Geopolitics, power, and the economy of port cities in Indian Ocean waters

Published by  5 December, 2018 5:01 pm Leave your thoughts

A paper of Gaetan SIEW, President of the Port Louis Development Initiative, Mauritius and Special Envoy UN-Habitat. Presented by Gaetan Siew, as a keynote speaker, during the AIVP Indian Ocean Days (November 2018 – Le Port, Reunion Island).

In his latest book ’21 lessons for the 21st century’, Yuval Harari states that a few hundred years ago, people knew that in a century their child and grandchild may still require specific trades; which are then passed down generations. However, today the world is witnessing disruption at a global and unprecedented scale; which makes it impossible to predict what trades will still be relevant in another century. The internet, increased connectivity, economic trade and policies has impacted on both our social and economic fabric in ways that we deemed unconceivable just one century ago. So what good is our trades of today? What can we say about what’s coming next? In respect to port cities, what can be expect and what should we be on the lookout for?


Communication has always played a key role in the importance of Port Cities. Traditionally Ports were the nodes for delivering and collecting news. An interesting case of the Tambora Volcano, in Indonesia, which erupted in the 18th century and caused climate disruptions on a massive scale in both the northern and southern hemisphere. It was such that the scientific community, unknowing of a volcano erupted, started theorising of scientific reasons for such disruption that are completely unrelated to the original cause. Those were later dismissed when news of the volcano eruption reached Europe 8 months later. However, today with the advent of technology, the transaction of news is no longer the role of ports. Today there are other roles, namely Trade, Energy, Military and Maritime resources. Interestingly, those dimensions are seen to have direct implications and electric relationships with power.


A global view of current world affairs at macro scale provides some interesting leads about the current forces at play in the Indian Ocean. We see a giant, Australia, that has been for a long time turning its back to the Indian Ocean. We see Asia who is strengthening its policies and grasp of maritime territories to further secure investments and long term economic prosperity. We see the ongoing presence of superpowers in foreign territories across the middle east; portraying the bias of bringing democracy over the (over)exploitation of resources. We see Europe that squeezes its way through foreign waters to feed, and we see a sleeping giant; Africa, which is set to host the next demographic boom. Indeed, everyone is turning its head towards the continent of conflict, unrest, poverty and corruption. The reason is that an increasing middle class is bringing change and representing a consumer market that is estimated in billions of dollars. Political stability is gaining ground, and with smoother political and economic accords; frictionless trade and movement of people will bring new opportunities that producing countries long for.

In the search for new economic markets for increasing its consumer base, countries go to length at developing policies and strategies for an expansive reach. One of such is China with the One Belt One Road initiative, which was later rebranded to showcase that they are not building ‘one’ route, but many. The maritime silk road, or commonly known as the Chinese string of pearls, raises interesting questions (and concerns) as to the grasp of China over a series of relating ports across a carefully designed corridor. Even with a lower GDP per capita than minute countries, like Mauritius, China engages in extremely aggressive penetration strategies that ensures a tap into growing consumer bases. One of those has been the financing of vital infrastructures in exchange of unfavourably long-term agreements; which has been criticised by many. This has been coined as ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’, which entails engaging developing countries, with clearly no repayment capacity, in unsustainable amounts of Grants, Foreign Aid and Loans. The latest victim to this has been Sri Lanka which had to cede its port along with surrounding thousands of acres of land to China. For expansive projects no doubt.

The link of China’s debt trap diplomacy in the Indian Ocean is becoming more apparent, but this is not discouraging countries to tend a hand seeking an injection of cash. This has to do with short sighted political agendas from politicians that seek rapid results for short political terms. This is a terrain on which geopolitical policies are forged; the exploitation of short sightedness for long term gains. Unfortunately, many countries fell for such fallacies, and this can be seen across the Chinese maritime silk road across poverty-stricken countries. The case of Djibouti is an interesting study, where 77% of the country’s debt is linked towards a single country alone: China, and most of the investment is linked to ports and towards infrastructures linking ports to the hinterland; which provides the service of goods towards a consumer market not serviced by opportunities sea currents bring.

This type of hinterland connection is further enhanced by regional cooperation agreements, but this can only be done through the standardisation and harmonisation of policies and processes. One of the ambitious projects along this line is that of the Djibouti-Dakar railway. Which can have a direct impact on shipping routes, as shorter and more cost effecting routes emerge. What then happens to port cities further south from Djibouti to Dakar? How will the economy be impacted? And will hinterland cities be, for a change, the new nexus of economic opportunities? Those are challenging questions that need to be looked at, and of course solutions will emerge with time; but we must emphasise on the need for inclusivity and social equity in this process.


Social equity cannot be emphasised enough, but this is a tricky process when economy trumps society. And when large resources are invested in the protection of economic infrastructures. This has seen the growing interest of numerous superpowers for prime locations in the Indian ocean for naval bases, to oversee operations and provide a ‘safe’ environment (through this can be disputed) to protect pipeline investments and fossil fuel extraction. We see other military bases turned towards the conflict in North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Syria. And we see the emergence of new types of city models, like again with the case of Djibouti, hosting half a dozen military bases, strangely cohabitating at peace. How then do we bridge the gaps between those military bases to urban clusters, and of course to port infrastructures?

Economy, power and geopolitical forces are all forces in a game of push and pull leading to the shaping of Port Cities. How to integrate all those forces towards a synergistic, and maybe simplistic, model? A question that is yet to be answered, but which essentially lies into a sub question: How can the society be made to benefit from those over, and above, political and economic ambitions; be it local, regional or global.


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