Navigating security challenges: India's maritime strategy amid rising proxy threats

India has not done too badly in the acquisition or use of foreign ports and military bases

Lt Gen Ashok K Mehta January 03, 2024 14:25:34 IST
Navigating security challenges: India's maritime strategy amid rising proxy threats

Adani Port and SEZ Ltd's Mundra port in Gujarat. PTI

Since 16 December last year, Iran-related proxies have made 167 attempts by missiles and drones on shipping passing through the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. On 23 December, Houthi rebels carried out an armed drone attack against Liberia-flagged chemical tanker MV Chem Pluto with a crew of 20 Indians headed for New Mangalore Port from Saudi Arabia. On 23 December, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that those who attacked the India-bound ship will be found – after all, India is the net security provider in the Indian Ocean. Two days later, India deployed Brahmos armed warships – INS Calcutta, INS Kochi, INS Mormugao, INS Chennai and INS Vishakhapatnam – to patrol the Indian Ocean Region to secure shipping lanes.

Earlier, on 19 December, the US-led International Red Sea Response Force called Operation Prosperity Guardian, was flagged off by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Consequent to Houthi rebel threats to the Red Sea, international container traffic is taking a longer route via the Cape of Good Hope even as many large cargo-carrying companies have suspended operations. This has increased oil prices, cost of freight and hiked insurance bonds. Cost escalation is estimated anything between four to 10 per cent. For India, additional costs will include longer duration of cargo via Cape of Good Hope, and double handling of cargo transshipment as no deep sea port is fully operational in India. Vizinjam, is only partially ready and was inaugurated on 15 October, ironically with the docking of a Chinese crane-carrying vessel three years after Galwan.

Acquisition of foreign ports, owning of terminals at foreign ports and use of such ports for logistic facilities and security purposes along India’s shipping lanes are essential to ensure safe and uninterrupted movement of trade to and from Indian shores. Also vital are well-developed deep sea ports with modern cargo handling facilities with speed and efficiency which India lacks. India’s maritime strategy is inadequate not just because there is no national security strategy but also because the port infrastructure, the merchant ship-building industry and the economic grand plan have not been juxtaposed leave alone that the first two assets figure low in international rating. This is even though 95 per cent of India’s trade by volume and 68 per cent by value move through ocean-shipping lanes.

India has not done too badly in the acquisition or use of foreign ports and military bases. The list is impressive: Ayni, Tajikistan; Colombo Port West Container Terminal, Sri Lanka; Chabahar Terminal, Iran; Sittwe Port, Myanmar; Duqm, Oman; and Agalega, Mauritius. Efforts continue to aquire for joint use of Assumption Islands, Seychelles as logistics base. By comparison China’s sweep for acquiring a string of pearls is enormous and elaborate through its BRI and Maritime Silk Route projects. Besides ports in Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti, there are another 81 port projects with partial and full ownership and their dual use with the host country. In addition, some 19 countries may offer the use of military bases which is a work in progress.

India’s trade traffic is subject to double jeopardy: the absence of a 20-m deep transshipment ports to handle large cargo containers and oil tankers. Vizinjam, the first deep sea port, is only partially complete. Until now, large containers were being taken to ports in Sri Lanka, Dubai and Singapore where cargo was transshipped to smaller vessels to less endowed ports on the Indian coastline. This will continue till India’s port capacity is fully capable. Currently, most foreign container ships skip Indian ports due to inadequate depth, poor infrastructure and high tariffs.

Vizinjam near Thiruvananthapuram dredged to increase depth from 18 to 20 m is located 10 nautical miles from international shipping routes. But India’s lethargic maritime outlook has resulted in the Indian merchant shipbuilding industry being stagnant and port-handling capacity limited. Had India developed deep seaports, large ships and containers could have been berthed and transshipped locally rather than being first sent to foreign ports. India’s port development sector took off only recently, with the Adani group taking the lead.

The Adani group has risen and risen from one port in 2001 to acquiring 14 ports and terminals and is handling a quarter of all cargo passing through the country’s ports. It acquired six ports in the last 10 years and now has a port every 500 km along India’s coastline. But the real significance of Adani port acquisition is that it has catalysed strategic thinking about seaports including foreign acquisitions establishing India’s maritime foothold across the Indian Ocean. Karan Adani has taken the 30-40 years long view of Adani Ports and SEZ (APSEZ) limited in foreign acquisitions. In January it acquired Haifa port in Israel which jells with the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor – despite its conflict-prone reputation.

Other ports include the Colombo West International Terminal acquired last year, which will allow monitoring of Chinese activities in Colombo’s Eastern Terminal, China-built Colombo City and Hambantota Port. Adani’s vision is to become a 500 million tonne port company by 2025 and to make Vizinjam Port the largest cargo capacity port of 1 billion tonne by 2030. Earlier this year, the government announced plans for another major transhipment hub in the Great Nicobar Island chain to activate the East Coast. The mega project will have an investment estimated around Rs 41 lakh crore.

India’s blue economy has been an erratic process changing with governments in content and emphasis. Sagarmala 2015 launched by the incumbent government has 12 years left to run its course though India’s maritime modernisation plans have seen four avtars. If we can bolster shipbuilding – not just warships but merchant vessels also – port development and modernisation and acquire foreign ports and use logistics bases, movement of trade will be safe, quick and cost-effective. This can assure the fruition of Modi guarantee of India becoming the third-largest economy in his next term. Provided there is no Black Swan event.

The author is a veteran of Gorkha Regiment who has travelled in Nepal since 1959, understands it’s domestic politics and was involved in back channel with Maoists. Views are personal.

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