Indonesia agreed to give India economic and military access to Sabang island, an Indonesian minister said 17 May 2018. Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia's coordinating minister for maritime affairs, was quoted by the Hindustan Times as saying that "the port's 40-meter depth is good for all types of vessels, including submarines."
India’s interest in Sabang is not new, with the two countries discussing development of the port during Modi’s first year in office. The port would grant the Indian Navy a well-positioned base for supporting operations in the eastern Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait. The agreement was reached when Indonesian President Joko Widodo met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an official meeting in Indonesia on 30 May 2018. The leaders agreed to strengthen existing naval cooperation including the bilateral Coordinated Patrols initiated in 2002 between the Navies of the two countries and commencement of regular bilateral naval exercises. They also agreed to enhance information sharing related to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Sabang arrangement, which sealed a new strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean, shows a major shift in Indonesia’s attitude towards China and India. Sabang, with its naval base, naval air station, and maintenance and repair facilities, has the potential to serve as the focal point of a budding strategic partnership between the two countries.
Strategically located at the northern tip of Sumatra and close to the Malacca Strait, the island is just over 700 km from Andaman & Nicobar islands. Sabang, also known as Weh Island is less than 500 km from the entrance of the Malacca Strait, from where almost 40% of India’s trade passes. One of the critical channels along global sea routes, at least 15 million bpd of oil flows through the Malacca Strait from West Asia and West Africa.
Hu Weijia, writing in Global Times 28 May 2018, stated "China has always kept a positive attitude toward India's overseas port investment in Southeast Asian countries, a move that could promote regional economic integration, but that doesn't mean China will turn a blind eye to possible military cooperation between India and Indonesia at Sabang. China's heavy use of the Malacca Strait means its economic and energy security is to some extent tied to trade routes across the strait.
"If India really seeks military access to the strategic island of Sabang, it might wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers. A misconception by India in terms of outbound investment is that it always sees China as a rival that it pits itself against. But this idea will get India nowhere because China always sees the big picture when seeking investment overseas and aims for reciprocity and mutual benefit.
"We believe India is unwilling to face a military race against China. New Delhi's wisdom will be tested if it seeks to increase its presence in the Strait of Malacca but inflate conflicts with other countries, including China. If New Delhi doesn't pass this test, the country will face disastrous consequences."
Sabang is a city located at the far western tip of Indonesia. Located in Pulau Weh (Weh Island), Sabang is the capital of the administrative area of Sabang Municipality, Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam. Sabang Bay, situated within and eastward of Masam Point, is nearly 1 mile in length between Kelas Island and the head of the bay, the entrance being 900 yards wide; the depths are from 12 to 20 fathoms, with a bottom of sand, coral, and gravel, and the head of the bay is completely sheltered from wind and sea at all seasons.
Sabang (5°53'N., 95°19'E.) (World Port Index No. 50610) is situated at the N end of the bay and offers good shelter year round. Sabang is a free port. A small commercial port and naval base are situated here. Sabang port can be contacted in VHF Channels 16, 9, 19, 20 and 22. A general quay, 180m in length, with a depth of 9m alongside, lies at the N end of the harbor. A tanker berth, 15m in length, for vessels with a maximum draft of 5m, is situated on the SE side of Tanjung Lhok Me. The naval base has 180m of berthing, with 9m alongside. The PBS Quay is 50m in length, with 8m alongside. The range of the tide is 1.4m. No currents are experienced in Teluk Sabang or at the entrance. However, there is always a strong E current directly N of the entrance off Ujung Masam (5°54'N., 95°18'E.).
Pilotage is compulsory. The signal station is on Peunimpun Hill (5°54'N., 95°19'E.). The harbormaster acts as pilot for anchoring and berthing. Vessels should request the service of a pilot as early as possible. A small tug is available if ordered in advance. Safe anchorage may be obtained in Teluk Sabang, about 0.3 mile E of Ujung Lho Me, on the N side of the bay, depth 32m with a muddy bottom and good holding ground. Vessels approaching Teluk Sabang from the N should steer for Pulau Klah, keeping at least 1 mile offshore, especially in the vicinity of Ujung Masam, in order to allow for the E current, until the bay is well open.
Not only was the surrounding country rich in pepper, but Sabang was the shortest route, and the necessary port of embarkation, for the traveller by sea to Europe, North America, Singapore, and the entire Far East. The Bay of Sabang contains an anchorage nearly a mile in length and over half a mile in width. It had been much improved since the flag of the Netherlands was planted there in 1877, and is accessible to warships as well as merchant vessels. Both, in fact, used the harbor with increasing frequency, and there seemed to be a great future in store for Sabang.
Around the year 1904 an enterprising Dutch trading company of farseeing business eye established a coal depot at Sabang (then with 1,000 inhabitants), that island lying on the extreme northeastern point of the Dutch Sumatra group. The coaling station was established and controlled by the great London firm of Hull, Blythe & Co. Hidden away in a deep opening between the tropical green—clad headlands, protected from every wind that blows and distant from Singapore by two days' steaming, Sabang stands full and fair in the track of every vessel trading to the Far East.
In itself a completely sheltered harbor with an entrance which a child could navigate, good holding ground for anchorage, deep-water wharves and eight to twenty-six fathoms outside them, Sabang very quickly became a favorite port of call for rebunkering. Not only was there entry without dues, but anchorage, pilot service and wharfage also were free. The rise of Sabang in the island of Weh was a genuine romance in the history of modern commerce, and though it was but a “settlement” with a garrison of Dutch infantry — by the end of the Great War it had become a menacing rival to Singapore as a coaling station, with every prospect of successfully claiming the position of a leading entreport in the years ahead.
The controlling feature in the competition of the Atlantic seaboard with the Suez in traffic was the fact that by the Panama route ships approach it from the east or Japanese side, where the coal is cheap, while by the Suez route it was approached from the west, or the Sabang-Singapore side, where the price of coal was high.
A huge number of Japanese bunkers are scattered across the entire island. This is why Pulau Weh is known as the “Island of a Thousand Fortresses”. The bunkers were all built between 1943 and 1945. They used to be connected by tunnels that are now closed due to security reasons. There is, however, a bunker in Anoi Itam that is still in fairly good condition. On 19 April 1944 a British Task Force, in which Americans participated, launched a carrier-based air raid which attacked Sabang, a small island just off the northwest tip of Sumatra. It was claimed that this raid caused considerable damage to shore installations. Japanese reports were that the damage caused was slight.
USS Essex (LHD 2) Sailors delivered nearly 170,000 pounds of relief supplies in Indonesia in support of Operation Unified Assistance Jan. 18-20, 2005. Using MH-53E Sea Dragon and MH-60S Knighthawk helicopters, Sailors carried 169,485 pounds of food, water and tons of other supplies to various areas in the region. Air Force C-130s landed at an air field on Sabang, Indonesia, an island north of Sumatra, fully loaded with Operation Unified Assistance relief supplies. Essex Sailors volunteered to move the tons of supplies from the large airplanes to the heavy-lifting helos - MH-53E Sea Dragons of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 15 Blackhawks and MH-60S Knighthawks from Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 5 Knightriders.
Despite its small geographical area, Sabang is known for having a lot of interesting tourist spots that are spread widely from the mainland of Pulau Weh up to some spectacular underwater spots around the island. Sabang town (local call the whole island Sabang) is a cozy historical town with old colonial buildings and huge trees that the Dutch once important from Suriname. There are many good places to eat to try local Acehnese, Minangkabau food or all kinds of noodles.
The Zero Kilometre Monument is located in Ujong Ba’u (Iboih), 29 kilometers west of Sabang town and about 5 km from Iboih. The monument is built on the spot where Indonesia national road begins from a west to east perspective. It is built on the edge of a 22.5 meter high cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. In Indonesian, it is called Nol Kilometer, and it has the national symbol of the Garuda engraved on it.
The big and lively market in Sabang town is a genuine attraction. Early in the morning villagers from the surrounding countryside take their products to the market. Shoppers can buy everything from fresh fruits and vegetables and the catch of the day to other types of products and groceries. Most food-stuffs are organic and locally-produced.
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