The Chabahar port in Iran that opened for business at the end of 2018 has been hailed as a big strategic success for India. It is the first time India is operating a port outside its borders, but it is not the only time it will do so. India is about to commence operations in another deep-water port " this time on the eastern front " it built in Sittwe, in Myanmar's northern Rakhine province.
This Sittwe port that I visited late last year is part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project which is as important, if not more, as Chabahar. When completed, the project will facilitate transit between India's northeastern states and Kolkata Port, bringing down India's dependence on the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor, the so-called Chicken's Neck.
This corridor will not only facilitate the economic desegregation among the various Indian states, but also integrate India into the larger economic fortunes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations states. And, equally important, Sittwe port, built on the Kaladan river, and the transit corridor it supports, will help counterbalance in some measure the Chinese plan for a port at Kyaukpyu which is part of Beijing's so-called Belt and Road Initiative.
The need to strengthen India's presence in the neighbourhood and retailoring of the foreign policy to fulfil the goal started in 1991. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao " one of India's most accomplished yet under-appreciated prime ministers " began restructuring foreign as well as domestic policies. At home, he began the economic liberalisation that paved the path for ongoing growth. Abroad, he pursued strategic dialogue with India's neighbours in Southwest, Central and Southeast Asia.
Whereas subsequent governments continued his 'Look East' policy, the Modi government rechristened it 'Act East'. Rao's vision has fructified along many dimensions. India has important relations with virtually every near and far neighbour, managing partners who are otherwise at odds with other. India taking over operations at one of three berths in Chabahar in December 2018 consummated Indo-Iranian relations, which were kickstarted by Narasimha Rao.
These efforts are much-needed because China is ahead and the stakes are high for India and its neighbourhood.
The Kaladan project
India has a problem: its northeastern states, with their 40 million citizens, are connected to the rest of the country only via the precarious 22-km Siliguri corridor, which at its narrowest is a mere 27 km wide and 60 at its widest.
The Siliguri corridor is not only critical for commerce and tourism between the North-East and the rest of India, it also supplies and links the military formations that will confront China in the event of a conflict. The geography of the corridor is perilous and discomfits India's security elites. This narrow stretch of land located in West Bengal is bounded by Nepal to the west, Bangladesh to the south, Bhutan to the north-east and Sikkim, which borders China, to the north. Moreover, the khukri-shaped Chumbi Valley in Tibet cuts between Sikkim and Bhutan.
While India has been slow to buff up its infrastructure, China has not. In fact, China has been busy building roads from the 1980s, including a road that was built in 2005 (perhaps earlier) that is a mere 68 metres from the Indian border post at Doklam, which puts the road within the visual range of India's forces. In 2017, the Chinese People's Liberation Army engineers began work on a motorable stretch extending the road up to the Bhutan Army camp at Jampheri, which precipitated pre-emptive Indian military action and a three-month standoff at Doklam.
By extending this road, China would be well-positioned to block off the Siliguri corridor that would not only cut off the North-East but also make it very difficult for India to resupply three primary military formations and their units based in the region.
The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project will create a redundant but a shorter and cheaper supply route. Goods will travel 540 km via ship from Kolkata port to Sittwe and be transferred to barges for a 15-km northern journey up the Kaladan to Paletwa in Myanmar's Chin state. A 110-km journey by road will take them to Zorinpui, a border town in Mizoram. From there, goods will move via road to Lawngtlai in Mizoram which will connect to the National Highway-54. The project will almost half the distance: from 1,880 km via the 'Chicken's Neck' to a mere 950 km.
An alternate route is also in the works. After long delays, Bangladesh has allowed India the use of Chittagong port, which will shorten distances further. Once the bridge over the Feni river is complete, Tripura will enjoy the closest possible route to a port. While this may diminish traffic through Sittwe, such redundancies are strategically important in the event of a conflict with China.
Delays hinder India's progress
The Kaladan project sounds promising but much work remains to be done. The port facilities at Kolkata need to be upgraded. Roads that will link Paletwa to Zorinpui and Zorinpui to the national highway, which is also part of the larger East-West corridor, have to be built. The roadwork has been delayed due to problems with locals and labour disputes that have led to an indefinite strike. The work on the Indian side that was to be finished by 2014 is still incomplete.
The Feni bridge effort seems interminably delayed. India needs to redouble its efforts to make these transit corridors fully functional if it wants to catch up with China, which is busy creating the infrastructure it needs to undermine Indian security while facilitating logistical support for its military.
Time is not on India's side.
(C Christine Fair has authored the books Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War and In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba)