Sethusamudram Canal will threaten India’s security and sovereignty – Arvind Kumar

Sethusamudaram Canal Project Map

Arvind KumarThe creation of a shipping channel through the Palk Strait would be a massive geopolitical blunder of Nehruvian proportions as it would internationalize India’s territorial waters and subject them to the jurisdiction of international institutions. – Arvind Kumar

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu has ramped up its demands for the implementation of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, but an important aspect of the project’s impact, which has hitherto not been discussed, needs to be brought to the forefront. While the Indian Coast Guard has rightly pointed out that the construction of a shipping channel through the Palk Strait would have security ramifications as it would lead to difficulties in guarding against pirates and criminals, what has not been addressed so far is that the creation of a shipping channel would also be a massive geopolitical blunder of Nehruvian proportions as it would internationalize India’s territorial waters and subject it to the jurisdiction of international institutions and be governed by laws such as the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

Many examples abound of countries losing control over their own territorial waters when they created a canal for ships, and no amount of assurances from international players that India would retain its sovereignty over the passage should be trusted. Britain, France and Israel went to war against Egypt over the administration of the Suez Canal in 1956, and during the early years of the twentieth century, the United States actively supported rebels who got Panama to secede from Colombia leading to the US gaining control over the area where the Panama Canal was to be built.

International laws have never been based on principles but have always been crafted by countries that were victorious in world wars and controlled international institutions. The application of such laws too has been based on predetermined outcomes to favour these countries. These laws have also been inconsistent as can be seen from the fact that the Panama Canal was closed to military ships from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, while other waterways such as the Suez Canal had to remain open for use by the military ships of the Western world.

There is one legal precedent in international law which dealt with a situation that is eerily similar to a potential situation that will arise if the Sethusamudram Canal is constructed. In 1921, a British ship, the S.S. Wimbledon, which was carrying munitions to Poland to aid it in its war against the Soviet Union, was prevented from using the Kiel Canal by Germany, which had taken a neutral stance in the war. The ship ended up sailing around Denmark and going through the Danish Straits resulting in an additional sailing time of two days. The governments of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan then filed a case against Germany in the Permanent Court of International Justice, the predecessor to today’s International Court of Justice. The court ruled against Germany, which was forced to pay damages.

India needs to be wary of this precedent and realize that foreign ships, including foreign military ships which sail from the American military base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Bangladesh, will assert their right of passage through the canal by claiming that they need to sail through the Sethusamudram Canal to avoid having to go around Sri Lanka. That right would in turn be used as a justification for constant patrolling and even policing of the Palk Strait by foreign powers. The construction of the Sethusamudram Canal is nothing but an invitation for trouble to arrive at India’s doorstep as it would result in India losing its jurisdiction over its own waters even as military ships from China, the US and other countries set up permanent positions in Indian waters.

This is not a far-fetched claim. In the past few years, attempts were made to declare even the land-locked Caspian Sea as international waters, instead of letting multilateral agreements between the littoral countries that surround it to determine the borders and the rules of navigation. This was a case of selective application of arguments based in legal fiction, and a similar claim which would take away the sovereign rights of the US and Canada over the waters of the great lakes bordering the two countries would be rejected by them. The five countries encircling the Caspian Sea recently put an end (for now) to the aspirations of the West by signing an agreement that they would not allow any foreign military presence in the Caspian region. A more recent case which highlights the fact that the Western powers are eagerly looking for an opportunity to interfere in India occurred when the World Bank attempted to inject itself as a party in the dispute between India and Pakistan related to the sharing of the Sindhu river waters and its tributaries.

Thus, even more worrisome than the relatively minor law and order problems arising as a result of foreign pirates, criminals and terrorists gaining easier access to the Indian coastline, is the prospect of rogue superpowers that have a long history of appointing themselves global cops to destabilize other countries through coups and civil strife, inviting themselves and their military ships to have a permanent presence in the Palk Strait. Such powers have made their goals very clear by routinely publishing false propaganda against India and Hindus, and packaging their propaganda as human rights reports. These powers even have their foot soldiers within India who operate under the label of “civil society” to carry out the agenda of destabilizing India on behalf of their masters. Both countries on either side of the Palk Strait, India and Sri Lanka, have been targets of such machinations and must guard against the internationalization of their territorial waters. Both India and Sri Lanka would be better off if a road bridge connecting the two countries was built along the Rama Sethu.

The clear threat to India’s sovereignty arising from the construction of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal also begs the question as to why the DMK, which routinely advocates treasonous positions threatening the security interests of the country such as secession from India, support for international terror outfits, and violent thuggery against the Hindus of Tamil Nadu, is permitted to contest elections. – The Sunday Guardian Live, 25 February 2023

› Arvind Kumar has done research at the University of Chicago and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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