It would be more realistic than critical to say that India has been too laidback for its own good when it comes to competing with China for maritime preeminence.
Sri Lanka was an opportunity lost. The island nation is situated along the key shipping route between the Malacca Straits and the Suez Canal, which links Asia and Europe. An estimated 36,000 ships, including 4,500 oil tankers, use the route annually. India had the chance to help develop the Hambantota port and reap future benefits. But it squandered it.
When the Government first looked to build a port on its southern coast that faced the Indian Ocean, it approached India, not China. India was requested to help with the project almost a decade ago. But New Delhi lacked foresight. It refused to give significance to the prospect and was nonchalant. It didn’t show any interest in investing in an expensive port development venture.
It belongs to the Chinese now and India is left licking its self-inflicted wound. In July, 2017, Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and China Merchant Port Holdings signed an agreement on the Hambantota Port to lease the port to the Chinese for 99 years. It has cost India in terms of strategic geopolitics, since the debt incurred on the port and the surrounding infrastructure undertakings now belong to its great rival. It has given China sizeable presence in India’s immediate backyard and traditional sphere of influence.
China’s seaport shopping binge
China has been continuously strengthening its status as a maritime behemoth by securing strategic supply chains, boosting international trade capabilities and building up geo-economic control. It is buying development and operational rights to a chain of ports that stretch from the southern realms of Asia to the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and even South America. It’s part of its inter-continental network.
China’s growing portfolio of international port holdings now span the world with terminals in Greece, Myanmar, Israel, Djibouti, Morocco, Spain, Pakistan, Italy, Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Sri Lanka and around a dozen or so other countries. Chinese state firms, which once kept close to their home market, now control about one-tenth of all European port capacity. It fits the Belt and Road (OBOR) narrative.
China says its new acquisitions are economically driven. However, it is impossible to ignore the obvious political element to it. The extent of the Belt and Road investments in key international infrastructure means China will have more political leverage in these countries through financial doles.
Sri Lanka handed over its strategically located Hambantota port to the Asian giant because it had become laden with debt it didn’t have the capacity to repay. It was a crucial achievement for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a telling evidence of just how effectual China’s debt-trap diplomacy can be. It hopes to further its strategic interests, including expanding its diplomatic influence, securing natural resources, promoting the international use of its currency and gaining a relative advantage over other powers. It is nothing but erosion of smaller states’ sovereignty.
China’s strategy is akin to the European imperial powers, which deployed gunboat diplomacy to open new markets and colonial outposts. The Asian giant is exploiting sovereign debt to corner weaker states and impose its will without having to use its military power.
Its strategy against Djibouti is classic. It lent billions of dollars to heavily-indebted Djibouti and set up its first overseas military base. Incidentally, the base is merely a few kilometres from a U.S. naval base, the only permanent American military facility in Africa. Ensnared, Djibouti leased the land to China for $20 million a year. China has also used its leverage over Turkmenistan to secure natural gas by pipeline largely on Chinese terms.
This clearly shows that BRI is primarily an imperial project with the facade of an economic nature. India has every reason to be worried.
India needs to act
Speaking to The Voice of Nation, Major General Shashi Asthana said, “China’s port grabbing efforts as part of ‘Maritime Road’ of OBOR initiative is extension of its erstwhile ‘String of Pearls’ strategy with dual aim. Firstly, to secure it’s maritime lines of communication/trade routes, and secondly, to increase its strategic footprints in the maritime domain, including Indian Ocean. This will also improve deployability of PLA Navy. India needs to be concerned and needs to do capacity-building of Indian maritime forces rapidly. We need to be aggressively working out our interoperability with friendly naval forces of other like-minded countries, which we are doing through various exercises. But we need to up the ante now.”
India is also trying to diplomatically engage with countries that are prone to fall prey to the Chinese designs, but Maj. Gen. Asthana warns diplomacy can help only so much.
“Diplomacy alone is not sufficient. We also need hard power to project, hence the budgetary allocation, faster procurement of equipment, and improvement of Indian manufacturing capabilities is inescapable.
The threat to India’s interest in the Indian Ocean may not be as grave as it is made out to be.
“As of now, the Chinese capability to influence the Indian Ocean region is limited because its naval forces are committed in South and East China Sea, hence its resources for Indian Ocean are limited. Grabbing few ports here does not mean that it can challenge the Indian Navy in the region because it doesn’t have the capability to project ground-based airpower in Indian Ocean. China cannot dominate the Indian Ocean only by submarines and missiles.
“Indian Ocean is life line for Chinese trade and energy flow, hence its primary reason for ports grabbing is its security, but infrastructure has dual purpose usability, hence it can be used for strategic expansion and threatening the region and India needs to use all instruments of national power to avoid any compromise on its national security,” Maj. Gen. Asthana concluded.