth century” by John Keegan. Mahan’s well-known books, ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783’ and ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812,’ established him as the most important American author of the nineteenth century.

Mahan detected and propounded his sea doctrine aligning with the strategic position of the United States, as the nation reached the limits of its continental expansion by early the 1880s. He analysed the historical factors that formed the basis of British power. His sea doctrine stated that;

  1. The United States should be a world power.
  2. Control of seas is necessary for world power status.
  3. The way to maintain such control is by a powerful navy.

Mahan’s theory of sea power still stands strong in the 21st century. Upon probing his book ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1793-1812’ the following lines indeed prove the famous sea doctrine is still relevant in the 21st century.

“Notwithstanding all the familiar and unfamiliar dangers of the sea, both travel and traffic by water have always been easier and cheaper than by land.”

The above statement conveys that Mahan travelled back into the history of mankind’s struggle to develop his thesis concerning sea power. His sea power theory packed concisely states how different nations used/using the sea routes to achieve both military and non-military objectives. For example, Great Britain emerged as an undefeatable colonial power by establishing an advanced navy, thus controlling vast sea routes which resulted in the British becoming an economical super-power of the medieval and pre-modern eras. From a military perspective, Mahan gives an account of how Rome used the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to defeat Carthage. Thus, waters being a vital component of human evolution sea strategies stand deep-rooted till this day.

The above-quoted lines neglected the concept of the sky as this dimension was yet to be developed during the author’s era. Considering the concept of the sky, even then air freight is 12-16 times more expensive than the same volume of sea freight cargo due to the volume of cargo a ship can carry at once as compared to an aircraft.

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In Mahan’s view, international commerce is essential for the success of America’s economy, thus overseas military establishments are necessary to facilitate foreign trade and commerce. Mahan believed that commerce prospers by peace and suffers by war, so peace is the greater interest for great seafaring countries. In an effort to contextualise America’s growing internal industrialism with a global role he emphasised the link between America’s internal industrialisation and the ongoing economic transformation in China & India. There is a historical anomaly occurring in the Asian waters today that is the rise of two indigenous maritime powers concurrently with the United States’ monopoly of the global commons.

As both the nations move up the economic and political hierarchy in the world, India and China have begun to attach new importance to maritime policy initiatives. Both the Chinese and Indian governments did not merely turn into their water boundaries but were adapting the expansive conceptions of maritime power pioneered by Mahan, who was also quoted as the evangelist of sea power. Paradoxically, like India and China, both embarked on similar emulation of Mahan they were also bound to run into each other’s maritime aspirations.

It is not difficult to explain why both China and India are fascinated by Mahan’s theories of Sea Power. Mahan’s era was also the peak of the colonial period, when all the major industrial powers began acquiring far-flung colonies and exploiting natural resources and markets. Thus, the shifting of supremacy began and turned towards Asian countries. This brief paper sheds light on Mahan’s relevance of sea power doctrine in the 21st century through stressing the Chinese and Indian perspective and connecting it with Mahan’s identification of four main components of sea power- seaborne commerce, merchant shipping, navy, and overseas bases.

The first pillar of sea power according to Mahan is robust domestic industrial production and its export to overseas markets. This led to the further derivative statement that disrupting a rival’s sea-borne trade would be at the heart of modern warfare. Therefore, the construction of modern navies that could achieve this objective in decisive battles at sea. If protecting the sea lines of communication between the centres of industrial production is the goal, then the third derivative statement would define itself. It was necessary to have naval bases and facilities to protect the navies from their competitors. Mahan asserted that merchant ships and naval ships in nations without overseas facilities were like “land birds unable to fly far from their shores”.

With the advent of the 21st century, all three components of sea power have been united for India and China, and Mahan has become an inspiration for leaders in both countries. The The Maritime Military Strategy published by the Ministry of Defence, Government of India, draws a connection between “economic prosperity and increasing naval capabilities, which will attract investments, enable the nation’s natural resource development, and ensure the nation’s maritime interests are respected”. China has become acutely aware of the profound relationship between national economic development and strategic sea power under Xi Jinping’s leadership, and has constantly affirmed the determination to build a strong navy capable of fighting wars with modern technology. Both the nations have an equal share of maritime disputes, the need to protect a large water body of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep has been an important motivation behind India’s naval modernisation. The latter theme can be found behind the Chinese plans for navy advancements.


Thus, the sea-borne commerce component will be in the disguise of ‘resource security’ between India & China. As both the nations have been most populated countries in the world, food imports, and all other major consumer goods will be incoming into these nations via Asian waters. The massive dependence on imports will put the two Asian giants in an aggressive race to set their respective strong foothold for the Indian Ocean Region in upcoming years.

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All the views and opinions published in this article are those of the author. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled “Research Papers on Defence & Strategic Studies Vol. 1”. For Image Credit click here.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the founding-editor of The Viyug. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He currently works for an International Law Enforcement Organisation based in Singapore. He can be contacted via email at

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