If Chabahar, as well as Gwadar, is to interlink the South and Central Asia and to improve trade ties than why there is the rivalry between Chabahar and Gwadar. Analysts are of the view that Chinese and Indian military’s, especially navy presence in these ports will enhance Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian Ocean and Chabahar port will devalue the significance of Gwadar port as a transit hub and a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In fact, Gwadar project exhibits China’s regional power play.
Sumera B Reshi
Iranian port developed by India to open a trade route to Afghanistan and central Asia, bypassing Pakistan was inaugurated on 3rd December 2017. The Chabahar port is crucial as Pakistan does not allow India to send goods to Iran and Afghanistan through its territory by land. It is also expected to act as a counter to the Gwadar port in Pakistan, barely 100 km away, which is being developed by China. India has committed to the $500 million to the project. The port is expected to be operational by the end of 2018.
The project worth $340 million was constructed by Khatam Al Anbia, the largest Iranian contractor partnered with a state-run Indian company. The capacity of the port is 8.5 million tonnes of cargo annually than the previous capacity of 2.5 million tonnes. The port is expected to be the Iran’s closest sea link to the Indian Ocean, a rival of Gwadar port, 80kms away across the border in Pakistan. While inaugurating the Chabahar port, Hasan Rouhani however, downplayed the rivalry in his inauguration speech and said the port will bring “more engagement and unity” among regional countries. Moreover, the US has broadly supported India and Afghanistan in signing a deal with Iran for a transport corridor opening up a new route to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar, as it outclasses the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project with Gwadar as its focal point.
Further, analysts believe that Washington is extremely aware that China’s plans to develop Pakistan’s southern coastal fishing town of Gwadar into an economic hub, potentially redraw the region’s geopolitical map. It gives China a new trade link from its relatively undeveloped west to key Arabian Sea shipping routes at the mouth of the oil-rich Persian Gulf — giving it potentially strategic as well as economic leverage.
Previously, India wanted to start air cargo transportation over Pakistan by exporting Afghan goods like fruits and carpets to India and India would have sent medicines to Afghanistan but that didn’t happen. India, Afghanistan and Iran signed the Chabahar transport and transit agreement in Tehran to sideline Pakistan. However, the trilateral agreement provoked suspicion in the region and negatively aggressive view in both Pakistan and India. Both in India as well Pakistan, strategists are overemphasizing the potential of the Chabahar port. Also, they consider it as the main contender to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) anchored by Gwadar port in Pakistan.
Since Pakistan didn’t allow its land to be used for transit trade, Chabahar agreement came as a respite for Afghanistan. The good news for Afghanistan is that it no longer depends on Pakistan for its transit and trade with India and the rest of the world. Shaida Mohammad Abdali, the Afghan ambassador to India expressed his feelings as: “The deal will herald a new era in regional integration, fulfilling a billion hopes and a billion dreams”.
In the past, a similar agreement was proposed by Afghanistan all the way back in the 1950s. Pakistan – Afghan relations soured and severed due to “Pastunistanism” & the issue of the Durand line border between the two countries at the beginning of the Cold War. Since the Afghan trade also suffered during the Cold War, Kabul asked Washington for assistance in making a new transit route through Iran to the Chabahar port so that they could bypass Pakistan completely. Nonetheless, Iran, as well as the US, rejected that idea outright regarding Chabahar port as an impractical option.
Since 1950s lot more has changed between Pakistan – Iran – Afghanistan. Pakistan’s acceptance of Taliban as a legitimate governing body created a rift between Pakistan and the mainstream Afghan. As the Pakistan’s support for Taliban grew in proportion, so intensified the bitterness towards Pakistan by Afghanistan. Now the signing of the Chabahar transit agreement in Tehran has left Pakistan in a dilemma. However, the agreement has been seen both with suspicion and hope in Pakistan. At the same, in some circles of Pakistani society, Chabahar port and growing India – Iran – Afghan axis is seen as a grave concern. According to defense analysts, Chabahar port is a “security threat” to Pakistan. But to Indian media and politicians alike, Pakistan’s security concern is a hoax and deem Pakistan’s security concern as army’s brainchild.
However, Pakistan’s concern is not unjustified either. Recently, Munir Akram, a former Pakistani ambassador to the UN wrote an article titled “The New Great Game”. According to his views, a new great game is taking place in regional geopolitics at the backdrop of the Chabahar agreement, One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and CPEC. He says a great game is in progress and the main players this time are China and the United States. India, Pakistan Iran and other smaller countries in South Asia have secondary roles. He further says that the cardinal rationale behind the new great game is China’s twin projects – OBOR and CPEC. Both the US and India is considered to be main adversaries and to remain in a win-win situation, in such a scenario, Pakistan should align and strengthen its ties with China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey so that it can counterbalance a growing Indo-Iranian and Indo-American nexus.
Further, the inauguration of the newly built extension to the Iran’s main Arabian Sea outlet, the strategic Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman has unnerved Pakistan. It thinks that it has been strategically “encircled” by India. Moreover, Pakistan’s concern is that it has been bypassed in the regional transit route. Many in Pakistan opine that Chabahar is a step to isolate Pakistan at a regional level and the action is considered as a part of Prime Minister, Narinder Modi’s Foreign policy. It is also believed that Indo-Iranian agreement over Chabahar port is India’s reply to CPEC. Both India and Afghanistan will be a win-win situation as they sort out a route to reach to Central Asian markets.
Even though a greater chunk of Pakistani society is frustrated over the Chabahar port, Nawaz Sharif, ex Pakistani premier and other government official have expressed their support for Chabahar. They regard Chabahar – Gwadar as “sister ports”. Mostly China has been maintaining silence over the whole drama, however, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said that Chabahar and CPEC (including Gwadar port) are complementary projects and will benefit China in a long run. The Indian lobby believes that the geopolitical and economic importance of the Chinese projects mainly depends on the health of regional infrastructure, Chabahar will improve infrastructure in Iran and Afghanistan which will boost Chinese business.
The view is that Chabahar will not affect China’s objective of achieving its business goals and won’t derail CPEC. The main aim of the Chabahar port is transit trade and reaching out to Afghanistan and Central Asian countries for resources and trade partnerships. Also, Chabahar is not considered an alternative route to Chinese transit through Pakistan and nor a substitute for Chinese investments in Pakistan. Afghanistan also welcomed Chinese investments CPEC & OBOR in Pakistan this summer.
Nevertheless, both the ports are deep seaports, there is a big difference between Gwadar and Chabahar. CPEC is meant to develop China’s western provinces and was considered economically logical to have a transit route via Pakistan in order to import energy to western Chinese provinces but also to export western Chinese products to the Middle East and rest of the world through Pakistan. By doing so, China can save time and cost expenses.
If Chabahar, as well as Gwadar, is to interlink the South and Central Asia and to improve trade ties than why there is the rivalry between Chabahar and Gwadar. Analysts are of the view that Chinese and Indian military’s, especially navy presence in these ports will enhance Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian Ocean and Chabahar port will devalue the significance of Gwadar port as a transit hub and a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In fact, Gwadar project exhibits China’s regional power play. According to Adam V. Larkey, South Asia expert, China has a similar role in Gwadar as India has in Chabahar, but the US is content that India is there to push back against the Chinese expansionist mindset.
Indeed Chabahar port is going to be significant for India and Pakistan whose economic stability is paramount to the US. Owing to the growing extremism in Pakistan, the US – Pakistan relations have witnessed a substantial twist, however, the relations of Pakistan with an old ally China remains intact. Larkey further opines that Gwadar is just not a project. It is more than a mere trade; it will definitely bolster Pakistan’s economy besides giving China’s navy access to the Indian Ocean. It is likely that Pakistan might also use the port for its own military purposes but Iran may not necessarily allow India to use Chabahar for military purposes. The time is not appropriate for Iran to enter into Sino-Indian rivalry when Sino-Iranian economic, political and strategic relations overshadow Indo-Iranian relations. Iran at present can’t afford to annoy China when it has $51.8 billion bilateral trade compared to India which is $14 billion. Furthermore, China along with Russia vetoed United Nations Security Council Resolutions against Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria, who is a strategic ally of Tehran.
Besides, the growing closeness between the US and India will have an impact on Iran and given this closeness, it is improbable for Iran to allow India to use Chabahar port militarily since Iran considers Indo-US alliance against its own interests. Also, Iran doesn’t want to create misconceptions regarding Chabahar port. Thus, Iran invited Pakistan and China to be a part of the Chabahar accord. Pakistan’s intentions are not yet clear but China’s willingness can’t be ruled out.
The battle for dominance is expected to see the future collisions between Pakistan – India, Ind0-US-China, and Iran-US-Pakistan wrestling their might to stay a success in the possibility of Chahbahar countering Gwadar can only materialize if Iran enters into a strategic military relationship with India. Since the main aim of Iran is sure to enhance trade after the completion of the port, the chances of its use by India for purposes other than trade/commerce, are minimal. Nor is there even a remote chance of India setting up a naval base.
Whatever the case be, Gwadar, CPEC and now Chabahar have become integral pillars of “the new great game” which has many players in the field. For India, Chabahar is a chance to align itself as a player amidst the land corridor mania that has gripped mainland Asia and to stake its claim as Afghanistan’s primary economic partner. China is definitely is going to be a win-win situation so far as trade and commerce are concerned. Iran will also be benefitted with the Indo-Sino trade agreements and the US will keep a hawkish eye on the South and Central Asian politics, especially China but Pakistan surely has to draw a line to safeguard itself from Indo – the US, Indo – Iran, Indo – US – Afghan effect.
The author is an Assistant editor of The Legitimate