In its manifesto released this week, the BJP promises to build new world-class ports and modernise the old ones all along the Indian coastline, as part of what it calls “port-led development”. The BJP’s name for the project, “Sagar Mala”, evokes, perhaps unintentionally, China’s “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean. Over the last decade, China has embarked on the construction of a number of ports in India’s neighbourhood, starting with Gwadar, in Pakistan, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. New Delhi worries that some of these ports might turn into forward bases for the People’s Liberation Army.
India’s immediate problem, however, is not the prospect of China acquiring military facilities in the Indian Ocean. Given the long and vulnerable lines of communication from China’s eastern seaboard to the Indian Ocean, China’s bases will be easy pickings in a war.
The real problem for India is the massive maritime gap with China in the civilian domain. Out of the top 10 busiest container ports in the world, China has seven. India’s JNPT is placed at number 30 and is the only one in the list of top 50.
The story is much the same when we compare the tonnage of merchant fleet or the ship-building capacities. If the BJP is serious about generating millions of jobs through manufacturing and trade, it must necessarily focus on a rapid expansion of India’s maritime infrastructure. “Sagar Mala” could be a good first step.
Without strong national maritime capabilities, Delhi will find it hard to either compete or cooperate with Beijing in Asia’s waters. Beijing has trumped the talk of rivalry with India by inviting Delhi to join China in the building of a maritime silk road across the Indo-Pacific. This has put Delhi in a spot of bother. It is in no position to stop China from building up its presence in the Indian Ocean. But Delhi is also reluctant to “endorse” China’s rising maritime profile in what India considers its backwaters. There is only one way out of this corner.
It is to build up India’s own comprehensive maritime power that will let Delhi consolidate its geographic advantages in the Indian Ocean, build partnerships in the Pacific Ocean, compete with China’s infrastructure-building in the littoral where necessary and cooperate with Beijing where possible.
India’s answers must be the same as China pushes for overland connectivity with the subcontinent across the Great Himalayas. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has put building Silk Roads all across inner Asia at the top of his foreign policy agenda. Xi has decided to modernise the Karakoram Highway linking China and Pakistan and build an industrial corridor along the Indus River. China’s rail and road networks in Tibet are inching closer to India’s frontier.
Xi is pressing Delhi to support a corridor connecting southwestern China with eastern India through Myanmar and Bangladesh. Delhi has said neither “yes” nor “no” and is simply stringing it out.