“In the present day friendly, though foreign, ports are to be found all over the world and their shelter is enough while peace prevails. It was not always so, nor does peace always endure.”
These words are from Alfred Thayer Mahan’s 1890 influential work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History. Effective during peace and war, maritime ports serve as hubs for trade, logistics, and naval forces.
With Sino-Indian competition increasing, India and China seek maritime port agreements in their rival’s neighbourhood. While China enjoys influence in the South Asian maritime ports of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, India has reciprocal Southeast Asian port opportunities in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Heeding Mahan’s “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia,” China, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and so-called String of Pearls strategy, is funding and building maritime ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the Maldives and controlling Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar Port in Pakistan. However, China’s outright leases on the latter two ports represent the largest strategic implications for India.
Situated near crucial Indian Ocean maritime routes and close to India, in December 2017, signed over control of the debt-strapped, China-funded Hambantota Port, which is only 10 to 12 nautical miles from the Malacca Straits-Suez Canal shipping lane, to a Chinese state-owned enterprise for ninety-nine years. The successive 2014 Colombo Port dockings of a Chinese warship and submarines a new addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Indian Ocean fleet may foreshadow Hambantota’s fate.
While Sri Lanka has dismissed claims of a de facto PLAN base at Hambantota, Abhijit Singh, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Researcher Foundation, wrote in the Hindustan Times.
“Over time, however, there is little doubt that China’s leadership would seek to leverage its possession for strategic gains,” potentially leading to a “dual use commercial/military facility for forward-arming, restocking and refuelling of high-end naval assets.” China’s Hambantota Port is not only a strategic foothold on a significant maritime route and India’s southern doorstep but also a potential PLAN node that can impact the former and menace the latter.
Pakistan needs major Persian Gulf oil and gas shipping lanes and is India’s most difficult neighbour and China’s “all-weather friend.” It granted a forty-year lease for Gwadar Port to a Chinese state-owned company in April 2017. Through the Gwadar Port, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor provides China with direct overland access to important energy resources on which it relies.
Furthermore, in January 2018, the South China Morning Post quoted Beijing-based military analyst, Zhou Chenming: “China needs to set up another base in Gwadar for its warships because Gwadar is now a civilian port.”
The sale of two Chinese warships to Pakistan in July 2018 seemed to signal Gwadar Port’s militarisation. Like Sri Lanka, Pakistan has publicly played down prospects of a Chinese military presence at Gwadar; however, according to The New York Times, “Military analysts predict that China could use Gwadar to expand the naval footprint of its attack submarines.”
Despite India’s Chabahar Port, which reasonably counters the Gwadar Port by sitting only 72 kilometres away, Gwadar Port alleviates risks to China’s energy supply and expands China’s Indian Ocean presence while holding the potential to threaten India’s energy imports.
Notwithstanding China’s Hambantota and Gwadar ports intruding into India’s sphere of influence, concomitant Indian port opportunities connected to India’s Act East policy emerge in China’s Southeast Asian sphere of influence which includes Sabang Port in Indonesia and multiple ports in Vietnam.
Indonesia, neighbouring the Malacca Straits, the world’s second-busiest shipping lane through which 40 percent of India’s total trade moves, has made a verbal agreement in May 2018 with Indian officials for developing the Sabang Port located at the Malacca Straits’ western entrance.
Speaking to a Delhi crowd, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, noted, “Sabang Port has a depth of 40 metres which is good even for submarines.” Indian Navy forces at Sabang Port could augment Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy detachments on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands positioned only 175 kilometres away.
Despite China’s attempt to alleviate 82 percent of its oil imports transiting the Malacca Straits through overland pipelines, China will continue to face an energy quagmire that former Chinese President Hu Jintao labelled as the “Malacca Dilemma.”
With military forces in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Sabang Port, India can ensure the safe passage of its own trade and monitor PLAN traffic entering the Indian Ocean, and in the event of conflict, blockading vital energy supplies destined for China.
Vietnam which borders China and hugs the territorial dispute-enveloped South China Sea signed an agreement in October 2010 that allows the Indian Navy to use Vietnamese ports’ fuelling, maintenance, and repair facilities.
Moreover, in 2011, Vietnam granted the Indian Navy special access to Nha Trang Port the only other foreign navy vessel permitted is a U.S. Navy hospital ship and requested assistance in the port’s development.
While Vietnam’s “Three No’s” prohibit foreign bases on its soil, the India-Vietnam relationship upgrade in 2016 to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” – a partnership level Vietnam has only previously designated to Russia and China – resulted in an uptick in Indian Navy visits to Vietnamese ports. In May 2018, three Indian Navy ships made a port call to Tien Sa Port at Da Nang, and in late September and early October 2018, Indian and Vietnamese military vessels reciprocated port visits to Ho Chi Minh City and Chennai, which included a joint coast guard exercise.
As more than 64 percent of China’s maritime trade flows through the South China Sea, India’s consistent use of Vietnamese ports grows its naval footprint in the China-dominated South China Sea, and, if needed, enables it to disrupt a vital Chinese maritime trade route.
With an eye to Mahan’s lessons of the past and anticipation of the future, both China and India recognise the trade, logistical, and naval importance of overseas ports in each other’s neighbourhood. As their duelling ports gain tempo, China continues to play to the South Asian crowd while India aims for Southeast Asia.
While the competition is peaceful now, both players if conflict develops can make their maritime ports serve for more than just trade.