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India needs to act fast as Tanzania revives port project with help from China

Chinese President Xi Jinping

India must be watchful as recently Tanzania announced that it will revive a $10 billion port project in the town of Bagamoyo. Traditionally India has considered the Indian Ocean regions (IOR) as its backyard but China with an aim to be a global maritime power has been making rapid inroads. The United States and its African Command is also watching with grave concern, Chinese forays in east Africa.

Naturally, this has led to speculations over whether China, the project's main investor, is looking to establish an additional dual-use foothold on the East African coast, a move that would greatly enhance Beijing's strategic aims in the region, the Nikkei Asia in a report said.

Also read: Rising debt levels in Africa lead to concerns, China agrees to restructure Congo's loan agreement

The main purpose of Bagamoyo Port would be to ease the congestion at the country's main port at Tanzania’s capital city Dar es Salaam. It could also become a maritime gateway for neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where China is already heavily invested.

However, there’s more to the Chinese move, and it may not be only commercial.

“It may also be used as a ship repair hub for China's People's Liberation Army Navy, or perhaps even more. China established its first and only overseas military base in northern Africa's Djibouti in 2017,” noted Nikkei Asia.

“China’s decisions to take up infrastructure projects are not just commercially driven. Other considerations which are often related to the military domain are the real reasons for such decisions,” EY India’s chief policy adviser told India Narrative.

Also read: China looks to East Africa for second Indian Ocean foothold

An Observer Research Foundation research said that from a security perspective, since independence, India has not faced any significant maritime threats. “Much of the Indian maritime security focus was in terms of the relatively minor naval threat from Pakistan and non-traditional threats including piracy and terrorism. While these concerns remain, they have been overtaken by worries about China as an emerging IOR power, with a growing footprint in the region,” the ORF said.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been quick to alter the geopolitical strategy. ORF noted that Australia’s participation at the 2020 Malabar naval exercises was a clear recognition of India’s changing attitude towards foreign navies in the Indian Ocean.

India’s greater engagement with countries to manage the IOR is a welcome move. Besides, New Delhi has also expanded the scope of engagements with the African nations.

Also read: India Vies with China to consolidate Africa outreach in the post-Covid era

“New Delhi appears to recognise the difficulties involved and thus appears more keen to cooperate with other maritime powers in maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region. This is a good first step to greater Indo-Pacific cooperation, but further coordination is clearly needed,” the ORF noted.

But with China hurtling into the Indian Ocean Area, the Quad so far focusing mainly on the east on either side of the Malacca straits, may have to shift west towards the African coastline, docking assets with the Washington’s Africa Command.