How India develop ports abroad to promote its geopolitical objectives

The South Asian giant is also working on new oceanic trade routes

58-Chabahar-port-in-Iran Port of call: Chabahar port in Iran | Shutterstock

The Chabahar port on Iran’s Makran coast is approximately 7,600 nautical miles (around 14,000km) from Vladivostok, Russia’s largest port on the Pacific seaboard. Myanmar’s Sittwe port lies somewhere between the two. For India, these three are vital pivots on which hinges the attempt to extend its maritime and trade links, keeping in mind the country’s growing geopolitical and strategic objectives.

Chabahar has an average depth of 16 metres, allowing most cargo and commercial ships to berth on the edge of the port. This is what gives Chabahar its unique status.

India launched the Sittwe port plan in 2009 and started seriously pursuing Chabahar from 2014, while baby steps for the sea route from Vladivostok to eastern India were taken in 2017. With up to six Chinese warships deployed in the Indian Ocean at any given time, not to speak of the PLA submarines, Beijing is on an overdrive to expand its military presence. The Chinese efforts to help modernise the Pakistani navy is another point of concern.

India has invested considerable time, effort and money to extend its strategic influence in these carefully selected locations and their hinterlands. But the efforts have faced some setbacks.

Iran is locked in a confrontation with Israel, and it is facing a major crisis with the deaths of president Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash last month. Russia is embroiled in a war with Ukraine, while Myanmar is in the throes of a deadly civil war between the junta and pro-democracy and ethnic groups.

Chahar (four) and bahar (spring) in Baluch language roughly translate to ‘a land where all the four seasons resemble spring’. Spring is said to be the season of hope. It is on the Chabahar port that India has pinned big hopes. That is why the May 13 pact with Iran, mandating India to develop the port, made the world sit up and take notice. Professor Gulshan Sachdeva, who teaches at JNU’s Centre for European Studies, told THE WEEK, “Chabahar connects India with Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. It also provides Afghanistan with an additional outlet for its trade.”

From an Indian perspective, the Chabahar deal is critically important because it is connected to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) linking Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea in Russia to the Jawaharlal Nehru Port near Mumbai, the largest container port in India. This route will provide a huge fillip to India-Russia trade. While Russia is among India’s major energy suppliers, India exports machinery, auto parts and other engineering goods to Russia. Some reports say Russia recently spent about $4 billion to buy India-made defence equipment. The ongoing conflict with Ukraine has spiked the Russian demand for certain military material.

The INSTC traverses 7,200km of sea, rail and road links, making it the shortest and the cheapest route that links India to Europe. It has already been successfully tested by the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines Group in coordination with its regional branches in Russia and India. The INSTC will also avoid the American sanctions regime against Russia because crude oil and LNG sent directly from Russia to India and paid in a non-dollar currency would technically skirt the embargo.

The US had exempted the Chabahar port from sanctions earlier because it wanted India to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction, but a lot has changed since then and a blanket exemption may not be that easy. But at the same time, from the US perspective, India’s access is important, if only to counter Chinese influence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

“It is a question of communicating and convincing and getting people to understand that this is actually for everybody’s benefit. I don’t think people should take a narrow view of it,” was what External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had to say on the issue.

The ongoing conflicts in West Asia and Ukraine have only added to the significance of the projects. “Both have positively impacted the Chabahar port. Due to the Ukraine war, India-Russia trade has surpassed $50 billion. So the importance of the INSTC has grown. Meanwhile, the Israel-Gaza war has pushed discussions on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor into the background,” said Sachdeva.

The INSTC begins at Saint Petersburg, cuts across western Russia to the Caspian port of Astrakhan, crosses the length of the Caspian Sea on ships to reach the north Iranian port of Anzali. From Anzali, the route takes the highway to the south Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, from where a sea route connects to the Jawaharlal Nehru Port. Goods will take just 25 days to reach, instead of the existing 40-day-long, 8,675-nautical-mile circuitous sea route. The Chabahar option is even better as it is in the extreme southeast of Iran and is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean.

While a memorandum of understanding for Chabahar’s development was inked in May 2015, it was only in February 2019 that the first consignment weighing 570 tonnes arrived in India from Afghanistan. Since then, the port has handled container traffic of more than 80,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit) and bulk and general cargo of more than eight million tonnes. Unlike most ports where ships have to drop anchor a little further away from where the sea meets the land, Chabahar has an average depth of 16 metres, allowing most cargo and commercial ships to berth on the edge of the port. This is what gives Chabahar its unique status.

Another key feature is the location. Chabahar is only 550 nautical miles from Gujarat’s Kandla port, 786 nautical miles from the Mumbai port and just 93 nautical miles from Gwadar. With Gwadar being the pivotal port in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and being considered as the link between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road projects, Indian control of a nearby port offers huge strategic advantages.

Chabahar comprises two ports―Shahid Kalantari and Shahid Beheshti. It is in Shahid Beheshti that India is investing in. The port is being developed in four phases. Presently, it has a capacity of 2.5 million tons per year (MTPA). On completion of all four phases, it will go up to 82 MTPA. “India believes that this deep-drafted port can become one of the largest trade hubs in the future,” said a shipping ministry source.

The Chennai-Vladivostok sea route (also called the EMC―Eastern Maritime Corridor), which connects ports on India’s east coast with ports on the Russian Far East, is equally important. “There is continued dialogue at the ministerial and official levels to ensure development of bilateral trade via the EMC,” said the shipping ministry source. In January, the Chennai Port Authority had arranged a field visit for Russian delegates to the ports, refinery and the LNG terminal. Further engagement is expected at the ninth Eastern Economic Forum to be held at Vladivostok in September 2024.

But it is in Sittwe that Indian plans have suffered a serious setback. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project was aimed to set up a multimodal mode of cargo transport to link eastern ports of India, like Haldia and Kolkata, to the landlocked northeast India via Sittwe. The route offers an alternative to the ‘chicken’s neck’ or the Siliguri corridor that connects the rest of India to the northeast.

China covets the strategically-important Jampheri ridge―a landmass that shoots up by about 500 metres from the mountainous surroundings just north to northeast of the ‘chicken’s neck’. From the ridge, well-positioned enemy artillery can cut off the crucial link to the northeast. It is close to Doklam, located near the India-Bhutan-China trijunction which was the flashpoint of a 73-day Sino-Indian faceoff in 2017. Many strategists believe that the Doklam standoff was sparked off by Chinese movements towards the Jampheri ridge.

While a considerable amount of work had been completed on the Sittwe project, the coup in Myanmar in February 2021, and the consequent civil war, have put it on hold. Another significance of Sittwe is that it is just 65 nautical miles from Kyaukpyu (also in Myanmar) where China is building a port with access to the Indian Ocean. Both Gwadar and Kyaukphyu are projects aimed at overcoming what is termed as China’s “Malacca Dilemma” or the unavoidable route that Chinese ships have to take through the narrow Malacca Strait which has the potential of being a ‘choke point’ for Chinese ships during times of hostility.

With the Indian Ocean region becoming the new hotspot for the interplay of geopolitical strategies by the major powers, India needs to step up its game and look for new ports and routes.