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China's maritime threat: How India let its best bet Vizhinjam be sabotaged

India’s maritime interests are under threat – mostly from China. There were three news items this week of some significance, both commercial and military. The first was that, despite a strong warning from National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, a Chinese submarine, Changzheng 2, docked at Colombo, along with warship Chang Xing Dao, according to the Times of India (Chinese submarine docking in Lanka ‘inimical’ to India’s interests: Govt).

The second was the sinking of a naval vessel off Vishakhapatnam and the loss of life of Navy personnel. Preliminary reports seemed to indicate that the ship was over 30 years old, which would mean it is older than what a military vessel should be. Besides, given the catastrophic failure of the ship, it is not clear that sabotage can be ruled out. Given the previous tragedy of the Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhurakshak, which sank with all hands in Mumbai, we have to worry about our Navy ships. The INS Sindhuratna, another submarine, also had an on-board fire.

 Chinas maritime threat: How India let its best bet Vizhinjam be sabotaged

Naval security challenges for India. Reuters

The third event was the series of intelligence warnings that the airport and seaport in Kolkata were under serious threat of an attack by un-named terrorists. According to the Hindustan Times (Kolkata port on high alert after terror threat), two Indian warships, INS Khukri and INS Sumitra, were moved out of the port where they had been for routine visit, with an open house scheduled for 5 and 6 November.

In light of an attempt by Al Qaeda terrorists to capture a Pakistani Navy frigate at Karachi in September, the threat of an attack in Kolkata is credible. In Karachi, the intent was to capture the frigate and then attack American and Indian vessels in the Indian Ocean. Although far-fetched, the idea has merit, and it was purely through good luck that the attack was foiled and no rogue Pakistani ship loomed on the horizon.

For some years, India has under-invested in its Navy, and also in its commercial port infrastructure. These mistakes are now coming back to haunt the country, as our trade capability is affected, and there are long-term strategic holes that our adversaries are looking to exploit. One such is the lack of container ports and the concomitant dependence on the kindness of strangers.

To go back to the appearance of Chinese submarines in Colombo, this is an explicit statement by Sri Lanka that it prefers China to India. It may also well be a subtle Chinese warning against India getting too close to Vietnam. Apparently the previous visit by Chinese submarines to Colombo took place in secret at the very time the President of India was in Vietnam earlier this year.

Last week I wrote about how the Vietnamese premier’s visit to India could be considered part of a setting up of a 'reverse string of pearls' against China; and this could well be a veiled threat. But in fact it is tit for tat the other way: China infiltrating into India’s neighborhood is encouraging India to seek out friends on China’s periphery.
The 'Maritime Silk Road' idea that China talks about includes a number of ‘pearls’, such as Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe and Cocos in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, potentially Spratlys and Paracels in the South China Sea, Karachi in Pakistan, some possible facilities in the Maldives and the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand, and most significantly, the Chinese-built and controlled port of Gwadar in Baluchistan at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Taken together, these can draw a cordon sanitaire around India.


Source: The Economist, June 2012

Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney suggested that it was a big mistake on the part of Lanka to ignore the stern warning from India’s NSA. However, from Sri Lanka’s point of view, they may simply be paying off debts incurred during their civil war, when China, free of considerations about human rights and so on, supplied them with military equipment. Besides, China has built a major port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka’s far south.

If you look at the big picture, then, it is essential for India to respond to Chinese aggressiveness with its own: thus it makes even more sense as I suggested to lease part of Cam Ranh Bay and to have the Indian Navy make Haiphong a port of call, so that India has some presence in the South China Sea as well. It’s not just India, it turns out that Japan is getting quite worried about Chinese naval aggression in the Senkakus and elsewhere, as they fear a vacuum when American aircraft carriers will be absent for four months.

But in addition to the military angle, there is a significant commercial or civilian cargo issue as well. This has to do with India’s lack of container ports. There are only a few ports with container handling capabilities: Mumbai, Mundra, Chennai, Kochi, Vishakhapatnam, etc. There are few, if any, container trans-shipment ports capable of handling large motherships. This leads to a situation where most of India’s container traffic is diverted to the large trans-shipment ports at Dubai, Colombo, or Singapore, from where the containers are transferred to smaller vessels to bring them to India.

Colombo has just constructed a second trans-shipment container terminal, which is expected to account for fully 28 percent of all of India’s container traffic! Furthermore, this terminal has been built and operated by the Chinese! According to The Economist from June 2013 this will make Colombo one of the world’s top 20 container ports. Apparently it is also being positioned for a new generation of super-sized container ships. Says the article, "Colombo is deep enough for ships with an 18-metre draft. Its cranes can cope with ships 24 containers wide. Nothing in India compares with that."

Now what could be wrong with this picture? 28 percent of India’s container traffic flowing through Colombo, through a terminal controlled by a Chinese entity? Let me remind you of what happened a while ago when China, which has a near-monopoly on rare-earth metals, imposed an undeclared embargo on Japan, in the wake of tension about sudden Chinese claims to the Senkaku Islands.

Without declaring that there was an embargo – which would have run afoul of WTO regulations – Chinese ports suddenly stopped clearing rare-earth cargo bound for Japan, bringing its electronics industry to its knees. So much so that Japan has now contracted with India for a second source of the same minerals.

Such a scenario could easily happen with India’s container traffic through Colombo. Therefore it is a significant national security angle, not to mention trade angle: a vulnerable chokepoint in the hands of a commercial and military foe.

What should India do in such a situation? The Economist suggests, helpfully, that "should Sri Lanka ever succeed in dominating India’s trade while being a close Chinese ally, India would surely improve its ports enough to be independent". Yes, one would think so. But what is the reality?

The one trans-shipment port nearby is in Vallarpadam near Cochin. Unfortunately, this is a poor location, because it is in a bay with limited depth. Furthermore, this port, run by Dubai Port World, is notorious for labor trouble, and it is running at only 1/3rd of capacity, even though cabotage rules have been relaxed to make it more competitive.

Vallarpadam was a political decision by the UPA government to please a section of its voters. While the port of Cochin benefits from being in a sheltered bay at the mouth of a river, the draft is too shallow even for merchant ships. A master navigator I spoke to described how he had great trouble steering his ship through the narrow channel without running aground.

As for the container terminal at Vallarpadam, this means that even with constant dredging, it will never be a viable trans-shipment hub, because it simply cannot accommodate large vessels. On its web site, the port boasts that in July 2011, yes, three years ago, "the largest container ship ever to visit a South Indian port" docked there. It had a capacity of 6478 TEUs (roughly speaking, TEU = container). Compare this to the latest container ships being built with 16,000 to 18,000 TEU capacity. It is impossible for these to dock at Vallarpadam, essentially reducing it to a secondary terminal.

There is an alternative, the proposed container trans-shipment port at Vizhinjam in Trivandrum. This, an ancient port dating back to Roman times, has the deepest draft (72 feet) in India, is rocky and does not need any dredging.

Vizhinjam port is now in the final stages of tendering, but it has been sabotaged several times previous by vested interests. One group are the political heavyweights and godfathers of the UPA/UDF, whose base is Cochin – and thus they do not want Vizhinjam challenging Vallarpadam, now that they have gone to all the trouble to hoodwink the government of India to invest some Rs 4,000 crore there. Besides, Vallarpadam dredging contracts are an annuity: they can make money on them every year. In a way, Vizhinjam's greatest handicap according to them is that it doesn't need dredging!

The second group is more intriguing: fishermen, instigated by Christian clergymen. Much like the Koodankulam agitation which was intended to benefit European countries at the expense of Russia, and also spearheaded by Christian clergy, the Vizhinjam agitation may well be an end-run by resort owners who have illegally encroached the neighboring coastal areas (quite possibly in violation of coastal zoning regulations).

A third group is Dubai-based, as Vallarpadam is run by Dubai Port World. There are also accusations about Dubai elements with interests in Colombo and Singapore.

A fourth group is attempting to protect the Tamil Nadu port of Tuticorin, although it would actually make great sense for Vizhinjam and Tuticorin to be connected by a freight and industrial corridor. This will be the topic of a future column.
Recently, the Government of India decided to guarantee viability gap funding to Vizhinjam to the tune of Rs 800 crore, which will certainly help in meeting the capital costs in the proposed public-private partnership.

But the most recent news about Vizhinjam is quite bizarre: there is an environmental clearance petition being heard by the National Green Tribunal. The petitioner, a fisherman named Marydasan, withdrew the complaint and accused a local Christian priest of giving him, an illiterate in English, a piece of paper to sign, which he did without knowing what was in it!

Thus, in the face of grave threats, Indians are playing games with each other to protect vested interests. A classic case of local optimization to accommodate petty interests, with the net result being a strategic disaster for the whole country – much like the responses to all the invaders that came over the Khyber Pass or by sea.

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Updated Date: Nov 10, 2014 21:45:37 IST