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How Inauguration of the Sittwe Port Will Change Myanmar and India

Projects like the Sittwe Port help counter China's increasing presence in Myanmar, which threatens regional security such as freedom of international shipping. 



Panoramic image of Sittwe Port area during its development. (© mohigan via Wikimedia Images)

The inauguration of the India-funded Sittwe Port in Myanmar is a major step forward for both countries. To begin with, it supplements New Delhi's efforts to counter Beijing's growing influence in its immediate neighborhood.

The port was inaugurated by India's Union Minister for Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Shri Sarbananda Sonowal, and the Deputy Prime Minister and Union Minister for Transport & Communications of Myanmar, Admiral Tin Aung San. As part of the May 9 ceremony, they also welcomed the first Indian cargo vessel to the port. It had departed from Eastern India's Kolkata port.

As per a press release from India's Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, this project "was conceptualized to provide an alternative connectivity to the Northeastern state of Mizoram with Haldia / Kolkata / any Indian ports through the Kaladan river in Myanmar. The project envisages highway / road transport from Mizoram (in Northeast India) to Paletwa (in Myanmar), thereafter from Paletwa to Sittwe (Myanmar) by Inland Water Transport (IWT) and from Sittwe to any port in India by maritime shipping."

Image showing the location of Sittwe Port and other sites along the development route in relation to India. (Courtesy of the PIB, Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Government of India.)

What is the Advantage of the Sittwe Port?

This port will allow for the rapid transportation of goods between India's Northeast and other parts of the country. For a long time, the northeastern region has languished behind other parts of the country in most development parameters.

This problem actually began in 1947 with the creation of East Pakistan. Northeast India was thereby robbed of its access to the sea. Later on, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

Importantly, the Sittwe Port also allows New Delhi to provide an alternative to the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative. Already China has gained a major foothold in Myanmar. For example, it initiated the Kyaukpyu-Kunming pipeline, which will take oil directly from the Middle East to southern China. That help's China to avoid the Straits of Malacca, which constitutes a lengthy detour.

Sittwe port is very significant for Myanmar, too. It comes at a time when it is being ostracized by the international community owing to its actions against its own people.

Myanmar's government is also cash-strapped. And a huge chunk of government expenditure has gone towards funding the war campaign. 

Sittwe Port opened on May 9. (Courtesy of the PIB, Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Government of India.)

What's in it for Japan?

For Japan, this is a chance to collaborate with India in the field of infrastructure

Both Japan and India have not joined the BRI. In addition, with its partners in the G7, Japan has also come up with a new global infrastructure initiative named as the Build Back Better World (B3W). It is self-described as "a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership. Moreover, it's led by major democracies to help narrow the $40+ trillion infrastructure need in the developing world." 

In addition, Japan and India are collaborating in the building of the West Container Terminal at Sri Lanka's Colombo Port.

Meanwhile, the increasing presence of China in Myanmar poses a threat to Japan's traditional influence in the country. Unlike democratic Japan, China, which despite being a United Nations Security Council member, has been backing up the actions of the Myanmar military junta at various international forums.


New Delhi faces quite a few challenges before the full potential of the Sittwe Port is realized.

For a start, while New Delhi's completion of this project is worth celebrating, it needs to work on other projects too. For example, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, which has been languishing behind schedule. In addition, work remains to be done on the Sittwe to Paletwa stretch of the bilateral project. And then to carry it on to Mizoram in Northeast India. 

A recent article published in JAPAN Forward pointed out another major challenge. In this case, it concerns Myanmar's extension of its runway in its Coco Islands, which could pose a grave threat to both Japan and India. Given the close ties between Myanmar's Tatmadaw military junta and Beijing, there are fears that the Chinese will use it to snoop on shipping and transportation by Indian, Japanese and other countries.

In addition, the kind of items traded between India and Myanmar will determine how far future projects can go. With the civil war in Myanmar showing no signs of abating, there are doubts on whether the momentum in trade ties can be sustained to begin with.

India is aware of the risks. Therefore, it is also exploring the prospects of connectivity to Northeast India through ports like Chittagong and Matarbari in Bangladesh. In fact, Japan has financially backed the construction of a deep sea port in Bangladesh's Matarbari Port.

India and Myanmar celebrate the sendoff of the first ships sent to Sittwe Port on May 4, 2023. (Courtesy of the PIB, Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Government of India.)

Sittwe is Important Going Forward

Security on the Myanmar-India border is also worrying. There has been an influx of refugees from Myanmar to Northeastern states like Mizoram and Manipur. And this has led to local-level conflicts. At the same time, the Rohingya issue has strained ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and New Delhi is in a very difficult spot as it wants to maintain good relations with both the countries. 

By way of background, the Sittwe Port is a part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. India and Myanmar inked the $484 million USD deal for the Kaladan project in 2008 to connect Northeast India to the Indian Ocean. Other segments of the Kaladan transport corridor project, such as the highways, have hit a roadblock due to the prevailing unrest in Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis.

Going forward, Myanmar is India's gateway to the ASEAN and New Delhi needs to understand that very clearly. Getting a foothold in Myanmar is important for both India's Act-East Policy and Japan's free and open Indo-Pacific vision.


Author: Dr Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed here are personal. His upcoming book is "Beyond the BRI: Can India, Japan and the US provide an Alternate Model of Connectivity (World Scientific, Singapore).