Slow, but steady: Indian response to maritime concerns

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If India was wary of Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, it was outright harried by the continued advancements of large-scale Chinese infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean. Djibouti, Gwadar, Colombo, Hambantota, Maldives…one by one, China has been persistent in its strategic positioning through the Indian Ocean. This assortment of military bases and ports, dubbed “the string of pearls,” has been seen as an attempt by Beijing to keep New Delhi on its toes.  

India, for its part, has not been a silent spectator amid the maritime chaos. Subtly so, India has been active in addressing its domestic shipping policies and foreign relations to ameliorate the geopolitical risk posed by China. In late 2015, India implemented a change in its cabotage laws which not only denoted a milestone for its own shipping industry, but significantly reduced reliance on foreign ports that operate on Chinese investment. Till 2015, cargo ships had to dock at nearby deep-water ports such as Colombo, Dubai and Singapore before unloading and having their goods delivered in smaller vessels to shallow-water ports on the subcontinent in a process known as transshipment. This was done in an effort to promote the Indian cargo fleet and keep them active for use in domestic waters. However, this resulted in Indian manufacturers paying nearly USD$350 more per container due to the transshipment detour which hurt their competitiveness globally.

In December 2015, India’s shipping minister Nitin Gadkari announced a plan to relax India’s sabotage law to allow foreign-owned ships to enter national waters and dock at mainland ports. As a demonstration of the policy in full swing, a shipment of 800 Hyundai cars was unloaded at APM Terminal Pipavav, a port in Gujarat controlled by shipping behemoth Maersk. In addition to throwing open Indian waters to major international shipping lines, India has also been proactive in developing its own deep-water ports near major trade routes to divert domestic traffic away from foreign ports such as those of Colombo and Hambantota, which have a significant Chinese presence. The new port, Vizhinjam, has a natural depth of 59 feet that will be further deepened to 72 feet via dredging which will allow mega-container ships to dock. Once connected to India’s inland rail and road network, the port will result in significant economies of scale for Indian importers and international shippers as they can now avoid a lengthy detour to Sri Lanka. At one point, the Colombo International Container Terminal, a joint venture between China Merchant Holdings International and Sri Lanka Ports Authority, used to be responsible for over 48% of India’s transshipment volume. Once Vizhinjam is completed and in action, Colombo may stop enjoying the perks of being the only major transshipment hub in South Asia

India has also been prudent in engaging in Southeast neighbors with an eye on containing China’s expansion plans in the area. During Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang’s state visit to India last weekend, both countries shook hands on affirming the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Both heads of state reiterated their support for international maritime law as well as their commitment to open trade in the Indo-Pacific region, alluding to a mutual determination in keeping China in check. In perhaps what is the most obvious show of regional security cooperation against China, New Delhi is hosting naval training exercises in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands this week. This 8-day naval program (named MILAN 2018) will see the participation of more than 15 countries including Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Indonesia – many of whom have expressed concerns regarding China’s aggressive policy in the South China Sea themselves. The drills will involve countering unlawful activities in the sea lanes and discuss the Chinese problem in the context of maritime law. Geographically speaking, the exercise will be conducted out of Port Blair, an area that is positioned right at the entrance of the Malacca Straits, a reaffirmation of New Delhi’s intentions of engaging member countries which are beyond its immediate neighborhood, particularly in Southeast Asia.

India’s responses to concerns stemming from China’s abrasiveness have been relatively quiet, but effective. Instead of engaging directly with China, much like what has been observed in the Spratly Islands, India has instead looked towards changing its own shipping regulations to curb dependency on Chinese-backed foreign ports. In terms of India’s own infrastructure plans, the port of Vizhinjam (and other similar projects) are a solid response to what could have been a loss of control in India’s own backyard amid a growing number of China’s ‘pearls’ in the Indian Ocean. Finally, bringing together stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region who stand united against China’s maritime ambitions is another diplomatic feat which both undermines Chinese maritime authority in contested territory and highlights India’s influence in regional security matters.