The “dueling ports” of Gwadar and Chabahar in Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan have come to symbolize the Great Power competition between China and India, respectively, but there are actually two more pairs of ports in the Bay of Bengal which are paid comparatively less attention to by most observers despite their high-level collective importance in terms of the New Cold War.
The Indian media likes to tout their Iranian project of Chabahar as a counter to China’s Gwadar port in Pakistan, believing that the two are “dueling ports” and rivals with one another. This depiction is a gross exaggeration when taking into account just how far behind Chabahar’s development is when compared to Gwadar’s, but in terms of the grand strategic picture, Chabahar is indeed supposed to be a major geopolitical move for India if it’s ever fully completed. This is because it envisions connecting the country to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia, and even the EU through the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), thereby giving the traditional maritime “Atlanticist” state some continental weight in Eurasia. Likewise, Gwadar plans to do the opposite for China by transforming the traditional mainland “Eurasianist” state into a maritime power in the Indian Ocean through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The resulting friction between these two Great Powers’ projects was described in the author’s brief analysis for Sputnik about how “Competitive Connectivity Is At The Core Of The New Cold War” as well as his comprehensive strategic review for the Pakistani-based CommandEleven consulting firm about the “Chinese-Indian New Cold War”. Both pieces should be referenced by the reader if they’re interested in obtaining a general understanding of the dynamics influencing this modern-day rivalry, but the purpose of this current article is to provide some insight into the under-discussed yet pertinent issue of their two other “dueling ports” in the Bay of Bengal. Granted, the word “dueling” is being used with some irony here because neither Indian project is anywhere near as operational as China’s are, but it’s nevertheless the grand strategic ambitions behind them which in theory make them competitors.
The first set of projects to talk about is in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which is internationally notorious for being the location where deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes have taken place. This maritime state is inherently unstable because of the high risk that the aforementioned conflict has of re-erupting at any time, yet it also has the country’s best ports on the Indian Ocean and is very strategic for India and China for their own separate reasons. India is investing in Sittwe port, which is the capital of Rakhine State, in order to advance its Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project for connecting to the landlocked “Seven Sisters” of its Northeast through a combination of riparian and overland routes. China, however, is focusing on the nearby Kyaukphyu port to the south that already serves as the terminal location of two very important gas and oil pipelines to its Yunnan Province, which could also form the future route for a revived China-Myanmar Silk Road high-speed rail line to complement CPEC.
The second pair of projects is located in Sri Lanka, which sits at the southwestern corner of the Bay of Bengal and therefore represents the pivot location between this body of water and the east-west transit routes across the Indian Ocean. China is involved in developing the southern coastal village of Hambantota into a major port for this very reason, while India has shown interest in getting involved in projects connected with the northeastern Tamil port of Trincomalee. Just like with Chabahar and Sittwe, the trend is that India lags very far behind China in terms of its project’s infrastructural development, but in this case it might have to do with the fact that New Delhi is a relatively newcomer to investing in Sri Lanka, possibly having grown overly complacent after playing a role in former President Rajapaksa’s surprise electoral defeat in January 2015 and mistakenly assuming that China had forever lost its strategic position in the country as a result.
Although India trails China in terms of its infrastructural influence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka’s Bay of Bengal projects, it’s attempted to asymmetrically compensate for this by bringing Bangladesh under its influence per the historic 2015 agreement that Modi reached with his counterpart. Even though Bangladesh has tried to balance between both Great Powers, it’s been visibly tilting towards India ever since that time, and New Delhi needs Dhaka to remain under its wing in order to stand any chance at actualizing its “Act East” policy of ASEAN integration through the Trilateral Highway initiative between itself, Myanmar, and Thailand. So long as Bangladesh continues to behave as India’s underlining, then China’s rival will continue to have a chance at making a competitive power play in the Bay of Bengal in spite of its comparative infrastructural disadvantages when it comes to its slow-moving projects in Myanmar’s Sittwe and Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee.
An Indian Lake?
It’s still far ways off from happening, but taken together, India’s latest interest in the Bay of Bengal countries couples well with its planned Japanese-assisted modernization of port facilities in the Andaman Islands in convincingly making it appears as though its strategists might be planning to turn this body of water into an “Indian Lake” with the crucial help of their international partners in the “China Containment Coalition” (CCC – the US, India, Japan, Vietnam, and Australia). The Indian Navy is in extremely poor condition and doesn’t pose any existing threat to China’s, nor is it capable of exerting any sort of credible deterrence in its namesake ocean either, but it’s precisely for this reason why India’s CCC allies see it as a major maritime arms market in the future and are interested in developing its naval prowess. Given the geopolitics of the Bay of Bengal region, there’s no better place for them to experiment with this than there, which could eventually lead to the strategic nullification of China’s Myanmar investments.
CPEC’s Strategic Centricity
For the reasons explained above, it’s very likely that the CCC will attempt to turn the Bay of Bengal into an “Indian Lake”, though it by no means should be assumed that they’ll succeed. Nevertheless, this hitherto ignored body of water will become increasingly important in the coming future and can be expected to become the scene of intensified international competition, especially if India continues along the trajectory of regularly holding multilateral military drills in this region. Although Bangladesh might wake up from its strategic slumber to become rightly wary of India’s intentions and/or find a way to cast off its neighbor’s hegemony through a potential change in leadership, such a development can’t be taken for granted, so all in all, the case can be made that China’s previously unchallenged access to the Bay of Bengal will eventually come to an end.
This is despite the anticipated success of its Kyaukphyu and Hambantota projects because their respective host nations of Myanmar and Sri Lanka have evidently made up their minds to “balance” between China and India, which will altogether contribute to the internationalization of these smaller pivot states’ shared body of water as they seek to elevate their own global strategic importance in the New Cold War.
Therefore, it becomes clear that CPEC will continue to enduringly maintain its role as China’s primary non-Malacca route to the Indian Ocean, and that neither the Sri Lankan nor the Myanmarese projects will ever come close to competing with it. The latter two fall within the bounds of India’s CCC plan to turn the Bay of Bengal into an “Indian Lake”, whereas such an eventuality is geostrategically impossible to implement when it comes to CPEC. This means that China can continue to depend on the Pakistan-traversing project as its most strategically secure multimodal transport corridor for facilitating trade between the People’s Republic and Europe, the Gulf States, and East Africa. Accordingly, it also suggests that China will assist the Pakistani Navy in expanding the scope of its operational capabilities and that Russia could find an excellent opportunity to practice its policy of “military diplomacy” in “balancing” South Asian affairs by assisting in this task as well.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.