Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Sep.1 : India and China are reportedly competing to gain a commercial and strategic edge in the busy sea lanes of the Indian Ocen, even as China has secured the Sri Lankan Government's approval to build a new port in southern Hambantota.
Foreign news agency reports claim that once the port is completed, it could serve as an ideal point for international competition over energy supply routes that fuel much of the global economy.
Presently Hambantota is an impoverished place still recovering from the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami.
It has a desolate air, a sense of nowhereness, punctuated by the realization that looking south over the expanse of ocean, the next landfall is Antarctica.
Just over the horizon, however, runs one of the world's great trade arteries, the shipping lanes where thousands of vessels carry oil from the Middle East and raw materials to Asia, returning with television sets, toys and sneakers for European consumers.
These tankers provide 80 percent of China's oil and 65 percent of India's -- fuel desperately needed for the two countries' rapidly growing economies.
Japan too is almost totally dependent on energy supplies shipped through the Indian Ocean.
According to one foreign news agency, any disruption to supply -- from terrorism, piracy, natural disaster or war -- could have devastating effects on these countries and, in an increasingly interdependent world, send ripples across the globe.
For decades the world has relied on the U.S. Navy to protect this sea-lane.
But as India and China gain economic heft, they are moving to expand their control of the waterway, sparking a new, and potentially dangerous, rivalry between Asia's emerging giants.
China has given massive aid to Indian Ocean nations, signing friendship pacts, building ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and reportedly setting up a listening post on one of Myanmar's islands near the strategic Strait of Malacca.
Now, India is trying to parry China's moves.
It beat out China for a port project in Myanmar. And, flush with cash from its expanding economy, India is beefing up its military, with the expansion seemingly aimed at China.
Washington and, to a lesser extent, Tokyo are encouraging India's role as a counterweight to growing Chinese power.
Among China's latest moves is the billion-dollar port its engineers are building in Sri Lanka.
The Chinese insist the Hambantota port is a purely commercial move, and by all appearances, it is.
But some in India see ominous designs behind the project, while others in countries surrounding India like the idea.
A 2004 Pentagon report called Beijing's effort to expand its presence in the region China's "string of pearls."
Relations between China and India are at their closest since a brief 1962 border war in which China quickly routed Indian forces.
Last year, trade between India and China grew to 37 billion dollars, and their two armies conducted their first joint military exercise.
Still, the Indians worry about China's growing influence.
"It is a pincer movement," said Rahul Bedi, a South Asia analyst with London-based Jane's Defense Weekly. "That, together with the slap India got in 1962, keeps them awake at night."
B. Raman, a hawkish, retired Indian intelligence official, expressed the fears of some Indians over the Chinese-built ports, saying he believes they'll be used as naval bases to control the area.
"We cannot take them at face value. We cannot assume their intentions are benign," said Raman.
But Zhao Gancheng, a South Asia expert at the Chinese government-backed Shanghai Institute for International Studies, says ports like Hambantota are strictly commercial ventures.
Sri Lanka says the new port will be a windfall for its impoverished southern region.
With Sri Lanka's proximity to the shipping lane already making it a hub for transshipping containers between Europe and Asia, the new port will boost the country's annual cargo handling capacity from six million containers to about 23 million, said Priyath Wickrama, deputy director of the Sri Lankan Ports Authority.
Meanwhile, India is gearing its military expansion toward China, and has set up listening stations in Mozambique and Madagascar, in part to monitor Chinese movements, Bedi noted.
It also has an air base in Kazakhstan and a space monitoring post in Mongolia -- both China's neighbors.(ANI with inputs)