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Why India getting access to a strategic port in Oman may not amount to much

India's economy and not wishful thinking will dictate whether this port will be of much use to India in the future or not

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra 

Duqm port
Duqm port. Photo courtesy:

India signed a pact with Oman earlier this month that allows Indian Navy to use the port of Duqm. Strategic affairs experts contend that this could have far-reaching consequences for Indian Navy’s reach in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. In this Business Standard Special, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra analyses whether such hopes are misplaced.

India has signed an amorphous deal, supposedly acquiring basing rights at the Omani port of Duqm. Yet again we're treated to an exasperating barrage of press reports on the "strategic" nature of this pact and that wonderful all-occasion descriptor of the Indian press (including when the military buys a new screwdriver) the ‘game-changer’. Needless to emphasise, this port-pact ‘game-changes’ nothing, adds no ‘strategic’ anything to anyone in the foreseeable future, mainly because India has no foreseeable plan or strategy, and is not backed up by a booming economy.

This is not the first overseas stationing pact that India has signed, all of which with the benefit of hindsight were ill-conceived, based on both wishful thinking and an overestimation of our capabilities and clout. First off the mark were India's bases at Ayni and Farkhor in Tajikistan. One was used to supply our friends and allies in Afghanistan and the other ostensibly to station Mig-29 combat aircraft, to create a second front against Pakistan or provide air cover to Afghanistan. One simply needs to look at a map to understand how extraordinarily deluded these plans were. Apparently Tajikistan, already fearful of Pakistan sponsored terrorism, would, according to Indian planners, allow us to engage in open hostilities with the Pakistan military from Tajikistan. Tajikistan, of course, is a landlocked country, supply routes to it dependent on either Chinese or Iranian cooperation. It was to cement the overland route that India started its plans at Chahbahar. To be fair, Chahbahar was meant to represent an intersection of many plans, including energy security and supplying Afghanistan, hopefully providing a neutral conduit for US supplies if and when the Iran-US rapprochement happened.

As usual, the moment India started operationalising its plans, things started going awry. The Russians vetoed the plan on their end, wanting no Indian military presence in the region. The Iranian's were a bit more sly. Rather than vetoing the Indian plan, they simply made things difficult - a great historical empire in their own right, the Iranians were simply not going to allow India, to use their territory to play to an Indian game. Consequently, according to former Indian Ambassadors serving in Teheran, India literally had to smuggle equipment and material to complete the Delaram to Zaranj highway, that was meant to break Afghanistan's Pakistan dependency for sea access. To date, Chahbahar has yet to be properly connected up to the Delaram-Zaranj highway with a patchy road network running north from Chahbahar to Iranshahr, Zahedan and Zabol, from where the Iranian A71 highway ends abruptly as the Indian-built highway on the other side is something of a dirt track. From this point on, one basically enters Taliban territory, the Indian-built road being a great gift for Taliban logistics and fundraising by extorting taxes on traffic.

All of this begs several questions:

1) What guarantees did India have from the Iranians for linking up Chahbahar to Afghanistan?

2) If the IPI failed, where was the money for the submarine India-Iran gas pipeline going to come from?

3) Why would Iran, which is well ahead of India in road construction, need India to link up local infrastructure?

4) What were the plans for securing the Zaranj Delaram highway? And how exactly did Ayni and Farokhor fit into this picture? What was the political calculus and where are the economic cost-benefit analyses?

Indeed if one looks at the economically harebrained Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the complete lack of economic analyses and over the top security commentary, the Indian plans look far less grounded in economic or political reality. This is not unusual because cut and paste models of European style connectivity have spawned something of a cottage industry. New Delhi plays host to some high-profile "regional connectivity" event. Usually, these involve significant champagne swigging, but little by way of economic cost-benefit or anything even remotely resembling critical analysis. If allegedly cerebral events create false narratives, then India's inability to ideate anything remotely like a coherent threat analysis or regional action plan queers the pitch further.

If the Chahbahar-Delaram-Zaranj-Ayni-Farokhor chain was a case of bad planning, with wishful thinking replacing astute analysis, geography and spadework, Qatar and Duqm represent no planning at all, with presumably much money sunk into academic conferences to confer post-facto strategic foresight on them. Looking at Qatar on the map raises the question, whom exactly are we protecting Qatar from and who exactly can Qatar help us against? Every one of Qatar’s neighbours can overwhelm Indian power projection, and indeed if India were to use Qatar as a base for power projection, one asks against whom? Duqm is slightly less puzzling, plumped as it is for offshore basing and projecting power out to the Arabian sea and anti-piracy patrolling. The question is, will use of such a port without absolute extraterritoriality as the US enjoys in Qatar, Okinawa and Diego Garcia, be possible during hostilities with another nation. If yes, this is an asset; if no, at best this will be money wasted on a fair weather holiday resort. Indeed the larger ships of the Indian Navy, frigate, destroyers and submarines are all tied to home base maintenance facilities, and building such facilities in Oman if not allowed to use them during war, would be a tremendous diversion of resources.

In the final analysis, Duqm does in one sense break the mould of India's previous ill-fated bases. It is based not in a landlocked country, facing an open sea, and in a country that is not a major economic power and hence with the power differential in India's favour. What it does not account for is if the power differential is large enough for the base to be strategically useful. Equally bases are created to protect vital overseas interests, usually the sign of a powerful and booming economy, which India is not. This is why there are significant question marks about Indian bases in Seychelles, and access to French bases in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and Singapore. There is a reason, therefore, to be cautiously optimistic, but not overly so.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @Iyervval

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Fri, February 23 2018. 08:53 IST