Can India’s Ports Anchor its Indo-Pacific Outlook?

With the rapidly intensifying geopolitical environment of the Indo-Pacific, India has been steady and mindful in treading the shifts and churns in the region. As the Indo-Pacific continues to sustain as the center of global geopolitical, geo-strategic and geo-economic competition for regional as well as extra-regional powers, India is likely to emerge as a critical player in ensuring maritime security and facilitating global trade in the region. What makes India a critical player in the Indo-Pacific context, is its geographical location at the heart of the Indian Ocean, along with its burgeoning partnerships and alliances with like-minded countries. Apart from cementing its ties with the Quad countries, namely Australia, Japan and the US, New Delhi has also forged new alliances with European powers such as France, Germany and UK in the Indo-Pacific.

Arguably, for India, two primary reasons inspire and guide its Indo-Pacific outlook, which include concerns arising from China’s expanding strategic and naval presence in the Indian Ocean, as well as New Delhi’s quest for emerging as a regional leader, with an instrumental role in ensuring good order at sea by facilitating maritime security, trade and connectivity. Interestingly, apart from forging economic and naval ties with like-minded countries, there remain other strategies which can not only shape, but further inject momentum in India’s outlook towards the Indo-Pacific. The critical salience of having a robust port infrastructure remains one such marginal aspect in studying India’s strategic maneuvering in the Indo-Pacific.

As the economic dimension of a regional imagination of the Indo-Pacific gains steam, by way of the onset of the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF), it is imperative for India to add economic teeth to its Indo-Pacific outlook, beyond the contours of the regional security impetus. In this light, it is important to reflect on one of the key characteristics that may boost India’s economic profile and potential in the region. So far, India’s geographical location in the Indian Ocean has been at the heart of positing it as a crucial player in the regional matrix in the Indo-Pacific. However, in addition to the geographical leverage, another aspect that may catapult India into a greater power in the Indo-Pacific, and certainly in the Indian Ocean, is the long and critically placed coastline it enjoys. Following this, the role of Indian ports, merit greater attention. In today’s age of growing connectivity, which further facilitates economic engagement, ports act as major asset in boosting maritime trade. In the Indo-Pacific context, major players such as India and China have focused on upgrading their port infrastructure facilities in order to accommodate the emerging strategic realities of the region.

Sagarmala: Articulation to Implementation

It may be noted that the idea of having robust port infrastructure facilities had dawned upon the policy makers quite early, following the turn of the century. In 2003, India’s erstwhile Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had articulated the Sagarmala initiative, and the same was announced in 2014, by Prime Minister Modi, in order to address the challenges and capture the opportunity of port-led development comprehensively and holistically. In 2015, after sanctioning this project, Government of India had lined up INR 70,000 crore in developing its 12 major ports. However, there remains contestation over whether the purported reason for undertaking the Sagarmala project has been fulfilled or not. According to India’s erstwhile naval chief, Arun Prakash, the Sagarmala initiative had earlier been conceived as a holistic maritime modernization project, whereas its focus has now been limited only to port development and road and rail connectivity. However, it is worth noting how India’s ports by themselves can contribute to its Indo-Pacific outlook.

First it is important to appreciate the uniqueness of India’s major ports in terms of their placement. Reiterating the advantageous geographical location of India, it must be noted that India has ports on both its east and west coasts that open up to the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Indian Ocean, thereby holding the critical potential of bridging trade between European and African powers and Southeast Asia and countries of the far-East. Notably, India’s Kolkata port is also used by Nepal and Bhutan, two landlocked states in South Asia.

The Economic Imperative and India’s Indo-Pacific Maneuvering through Ports

Keeping in mind the booming market and growing economy that India has to offer, it may be undoubtedly asserted that New Delhi is going to be a sought after economic power integrating into the regional political-economy matrix that is increasingly evolving in the Indo-Pacific. Having a robust port infrastructure in place is likely to further boost India’s engagement in the region as a crucial economic power. Additionally, India has taken the lead in shaping the port-led connectivity network in the Bay of Bengal sub-region. Importantly, under the rubric of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), New Delhi has been instrumental in initiating the BIMSTEC Ports Conclave in 2019 to facilitate maritime interaction and port-led connectivity initiatives. Notably, in 2019, India signed three MoUs with Thailand in an effort to strengthen its connectivity network in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Further, a look at the MoUs signed by India and various other states since 2014 is revealing of New Delhi’s keen interest and considered importance attached to its ports and cooperation for greater connectivity.

As major economic and strategic players in the Indo-Pacific such as US, Japan, Australia and other European states seek greater engagement in the region, along with their sustained difference of policy and outlook with China, India is likely to emerge as a credible alternative. Additionally, not just like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific, but even those states which do not have a clear Indo-Pacific policy, or do not necessarily endorse a hard-lined position against China in the region, are increasingly seeking other alternatives to China for their trade and economic engagement. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been a major eye opener for most states, including the relatively smaller economies in the Indo-Pacific, who were within the fold of China’s flagship geo-economic initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This coupled with the economic dimension of the Indo-Pacific gaining sharper focus has positioned India as an integral player in this strategic matrix. For India to seize the moment and emerge as a credible economic power, it must have a sound connectivity roadmap. For this, New Delhi’s enhanced focus on developing its port infrastructure is timely and important. 

Amid the growing consensus over India’s weight as a major economic power in the Indo-Pacific, putting its ports to optimum use in order to calibrate its economic and connectivity linkages in the region should be New Delhi’s priority. This is especially critical since it has been long held that the narrative of ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ is a security outlook with marginal economic impetus, given China’s robust economic engagement via its BRI project. After the economic slowdown and momentary lull in global trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, states are looking to make the most from the expanding economic networks in the Indo-Pacific. Considering China’s relations with the US and most of the Western world continue to remain fragile, having a credible alternative to China’s supply chain networks is critical. In this light, India has much to offer, given the rapid growth of major ports in India, along with the entry of private players in building port facilities along the expansive coastline in the country. Nonetheless, for New Delhi to use its ports as an instrument in building cooperation and shaping its Indo-Pacific outlook, it must focus on capacity building at the domestic level as well, which would ensure greater coordination through rail-road connectivity. Steady focus on its ports indeed holds great promise for India to evolve as a major economic power in the Indo-Pacific.