By Angshuman Choudhury*
During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 2018 visit to Indonesia, New Delhi and Jakarta announced that they would set up a Joint Task Force to “undertake projects for port related infrastructure in and around” the Sabang island, located off the northern tip of the Sumatran islands at the northwestern entry point to the Malacca Strait. This came two weeks after Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, who, during his official visit to New Delhi, stated that the port is fit to dock both shipping vessels and submarines. Pandjaitan’s statement, viewed in the context of Modi’s Indonesia visit, has spurred well-founded speculations that India’s ‘acquisition’ of the Sabang port is driven not just by geoeconomic motivations as New Delhi has argued in its statements, but also from geostrategic ones.
The port, owing to its inherent geo-strategic location, cargo handling infrastructure, and the regional maritime trade setup, is better poised to be a strategic port than a full-fledged commercial one. Nonetheless, while the port is a crucial addition to India’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it cannot be viewed as a game changer yet.
Strategic or Economic?
According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, collaboration vis-a-vis the Sabang port flows from the primary impetus of “enhancing tourism, addressing issues of the blue economy including fisheries sector and […] in terms of connectivity.” These are critical sectors of cooperation that could, theoretically, facilitate India’s efforts to develop durable partnerships not just in the IOR but also in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, it would be smarter for India to use the Sabang port for strategic objectives than mere commercial ones. The port, owing to its small size and distance from the core Indonesian hinterland and ASEAN economic powerhouses, is not conducive for long-haul maritime trade. On the other hand, Sabang’s distinct location, merely 90 nautical miles below the southernmost tip of India’s Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) islands, gives it a critical strategic advantage of facilitating broader maritime reconnaissance in and around the Andaman Sea during peace time; preemptive blockading of the Malacca Strait during war time; and as a proximate base for additional strategic maneuvering in the eastern IOR flank.
New Delhi would have to invest heavily to develop the current port into a full-fledged commercial port (than into a naval base) for heavy tonnage vessels. Moreover, the costs of transporting offloaded goods to high-value markets in the Indonesian and ASEAN hinterlands would be high. Developing Sabang into a transshipment node for Indian ships too would be a redundant venture as India already transships its goods in Colombo and Singapore, both of which collectively cover this trading sector optimally. However, the island already has an operational airport, which could simply be upgraded to allow military aircraft to land and refuel, thus ensuring functional strategic linkages with the Indonesian mainland.
A Critical Maritime Node
The Sabang port venture is a timely boost to New Delhi’s geostrategic posturing across the IOR, and can serve as a crucial node for India’s geostrategic interests both in the IOR and the wider Indo-Pacific region. The ‘acquisition’ coheres with the joint blueprint that New Delhi and Jakarta have proposed, based on the idea of building a rules-based maritime order of regional security and stability. It also fits with Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)–New Delhi’s initiative aimed at turning India into the prime multilateral facilitator and security guarantor in the IOR.
Needless to say, Sabang is also aimed at counterbalancing the rapidly growing Chinese influence in the IOR, at least along the eastern sectors. Beijing’s acknowledgement of Sabang’s strategic value was reflected in a Global Times editorial, which reiterated the significance of the Malacca Strait to China’s “economic and energy security” and warned of “disastrous consequences” if India develops Sabang into a strategic base. China’s presence in the IOR has rapidly proliferated over the past five years in the form of strategic and dual-use port deals in Djibouti, Tanzania, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the Maldives. India’s deal with Oman for military use of Duqm port does not compare with similar deals China has with other countries. However, Sabang port can particularly complement India’s A&N Command’s capabilities in deterring Beijing’s power projections (through potential dual-use of ports in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and Kyauk Phyu, Myanmar) across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea sectors.
A Game Changer?
At present, Sabang is not posited as an anti-China entity in the IOR and its stated purpose is restricted to connectivity and trade. In that sense, the Sabang port deal is hardly antithetical to Beijing’s own stated idea of “reciprocity and mutual benefit” in the IOR.
Nonetheless, the port’s real strategic value would depend on the level of cooperation other South and Southeast Asian IOR littoral states like Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia provide to India during times of crises. In this context, New Delhi has made some headway by promoting a nascent framework of strategic convergence in the IOR through inter-force coordination, joint maritime patrols, naval exercises, and real-time intelligence sharing with littoral states. Yet, New Delhi must not presume that smaller littoral countries would unconditionally back India in an event of confrontation with Beijing in the IOR.
Moreover, given the absence of any extraterritoriality component in the port deal, India’s wartime activities from Sabang would be contingent on Jakarta’s sovereign oversight. Indonesia has already demonstrated its cautious geopolitical balancing act between New Delhi and Beijing, evident through overtures to both sides; and in terms of political, military, and economic leverage, the balance of power is tilted against India’s favour.
Finally, Sabang does have the potential to serve as a key nodal point for strategic collaboration within the India-US-Australia-Japan ‘Quad’ grouping. However, not much can be expected from this quasi-alliance in the near future. India’s interest in the Quad seems to be waning rapidly, and differences in views between other members on how to maintain status quo in the Indo-Pacific have hampered full-spectrum collaboration.
Overall, it is too early to flag the Sabang port deal as a game changer in the current geostrategic landscape. However, it is a good start that could pave the way for a more constructive Indian presence in the IOR and by extension, in the Indo-Pacific.
Researcher, and Coordinator Southeast Asia Research Programme(SEARP)