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China-wary Delhi stalls port

New Delhi, Sept. 16: The Indian Navy and defence headquarters have put the development of a port in Kerala on hold because one of the Chinese companies that have won the project bid is also building a strategic Pakistani naval base.

The story of the objection to developing Vizhinjam port near Thiruvananthapuram has the makings of a great game spanning the Indian Ocean where India is trying to restrict access to the Chinese and the Chinese are straining to access the Arabian Sea.

So far, Beijing has been more successful than New Delhi.

Compounding the issue is a decision of the Kerala government to pressure the Centre into clearing the Rs 4,350-crore project before President Hu Jintao’s scheduled visit to India in November, the first by a Chinese head of state in 10 years. This is also the year of “India-China Friendship”.

Vizhinjam’s location 16 km south of Thiruvananthapuram would make it the closest Indian port to international shipping lanes through which container and tanker traffic pass from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea to south east Asia.

Kerala decided three years ago the Vizhinjam International Transshipment Terminal would be a major economic resource. The tender was won by a consortium of three Chinese companies in association with Bombay-based Zoom Developers last December.

But over eight months later, the Centre is still withholding clearance. The reason is only now becoming clearer after the Indian Navy adopted its new maritime doctrine.

Among the Chinese companies is China Harbour Engineering Corporation that is involved in developing Pakistan’s Gwadar port, a strategic location on the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Gwadar is being developed with a Chinese line of credit worth over $200 million.

Nearly 70 per cent of India’s oil supplies sail through the Strait of Hormuz within sight of Gwadar, which would be the largest modern naval base for Pakistan equipped with berths for warships and pens for submarines.

The naval headquarters is wary of Chinese designs in the waters off the Indian coasts. A source said “our antennae have been up since a Chinese design on the Maldives”. A Chinese attempt to take a Maldivian island on lease four years ago was scuttled.

Also, the source said, China was developing Coco Islands off the Andamans. One of the islands, suspected to be a “listening post”, is less than 20 km from Nicobar and not far from the Indian armed forces’ tri-service command.

Conservative military thinkers refer to a Chinese “string of pearls” strategy — a euphemism for military presence through projects around India — in Gwadar, Tibet and Myanmar. Added to this is the fear that cheap Chinese goods are swamping India.

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