Silk Roads and Spice Routes: The Future of 21st Century Connectivity and Opportunities To Build on the India-U.S. Cooperation Agenda

 Having recently returned from the palm-lined beaches of Thiruvananthapuram, India, along 

the Kerala coast, I was struck once again by India's incredible place in history and of her unique 

position and promise for the future. Not far from Thiruvananthapuram lies the ancient port of 

Muziris, where more than two thousand years ago, trade flourished between India and the 

West, the Greeks and Romans. In what would later become known as the Spice Route, Indian 

merchants and ships traded with the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region sailing with the 

Monsoon winds. These sea routes also connected to the maritime Silk Roads linking India 

with Southeast Asia and China. In the twenty-first century, the silk roads and spice routes are 

returning, and India stands at the center once again. The question is—will these new routes run 

through India or around her? 

 

India's geostrategic position at the center of the Indian Ocean and astride the major shipping 

lanes and energy corridors of the region coupled with its long maritime tradition and rich 

history of civilizational influence could provide tremendous opportunity for India in this Asian 

Century. Regrettably however, India’s commercial maritime capabilities and infrastructure may 

not be up to the challenge. This could have serious strategic consequences in the increasingly 

competitive global environment. There is an accelerating competition to connect Asia through 

its port infrastructure, shipping routes, and road and rail networks. This is an important 

competition and one that does not have to lead to confrontation, but one where there are 

potentially significant consequences for the parties that come in second or third. 

 

While India's economy, is by many measures, currently the fastest growing major economy 

in the world, some in India’s strategic circles have expressed concern that significant 

investment is needed in its maritime infrastructure to secure these gains and to ensure India 

realizes its full economic potential in the coming decades. In the globalization era, much of an 

economy's strength flows through its major ports and containerized shipping capacity. The bulk 

of India's container shipments are trans-shipped in Sri Lanka as India lacks the deep water ports 

and cargo handling infrastructure necessary to service many of today's supertankers and large 

volume container ships. The Indian government certainly recognizes this problem and seeks to 

rectify this situation with port development initiatives such as the Sagarmala (string of 

ports) project. Conceived by the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, Sagarmala, in addition to 

port development, also sought to improve road and rail connectivity to transform ports into 

multimodal logistic hubs. Sagarmala is comprised of 415 projects running the gamut from port 

modernization and new port development to coastal community development. Much like 

India’s previous “Maritime Agenda 2020”, the Sagarmala project is a good but ambitious plan, 

of which much remains to be implemented. 

 

If we contrast where India is today in terms of maritime infrastructure and economic 

integration supported by maritime connectivity, to where China was ten to twenty years ago, 

we can begin to see the strategic implications of proper planning and maritime capacity 

building. Much of China’s current strength has its roots in strategic investment and industrial 

policy decisions dating from the mid to late 1990’s and early 2000’s. China’s planned Belt and 

Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to link, through infrastructure provision, economies across 

Eurasia and East Africa, also reflects a long-term strategic vision. 

 

China’s BRI, which is comprised of both land-based routes (Belt) connecting China with Eurasia, 

and sea-based routes termed the Twenty First Century Maritime Silk Road (Road), could well 

become one of the biggest infrastructure projects of the twenty first century, with significant 

geostrategic consequences. If competitiveness in connectivity and supply chain networks 

becomes the future measure of a nation’s power, then China appears to have established a 

comfortable lead in this race. China's infrastructure provisions in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of 

Aden, and the Bay of Bengal, as well as the “Belt” which involves land routes through Pakistan, 

including the Kashmir region, deeply concerns Indian strategists. However, this race is a 

marathon, not a sprint. It is also important to note that China, as part of its own grand strategy 

developed its domestic infrastructure first, and is now expanding to the BRI. As mentioned 

above, the land portion of the BRI involves the intractable Kashmir problem. Because of this 

the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in particular, and the BRI in general, will likely 

be resisted by the Indian government. This despite the belief in some Indian strategic quarters 

that New Delhi should partner with Beijing on the BRI. 

 

So how can India better address its maritime infrastructure challenges? And are there broader 

opportunities to partner with the U.S. in this area? If maritime capacity building and other 

critical issues in the maritime sector could be brought into the India-U.S. cooperation agenda it 

might well be a win-win for both countries. Building on the good work that has already been 

done with the Sagarmala project, it may be time for a new maritime infrastructure strategy co- 

developed with the U.S. This could prioritize key nodes and port projects, and develop 

implementation guidelines. Its goal should be to enhance peace and security in the Indo- 

Asia-Pacific region through better balancing and a more nuanced strategic approach toward 

China. This in turn can help to create a multilateral, multipolar space where states can pursue 

their interests freely, all the while preventing dominance of the region by a single hegemon. 

Targeted investment in maritime infrastructure will be essential to achieving this goal. Such 

investments will provide economic and social benefits to the Indian people independent of the 

BRI. In addition, Indian infrastructure improvements and increased connectivity will provide 

the Indian Ocean region (IOR) partners with a competitive alternative to China and the BRI. 

Absent of this alternative, they may feel compelled to align with China or be left out. 

 

In this vein, the U.S. should make supporting Indian port design and management a top priority. 

The new deep-water port to be located at Vizhinjam, India could be a prime candidate for such 

cooperation. 

 

It should also be noted, that a major strategic objective of the U.S. led Trans-Pacific Partnership 

(TPP) was to foster economic integration with Pacific Rim nations excluding China. Now that 

the TPP has been abandoned by the Trump Administration, the proposals mentioned 

above may provide the U.S. with more of a stake in the physical connectivity that is taking 

place in the region and more leverage in the future policy debates to come. Additionally, with 

the TPP derailed and the BRI moving ahead, India needs a strategy to avoid being left behind. 

 

The Trump Administration’s rejection of the TPP is an important factor that raises separate 

questions of what India, other IOR players, and the U.S. do next. If the IOR nations pursue 

closer economic integration (some type of TPP) without the U.S., India could be a key player 

and Indian maritime infrastructure a key enabler. Additionally, in the absence of a TPP, if the 

Trump administration prefers bilateral deals and chooses to visibly partner with India, maritime 

infrastructure and connectivity could be a good opportunity for cooperation. India and the U.S. 

working together with other partners and allies, can also provide the additional infrastructure 

and connections needed in this vital region. 

 

India and the U.S recognize the need to work closely together in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The 

Joint Strategic Vision, signed by the U.S. and India in 2015, calls for increasing regional 

connectivity, ensuring freedom of navigation, and promoting collective security. Now begins 

the important work of implementing this vision, and ensuring that India takes it rightful place as 

a leading power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Projects like the Defense Technology Trade Initiative 

(DTTI) and others are important, but perhaps now is the time to dream bigger and set our sights 

a little higher. If India can improve its maritime infrastructure, then a better future of increased 

prosperity and connectivity awaits. A stronger and more prosperous India is in the U.S.’s 

strategic interest. 

 

With improved ports and increased access, one could envision a future where U.S. Navy ships 

would frequently make calls in multi-use Indian ports while transiting Indian Ocean waters 

enroute to Southwest Asia, the Mediterranean, or Western Pacific. Each port call would 

provide an opportunity to deepen relationships and improve interoperability. This in turn could 

provide better maritime domain awareness and data connectivity on what is occurring in India's 

littoral and costal environment, all contributing to greater maritime security. Additionally, like- 

minded democracies like Japan and Australia, also making use of India’s improved naval and 

commercial ports could work with India to ensure maritime security in the IOR and to uphold 

the rules-based international order. 

 

Global supply chains and physical connectivity will define geoeconomics in the twenty first 

century. The noted author, Parag Khanna, wrote that “The most significant geopolitical 

interventions could prove to be not military but infrastructural.” As mentioned above, when 

India achieves its maritime infrastructure goals, and improves its connectedness and capacity 

creation, greater prosperity and wealth creation will ensue. With this improved maritime 

infrastructure, India’s security situation can improve as well. India’s long history as a maritime 

nation and civilizational influence can only be strengthened by once again becoming the center 

hub of the twenty-first century silk roads and spice routes.