Geo-Strategic Implications of Sethusamudram
Daily Mirror, 6 October 2004
Canal Project ]
The Sethusamudram Project has generated some controversy again.
The litany is that the project has far reaching strategic and
economic implications for Sri Lanka. But few have elaborated on why
it is so.The articles you see in the local press are largely on the
adverse ecological impact it would have on SriLanka and its maritime
The Sethusamudram Project has a very important geo-political
dimension too. It would give India a firm grip on one of the world's
most strategic and busiest sea-lanes. This would eventually give
India very remarkable leverage in its relations with China,Japan and
All the oil supplies to Southeast and East Asia that originate in
the Middle East are shipped from ports in the Red Sea or the Persian
Gulf. The sea-lanes from here converge in the Arabian Sea and then
pass throughthe Gulf of Mannar and curve off the western, southern
and southeastern coast of Sri Lanka.
This sea-lane then turns northeast through the Bay of Bengal towards
the Malacca Strait. Eighty percent of Japan's oil supplies and sixty
percent of China's oil supplies shipped on this sea-lane. Almost
half of the world's container traffic passes through the choke
points of this sea-lane and its branches in the Indian Ocean.
The Sethusamudram Project will create an unavoidable by-pass that
would inevitably divert this sea traffic through India's own
maritime waters. The strategic importance of this by-pass should
also be understood in the light of New Delhi's ambitions for
becoming the Indian Ocean's predominant naval power.
As we all know
K.M Panikkar, the architect of India's naval doctrine, argued in
his works more than fifty years ago that New Delhi should recognise
the significance of the Indian Ocean for the development of its
commercial activities, trade and security ('TheStrategic Problems of
the Indian Ocean' and 'India and Indian Ocean'- published in
Regretting the "unfortunate tendency to overlook the Sea in the
discussion of India's defence problems",Panikkar remarked: "India
never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in
the first decade of the 16th Century".
Advocating that the "Indian Ocean must remain truly Indian",
Panikkar suggested the Albuquerque-style security of India by firmly
holding distant places like Singapore, Mauritius, Aden and Socotra,
the arid island off the coast of Yemen. He also emphasized
broadening of the political hemisphere of the Indian State, so as to
include Ceylon and Burma for defence purposes. Cautioning against
the Chinese thrust, he wrote that the "movement towards the South
may, and in all probability will be reflected in the naval policy of
In later years, another popular Indian author, K.B.Vaidya, in his
work - 'The Naval Defence of India' -keenly supported the ideas of
Panikkar. He said, "Even if we do not rule the waves of all the five
oceans of the world, we must at least rule the waves of the Indian
Ocean". He further emphasized that India must be supreme and
undisputed power over the waters of the Indian Ocean. He argued for
the creation of three self-sufficient and full-fledged fleets to be
stationed at the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal, at Trincomalee in
Ceylon and at Mauritius guarding the western and eastern approaches
to the Indian Ocean.
However, until the seventies India was largely pre-occupied with the
defence and security of its mainland and invested little in naval
Two events at the time jolted defence planners in Delhi to take a
more serious view of the Indian Ocean neighbourhood in terms of
One was the acquisition of Diego Garcia by the US and the other was
America's decision to send the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to
the Bay of Bengal in December 1971 in a show of support for Pakistan
during the Bangladesh war.
The first thing New Delhi did in reaction to these apparent moves by
the US to assert its power in the Indian Ocean was to begin a
process to legally define and settle all its maritime boundaries
with countries to its south, east and southeast.
Delhi signed the first agreement with Indonesia in 1974, which
settled the boundary between Great Nicobar and Sumatra. In 1977, the
boundary line was extended both into the Indian Ocean and into the
Andaman Sea by another agreement. In the same year, the boundary
between India and Thailand in the Andaman Sea was negotiated and an
agreement was signed in June 1978,which entered into force in
December 1978. In February1978, the tri-junction point between
India, Indonesia and Thailand was settled at official level in
The agreement was signed in June 1978 and came into force in March
1979. The maritime boundary agreement with Myanmar was ratified in
1987. The maritime boundary agreements with Sri Lanka were concluded
in1974 and 1976 (Maritime Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976). Atri-junction
treaty defining the boundaries of Maldives, Sri Lanka and India was
also signed during this period. (The dispute between India and
Bangladesh over New Moore Island came to nought after it wasswept
under the sea)
And parallel to this, India, with the support of its ally USSR,
began a campaign for a nuclear free Indian Ocean. The campaign was
aimed at preventing the US from developing Diego Garcia into a major
base for nuclear weapons. Sri Lanka supported India during the Non
Aligned Movement summit in Colombo in 1976 to adopt a resolution
criticizing the US for developing a nuclear weapons base in Diego
However, New Delhi's naval ambitions remained somewhat muted until
the fall of the Soviet Union, which had provided a safety umbrella
to India in the larger Indian Ocean theatre.
But today India feels that it has to defend itself on its own. In
recent years the importance of sea-lane security has become
paramount in the thinking of Indian naval strategists. New Delhi's
plans for rapid economic growth depend of safe, uninterrupted supply
of energy to feed the country's burgeoning industry and fast
expanding automobile market.
(Energy Security is a relatively new discipline inIndia but is fast
catching on among a handful strategic thinkers in Delhi) Therefore
the Strategic Defence Review of Indian Navy,published in 1998,
stipulated four specific tasks for the immediate future:
1) Sea based deterrence
2) Economic and energysecurity
3) Forward presence and
4) Naval diplomacy. The four tasks are interconnected.
One of the man reasons why countries develop and maintain large
navies is to defend or dominate sea-lanes that are vital to their
survival. Nations that have blue water navies are in a position to
control sea-lanes, junctions and choke points(straits) in all the
oceans of the globe (A navy with trans-oceanic sailing power is
called a blue water navy. A navy that can patrol the immediate
oceanic neighbourhood off its maritime zone is a brown water navy)
New Delhi has been able to postpone massive investments in a blue
water navy by developing the natural forward defences in either side
of peninsular India - in the Lakshadweep Islands in the Arabian Sea
and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
The Malacca Straits is the second busiest sea-lane in the world. And
most of the ships approach the Straits through the 10-degree
channel, which bisects the Andaman Islands from the Great Nicobar
Therefore Delhi has made huge investments in developing its forward
military presence on the islands as it gives it dominance over the
second busiest sea-lane choke point. The strategic importance of the
islands has been a historical fact.
During negotiations for India's independence, the Muslim League
demanded that the Andaman islands should be an integral part of
Pakistan for geographical and strategic reasons. It expressed the
fear that if India controlled the islands and the vital sea-lanes,
India could prevent the Pakistani ships from sailing from West
Pakistan to East Pakistan. It must also be pointed out that sections
in the British Defence establishment wanted the islands to be
detached from India.
They wanted the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to be made into a
separate Crown Colony, which would, in turn,safeguard the strategic
interests of the far-flung British Empire. However, this did not
materialise due to stout opposition from Nehru who had Mountbatten's
support on the matter.
The responsibility for the security of the Bay of Bengal, including
Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and also the waters extending to the
six littoral states in the region - Bangladesh, Myanmar,
Thailand,Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka - was vested for along
time with the Indian Navy's Eastern Naval Command based in
In August 1998, New Delhi decided to establish a Far Eastern Marine
Command at Port Blair in Andaman,independent of operational control
from Visakhapatnam.The idea was further modified in favour of a
Joint Service Command in October 2001. The Command will be headed by
the three Services in rotation and will function directly under the
Chief of Defence Staff of the Indian armed forces.
There are plans in New Delhi to develop Port Blair as a strategic
international trade centre and for building an oil terminal and
trans- shipment port in Campal Bay (Great Nicobar islands) to cater
to increasing maritime trade in the region.
India, while thus consolidating its forward position and grip on the
entrance of the Malacca Strait,ensured that no external power could
dominate the vital sea-lane further southwest in the Bay of Bengal
by signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA). TheLetters of
Exchange in the ISLA preclude anyone except India from using
Trincomalee - a strategic port necessary for dominating the
sea-lanes that emanate from the Malacca choke point.
However, quiet moves by China since the late eighties to develop
safe line of energy supply from the Persian Gulf to the South China
Sea set off alarm bells in Delhi. India appears to fear this line of
supply defined by the strategic facilities that China has developed
along this route could give Beijing naval advantage in the region.
This concern should be seen in the light of the fact that China has
developed naval facilities on the Greater Cocos Island, which is
part of the Andaman Archipelago but belongs to Myanmar.
China has built a naval base in Bandar Abbas on Iran's coast on the
northern side of the Hormuz Strait in the Persian Gulf. (One need
not elaborate on the importance of the Hirmuz Strait to world oil
Further east on the Pakistan coast China is building a dual-purpose
naval facility in Gwador. The next stop on this line of supply are
Maldives and Sri Lanka.
China negotiated a deal with Maldives from 1999 to build a base in
Marao one of the largest islands of the 1192 a tolls that make up
Maldives. It lies 40 kilometres from Male. The base deal was
finalised after two years of negotiations when Chinese PM Zhu Rongji
visited Male on 17 May 2001 on his four nations South Asian tour.
The Marao base will not be operational until 2010.Beijing will use
Marao Island for 25 years on lease and pay back Maldives in foreign
An Indian defence reporter, sounding the alarm at the time, wrote:
"Coral islands make fine submarine pens.The People's Liberation Army
- Navy (PLAN) proposes to deploy nuclear submarines fitted with sea
launched Dong Feng 44 missiles and ballistic missiles in
Marao"(Curiously, the official organ of a pro-Chinese Tamil party
launched a tirade against me for mentioning the Maldives base deal
in passing in my column for the Sunday Virakesari)
In Sri Lanka China has developed relations with Colombo in recent
years with an obvious eye on the petroleum industry. Ceylon
Petroleum Corporation signed an agreement with Huanqiu Chemical
Engineering Corporation on December 4, 2000 for the construction of
an oil tank farm in Muthurajawela. It was expected to double Sri
Lanka's petroleum storage capacity within three years. The Chinese
company built 29 tanks along with a single point buoy mooring system
to unload oil from tankers without having them enter the port. The
Chinese company was also repairing six more tanks in Kolannawa which
were damaged in an attack by the Tigers in October 1995. Chairman of
the CPC at the time Anil Obeyesekere said that his Corporation had
started talks with the Chinese on expanding SriLanka's oil refinery
and joint venture in petrochemical industry.
We have witnessed how India moved swiftly to counter China's hand in
Sri Lanka's petroleum sector. It is diminishing the effect of a
strategic link in China's energy supply through the Indian Ocean.
The Sethusamudram Project would help India overcome many of these
concerns and worries about holding the power balance over the
strategic sea-lanes in its hands in this part of the world.
The Sethusamudram sea bypass might divert one of the world's busiest
sea-lanes into India's strategic stranglehold.
This is the context in which we in Colombo should examine the
geo-political implications of Sethusamudram for Sri Lanka. And no
one can ignore Jaffna's proximity to the project.