While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is talking up the importance of building sea ports along India’s coastline, China is focused on developing maritime infrastructure far beyond its own shores, whether greenfield ports in the Indian Ocean or the modernisation of the Panama Canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. After constructing new ports in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Beijing is now gearing up to build another one near India — in the Maldives.
As the world’s top merchandise trading nation, China has some of the world’s busiest ports. According to the World Shipping Council, China (including Hong Kong) has seven of the world’s top 10 container ports. The three other top ports are Singapore, Busan (South Korea) and Dubai (UAE).
Mumbai’s Nava Sheva shows up at No 33 on the list. That Colombo precedes Mumbai at No 32 shows how far India has fallen behind in the development of ports, despite growing trade volumes after India’s economic globalisation at the turn of the 1990s.
The BJP, in its election manifesto, had talked about reviving Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s plan to develop the “Sagar Mala”, a string of modern ports on India’s coastline. During his visit to Mumbai last week, Modi underlined the importance of ports in his economic strategy and called them gateways to India’s economic prosperity. Modi argued that India must move from “port development” to “port-led development” and revive the stalled special economic zones in the country.
As it became a major trading nation over the last two decades, China’s maritime ambitions have soared. Chinese leaders started investing in the building of a blue-water navy. Beijing also became more assertive in its maritime territorial disputes with its neighbours in the East and South China Seas. The last decade also saw China significantly raise its maritime profile in the Indian Ocean.
In 2012, the18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which elevated Xi Jinping as the new party general secretary, declared that building China into a great naval power is a critical strategic objective. After he became the president of China in early 2013, Xi Jinping reorganised the multiple agencies at home dealing with maritime and naval issues to give greater internal coherence to launch the construction of a “Chinese maritime civilisation”.
Externally, the promotion of a Maritime Silk Road became central to Xi’s foreign policy. While a considerable part of the new effort is devoted to Southeast Asia, the subcontinent has emerged as a major focus of Xi’ new maritime diplomacy. The Maritime Silk Road is about securing China’s sea lines of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and deepening special relationships with the island states that sit at critical locations of the Indian Ocean littoral.
MALDIVES & SRI LANKA
President Xi met the president of Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, on the margins of the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing last week and invited him to join the Maritime Silk Road initiative. Chinese companies have been eyeing the contract for the Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project, or “iHavan”, in the northernmost atoll in the Maldives. The project includes the construction of a transhipment port and an export processing zone and will tap into the trade between China, India and the Indian Ocean littoral. iHavan “capitalises on the location of the atoll, which lies on the seven-degree channel through which the main East-West shipping routes” run across the Indian Ocean. This is only one of the many infrastructure projects for which Maldvies is seeking Chinese investments.
Xi has already reached out to Sri Lanka, which has formally endorsed his Maritime Silk Road project. Xi will be the first Chinese president to visit Sri Lanka when he arrives in Colombo next month before proceeding to India. Pakistan is very much part of China’s Maritime Silk Road. Xi is also seeking support from Bangladesh and Myanmar, which he sees as integral to his maritime ambitions.
With much of the region eager to benefit from China’s new focus on the seas, Xi is pressing India to join the party. Modi will find it hard to turn down Xi, given his own interest in accelerating India’s maritime development. The question, however, is not really a diplomatic one.
What Modi needs is a credible domestic strategy to ramp up India’s maritime infrastructure. China can be an important external partner; but so will be Japan, South Korea, the US and Europe. A strategy of seeking multiple partners for India’s maritime development would help Modi end New Delhi’s current defensiveness on China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’