A Chinese military vessel is scheduled to call at the Sri Lankan Port of Hambantota. The Indian Government, with their concerns for Indian security, has raised the issue with the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government is heavily in debt and distress partly because of the mega infrastructure of the Hambantota port and many other such projects. The Hambantota port is now the property of a Chinese corporation, having been swapped for part of Sri Lanka debt to a variety of Chinese entities.
China’s interests in the Indian Ocean grew in the context of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. The OBOR consists of two components; namely the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). It constitutes a massive geopolitical project that aims to construct landscapes to enable flow of trade and investment by ‘promoting economic cooperation and connectivity’ between Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Centralising trade routes
In the last one thousand years, many emerging powers have frequently attempted to capture and centralise these trade routes, only to find that they finally end up dealing with the same merchant families of the Indian Ocean — families prospering in the Arabian Gulf, East Africa, the Indian Peninsula, Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and other small island states.
For centuries, Indian Ocean navigators, ship owners and merchants were the custodians of all trade routes that crisscrossed their ocean. From the ports and harbours on Bahr Faris (Arabian Gulf) and down to the Swahili Coast on the west to the ports and harbours on the far east to Malacca. The Gujarat and Malabar Coasts to the Bay of Bengal on the north and the island states in the south of the ocean. Hundreds of ports and thousands of families were linked by navigation and trade, marriage, and love.
Being a Battuta and a Sri Lanka fan, I am now reading Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka. His book, The Rihla, talks of his travels in the Maldives and all throughout the Indian Ocean trading ports, and is perhaps the best depiction of the port cities, types of vessels, cargo traded and merchant families of the dhow route’s early days.
The Portuguese rule immensely improved the boat building capabilities of the Indian Ocean port cities, but of course took away the trade from the local families. The Dutch, the East India Company and later the British Empire went on capturing and colonising the port cities. The British colonial rule consolidated cargo in several bigger port cities. Britain’s advocacy of free trade also gave opportunity for the local traders to freely trade within the Indian Ocean states.
The Indian Ocean ports
The resilience of the Indian Ocean rim ports and their hinterland is because of their smallness. Their small boats, dhows and dhonis, increased and decreased in tonnage depending on the trade available. Their navigators were master mariners with expert knowledge of the winds, currents, reefs, and shallows of the seas. Their merchants had a vast network of connection and trade credit ties throughout the Indian Ocean ports. Their political connection and the ability to influence state policy was and still is comparable to no other lobby group.
The recent Chinese attempts to consolidate the Indian Ocean trade routes under the road and belt initiative are yet to materialise. Host countries of the Belt and Road ports have gone or are going bankrupt, defaulting on their sovereign debt. Sri Lanka has gone into default, East African port countries look shaky, and Pakistan stands on the brink of sovereign default. Attempts to consolidate and centralise economic activities in hub ports remain a series of white elephants, dotted throughout the Indian Ocean rim countries, while the debt of the nonperforming infrastructure breaks local economies and livelihoods.
There might be an argument for economies of scale and mega ports. This argument rarely holds water when robust small units with more flexibility and agility produce more inclusive and sustainable returns. Attempts to restructure the debt of the Indian Ocean port cities and proceed with the same mega infrastructure programmes must not be the future vision of the Indian Ocean states.
In one form or another, the Indian Ocean states still maintain their maritime heritage. National and private shipping lines are plenty. Commodities to trade are in abundance. Ship type, wind and fuel hybrid propulsion can bring in more efficiencies. Revitalising regional trade networks will be for the advantage of not only the port city economies in distress but also to maintain peace and stability in the Indian Ocean.
Mohammed Nasheed is the Speaker of the People’s Majlis and former President of Maldives