India Harnesses The Soft Power Of Yoga For Strategic Ends – Analysis


This year, Yoga sessions will be held in select port locations of the world “to connect people in the common pursuit of wellness.”

During this year’s International Day of Yoga (IDY), June 21, Indian missions abroad will hold Yoga sessions in select port locations across the world to form a ‘Global Ocean Ring’ connecting people in the common pursuit of wellness.

The Indian High Commission here said in a press release on Monday, that the IDY 2023 will resonate with the theme of India’s ongoing Presidency of the G20 and the motto Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (One Earth, One Family, One Future). One of the events planned to mark the day will be Yoga sessions in select port cities of the world “to connect people in the common pursuit of wellness.”

The strategic importance of this cultural exercise is apparent. The soft power of Yoga can be harnessed for strategic purposes.  

Although it is well known that India is using Yoga to extend its soft power across the world, this will be the first time that there is an emphasis on “port locations in select parts of the world.”

It is an indication that the Indian “Global Ocean Ring” is the beginning of  a bid to counter China’s “Ring of Pearls” which are Chinese-built ports in geo-politically important parts of the world.

The Indian approach is likely to be built on the 2015 concept of SAGAR. 

SAGAR is meant to ensure Security: Enhancement of coastal security so that land and maritime territories can be safeguarded with relative ease); Capacity Building: Deepening economic and security cooperation for smooth facilitation of economic trade and maritime security); Collective Action: Promoting collective action to deal with natural disasters and maritime threats like piracy, terrorism and emergent non-state actors; Sustainable Development: Working towards sustainable regional development through enhanced collaboration; Maritime Engagement: Engaging with countries beyond our shores with the aim of building greater trust and promoting respect for maritime rules, norms and peaceful resolution of disputes.

String of Pearls  

India and the Western powers have been expressing concern over China’s  overseas ports called “String of Pearls” as these could have a dual (civilian and military) purpose. 

A recent article in the US journal Foreign Affairs says: “Not only is China the largest trading partner of many countries; it also now provides much of the critical infrastructure that enables international trade. This controlling influence is especially pronounced in maritime transportation, in which Chinese firms with close links to Beijing, have become leaders in financing, designing, building, operating, and owning port terminals across the globe.”

China established its first military base at Djibouti in 2017. Beijing is yet to put up another base but it has been leveraging “the dual civilian-military uses of Chinese firms’ extensive international network of ocean port infrastructure to buttress the reach of its armed forces.”

According to Foreign Affairs,  Chinese companies now own or operate terminals in nearly one hundred commercial ports spanning every major world region. The primary business for China’s port network remains international trade, but this critical infrastructure also supports the global operations of the Chinese navy,  the journal contends. 

“As of 2022, Chinese firms owned or operated one or more terminals at 36 of the world’s top 100 container ports. By the end of 2022, Chinese firms had acquired ownership and/or operational stakes in 95 ports in 53 countries, spanning every continent except Antarctica.” 

Chinese naval vessels make regular use of dozens of overseas terminals owned and operated by Chinese companies. At these ports, Chinese military vessels not only show the flag for diplomacy but also refuel, resupply, and even undergo specialized maintenance and repairs.These ports also provide intelligence to China, Foreign Affairsalleges. .   

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global campaign to build connections between China and the world through trade, investment, and infrastructure. The BRI has helped Chinese enterprises in the port sector grow internationally. 

In South Asia, the Chinese built ports are: Gwadar in Pakistan, and the Hambantota and the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) in Sri Lanka. Though Gwadar and Hambanota have little commercial value now, they would have such value in the years to come and these port could be used, at least partially, for military or semi-military purposes. 

In fact, the Chinese navy has been given the “strategic task” of protecting the country’s overseas interests and trade flows in a doctrine enunciated in 2015.

According  to Foreign Affairs the Chinese government has multiple ways to exert influence over Chinese companies abroad. 

“At the organizational level, it can do this through state ownership. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) are highly responsive to Beijing’s direction because the state is their primary—and in some cases sole—shareholder. Although Beijing guides both privately owned and state-owned firms via government subsidies, extralegal control, and executives’ membership in political bodies, ownership remains a singularly powerful lever of party-state influence.”

“Notably, in the port sector, the concentration of Chinese ownership in just three conglomerates has given Beijing particular leverage. These companies—COSCO Shipping Ports, China Merchants Port (CMPort), and Hutchison Ports (Hutchison)—now account for nearly 80 percent of China’s overseas port holdings.”

 Further, “Beijing can exercise influence over these companies through personnel appointments and membership in communist party committees.”

India’s Endeavor

India too has begun to build ports in other countries to extend its maritime power and checkmate China.  The India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), said in an article published on September 16, 2022, that India has invested in overseas ports to help improve maritime domain awareness and also strengthens bilateral relationships. 

Oman, which has strong relations with India, allowed India access to the Duqm Port in 2018. The upcoming Western Terminal in Colombo port, being built by the Adanis, will help keep an eye on the goings in the Chinese-operated terminal next door.    

In 2018, India built the Chabahar Port in Iran. The ten-year formal contract for equipping and running the Chabahar Port was enforced on May 23, 2016.

The port is Iran’s sole deep-sea port with direct access to the ocean. India invested in the Chabahar Port to gain greater access to trade with Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries, thus reducing dependency on Pakistan’s uncertain land routes. Further, Chabahar is one of the few regions in Iran that is not subject to US sanctions..

In July 2022, a partnership between Adani Ports and the Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ) and the Gadot Group in Israel got a lease to privatize Israel’s second-largest port, the Port of Haifa for US$ 1.18 billion. The Haifa Port manages almost half of Israel’s container freight. 

Colombo Port’s West International Container Terminal’s construction and maintenance contract was given to the Adani Ports on September 30, 2021. Adani ports is collaborating with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Sri Lankan firm John Keells Holdings.  A public-private partnership will be used to build, operate, and transfer the WCT for 35 years at a cost of US$ 700 million. 

Colombo Port is already the most popular regional gateway for the transshipment of Indian containers and mainline ship operators, with 45% of its transshipment volumes coming from or going to an Adani port terminal in Indi, IBEF notes.

In 2016, India constructed the deep water Sittwe Port in Myanmar. This port is to be part of the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project. This project will link Sittwe to the Myanmar-India border.

In 2018, Bangladesh and India agreed to build the Chattogram and Mongla Ports as transshipment ports. Chattogram and Mongla will reduce the distance between Kolkata and major cities in northeastern states from 1,200 km to about 600 km.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

One thought on “India Harnesses The Soft Power Of Yoga For Strategic Ends – Analysis

  • June 14, 2023 at 3:17 pm

    This is a very interesting report. I would like to call it Yoga Diplomacy.
    Thank you


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