In a meeting that took place at the end of April in Dhaka, between the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, the Bangladeshi premier offered the use of Chittagong Port to India
. Jaishankar was in Dhaka on behalf of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to extend an invitation to Prime Minister Hasina for visiting New Delhi. Discussing the need for greater connectivity between the two neighbouring countries for their mutual benefit, Prime Minister Hasina pointed out that increased linkages would help India’s landlocked Northeastern states of Assam and Tripura to have an access to this seaport. This proposition is reminiscent of a similar offer Bangladesh made to China in 2019 for its southwestern states to use the ports of Chittagong and Mongla
. Indeed, the port of Chittagong often features in Bangladesh’s strategic partnerships with its neighbourhood, particularly the two Asian giants: India and China. As Bangladesh meanders its way through the geopolitics of the Bay of Bengal region, which is fast regaining its dynamism, the importance of this port is worth cultivating.
Chittagong Port Area
The vitality of the port
Built on the Karnafuli river, 16 kilometres upstream of the sea, the port of Chittagong is Bangladesh’s principal seaport. It is the busiest port along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal and ranks 67th
in the 2021 Llyod’s list
of the top 100 busiest container ports in the world. Although, it slipped nine notches in 2020 from its 58th
position, due to the impact of the pandemic on Bangladesh’s trade of readymade garments and the subsequent loss of container throughput
, the utility of this port is undeniable. Its significance is that it provides deep water anchorage with a few kilometres inland from the sea. As such it handles more than 92 percent
of the country’s EXIM maritime trade, primarily containerised and manufactured products. It transports bulk cargo as well but passenger traffic is limited
. The Chittagong Port is also used for transhipment by India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and a Bay container terminal
is being constructed on the port premises, scheduled to be completed by 2024. This infrastructural utility, aside from the strategic location of this port, endows it with significant growth potential for both India and China.
Bangladesh is situated at the peak of the triangular Bay of Bengal, providing crucial access to the important shipping routes traversing this maritime space, as well as its fabled hydrocarbon reserves. Geopolitically, it is thus a coveted neighbour
and the Chittagong Port owing to its location, is one of its strategic highlights. Its importance for India and China is as follows:
A sea-link for India’s landlocked Northeast
The line of partition which carved out East Pakistan from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, landlocked India’s Northeast, depriving it of convenient access to the sea
. Nonetheless, the region was still allowed to use the ports of East Pakistan until the second Kashmir war broke out in 1965 between India and Pakistan. Ever since then, India has been trying to regain access to the Chittagong Port which is much nearer to its Northeastern territory than its own port of Kolkata. Moreover, the Chittagong Port is also easier to access through proper multimodal connectivity, whilst the Kolkata Port has to be reached via the overland narrow Siliguri corridor, otherwise known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’. Connecting India’s Northeast with the Chittagong Port is thus a cheaper option to not only develop this region and strengthen its linkages with the rest of India but also enhance its connectivity with the neighbouring countries sharing its borders, e.g., Bangladesh. This will help propagate India’s Act East and Neighbourhood First Policy
Connecting India’s Northeast with the Chittagong Port is thus a cheaper option to not only develop this region and strengthen its linkages with the rest of India but also enhance its connectivity with the neighbouring countries sharing its borders, e.g., Bangladesh.
Bangladesh too is intent on strengthening its connectivity with India, its second largest trading partner
. Thus, in 2015, both the countries signed a Coastal Shipping Agreement and a Standard Operating Procedure allowing direct regular shipping
between the ports on India’s east coast and Bangladesh’s ports, particularly Chittagong. This helped reduce the delivery time from 25 to seven days and an estimated savings of US$300
per container. The Chittagong Port Authority had also proposed to India to use it to ferry goods to India’s Northeast via the Ashuganj
river port close to Tripura. In 2020, Tripura finally got access to the Chittagong Port as it received 100 tonnes of cargo
from it at the Akhaura Integrated Check Post, in a trial run. However, since then there has been no further development apart from the inauguration of the Maitri Setu/Feni Bridge
in March 2021, connecting Tripura to Chittagong. Subsequently, some reports on Prime Minister Hasina’s recent offer along with her affirmation to resume work on the cross-border routes
between Bangladesh and India, attribute the move to using New Delhi’s good office to mend ties with Washington D.C. as Bangladesh is facing US sanctions over Dhaka’s Rapid Action Battalion
. Others read it as an outcome of Dhaka’s concern over India’s growing trade and connectivity with Myanmar
. A third interpretation is that Bangladesh’s offer is an attempt to further strengthen its economy, taking a lesson from the situation in Sri Lanka. Regardless, the gesture is a welcome move from the Indian perspective.
China’s foothold in the Indian Ocean
Frequent visits to the port by Chinese trading vessels earned it the name of 'Chit-le-gan
', from a chronicler Ma Huan, who visited Chittagong in 1405 on a Chinese mission. Today, the port is important for China as one of its gateways into the Indian Ocean. Some international reports have described Chinese investments in the port to be a part of its plan to “control the maritime energy channels in the Indian Ocean Region and expand the scope of its power through developing ports in South Asian countries
”. Others have also analysed the possibility of the Chittagong Port being inculcated in China’s ‘String of Pearls
’ strategy; referring to an American hypothesis of China building military and commercial bases in the Indian Ocean
. However, China’s scholars have denied the claim. For them, the development of the Chittagong Port is based on equal terms between China and Bangladesh, as both countries have signed a reciprocal agreement for joint economic development. “Therefore, there is no military purpose behind China’s funding of this project
Both the countries signed a Coastal Shipping Agreement and a Standard Operating Procedure allowing direct regular shipping between the ports on India’s east coast and Bangladesh’s ports, particularly Chittagong.
Bangladesh for its part has also been keen to nurture Chinese investments in this port. Reports from 2010 recall its hopes of securing Chinese assistance of US$8.7 billion
to develop the port into a regional commercial hub by building a deep-sea port in the Bay of Bengal. The country wanted to increase the port’s cargo handling capacity three-fold by 2055. Since then, China’s relations with Bangladesh have only grown from strength to strength with the former, becoming its largest trading partner in 2015, surpassing India
. At present, China enjoys access to the Chittagong port, is interested in constructing and operating the Dhaka-Chittagong High-Speed Rail Project, building a 220-kilometre pipeline
, and a single mooring point, facilitating direct offloading of imported oil at the Chittagong refinery.
The interest of the two Asian giants in the Chittagong port is apparent. It is, thus, Bangladesh’s trump card for boosting its economic growth and nurturing favourable relations with both countries. Doing so through initiatives of collaboratively developing the port, whilst maintaining its neutrality is, therefore, a triumph of its diplomacy of balance.
Bangladesh’s offer to India of using the Chittagong Port is one such diplomatic initiative. It reflects the growing bonhomie in their partnership which the two countries had described in March 2021 as a “model of bilateral ties for the entire region
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