India… Iran… Pakistan… China… These four countries are tangled up in a raging battle that’s turning into one of the most bitter Port Wars of our times.
On one hand, there’s the Chabahar Port, which the Indian government has very closely been associated with. On the other hand, there’s a blooming CPEC — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Nadim Siraj has tried to shed light on the Chabahar vs. Gwadar Port War in his new book Secret Notes from Iran: Diary of an Undercover Journalist (Leadstart Publishing/ Platinum Press)
Here’s an excerpt from a chapter from the book which decodes the Chabahar-Gwadar conflict.
It’s crucial to understand the significance of the development of Chabahar port as part of a geostrategic move by India to strengthen its foothold in West Asia. Chabahar port, locally known as the Port of Shahid Beheshti, is being developed with heavy funding from the Indian government. It is being seen by Iran and India as a ‘golden gateway’ that will help Indians in reaching land-locked Afghanistan and the Central Asian expanse through the Gulf of Oman.
India has already committed $500 million to revamp and expand the port. As substantial sections of the port facility became operational in 2017, India began to make its first moves on the new trade route, sending out wheat supplies to the tune of 110,000 tonnes all the way to the Afghan capital of Kabul, through Chabahar.
India conceptualised the development of the Chabahar project and discussed the proposition with the Iranian government in 2003, but the mission received Tehran’s green signal only in 2007. Ever since, India has rolled out several rounds of investments aimed at developing the port facility, along with the highways that now connect Chabahar to Kabul.
In order to formalise the trade-driven cooperation, Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul signed the Trilateral Transit & Trade Agreement that gives preferential treatment and tariff reductions at Chabahar to Indian goods heading towards Afghanistan and the Central Asian region.
In comments made to Qatari media powerhouse Al Jazeera, in an article published on 19 February 2018 (Iran and India Sign Deal to Deepen Relations), Manoj Joshi, a senior analyst at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF), underlined the multiple benefits of the Chabahar cooperation: “Chabahar offers India connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Along with the port in Bandar Abbas [in Iran], it offers India a means of multimodal connectivity all the way to Europe,” argues Joshi. “This enables India to bypass the Pakistan blockade. It also helps to keep Pakistan off-balance with regard to India.”
The Iranian government is admittedly happy with India’s proactive involvement in the project to develop Chabahar port. In the mentioned Al Jazeera article, Hadi Haqshenas, Deputy Head of Iran’s Ports & Maritime Organisation, explains, “Chabahar’s development is the most important maritime connectivity cooperation between Tehran and New Delhi.”
The leading Iranian maritime official adds, “While, in Pakistan, the Chinese invested in the development of the Gwadar port, in Chabahar, part of the investment was brought by India. So these two ports, which are located at a short distance from each other, can help the connectivity from India and China to Central Asia and vice-versa.”
Iran signed a deal with India for the development of Chabahar port in May 2016. As part of the deal, India will develop two terminals and five berths, and operate them over a 10-year period. Once the Chabahar mission is completed, the port will be connected with the INSTC (International North-South Transportation Corridor). The INSTC is a massive transportation route pairing the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf with the Caspian Sea, through Iran, and onwards to Eurasia and Europe.
The planned INSTC link apart, the Iranians and the Indians are in talks to work out investment plans for linking Chabahar port to Iran’s railroad network. The overall idea is to set up an uninterrupted sea-and-land trade route for Indian goods to find their way to land-landlocked Central Asia, eastern and northern Europe, and Russia.
PORT WARS: CHABAHAR VS. GWADAR
To understand why India is being so proactive in reaching out to Iran and investing heavily in the West Asian country’s port facility, one has to simply step back and look at the larger picture. Actually, the development of Chabahar is being seen by many geopolitical commentators as part of a high-octane cold war between India and China. Many analysts reckon that India’s presence in Chabahar is a prominent counter-balancing act to the growing geostrategic influence of China in the same region.
Shortly before the Chabahar deal came into the picture, the Chinese government had been in talks with Pakistan regarding the development of the southern Pakistani port facility in Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. The Chinese and Pakistani governments announced a mega-deal, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The Gwadar port facility, which is the core feature of the project, lies just over 100km from Chabahar by sea. The Chinese government has pledged a phenomenal investment of $62 billion in order to build the Gwadar port as part of the CPEC, which is part of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), a collection of infrastructure projects aimed at building modern transportation networks connecting Pakistan’s north to its south.
China’s geopolitical interest in the CPEC lies in the fact that the Gwadar port, once completed with Chinese investment and logistical support, will connect the Arabian Sea with Kashgar in western China and north of Pakistan, via the Karakoram highway.
The CPEC’s main goal is to build a straight high-speed railroad network that will pair Gwadar with Kashgar, which are about 2,000km apart. The high-speed connectivity will help Beijing get West Asian crude oil delivered directly into mainland China through the CPEC, bypassing the meandering and risk-fraught sea trail through the sprawling South China Sea.
China relies deeply on West Asian oil. It is a cumbersome and long-drawn process for Beijing to get crude oil ferried from West Asia. As the China-bound oil shipments travel from the Gulf of Oman to the Indian Ocean and then onto the Pacific Ocean, it usually takes up to three months. With Gwadar port in operation, the travel time will be cut drastically.
Hence many experts of international politics see New Delhi’s investment in Chabahar primarily as a strategic counter-weight. Gwadar has an edge over Chabahar in terms of its geographic location. Chabahar is part of the Gulf of Oman and not the Indian Ocean, where India has dominance.
“What’s more,” argues Hassan. “Pakistan’s naval base is located in the region, which remains an irritant for India. If Pakistan allows China to dock its naval ships or submarines at Gwadar port, it will increase India’s insecurities.”
Pointing to the perpetually simmering enmity between New Delhi and Islamabad, and the probable interventionist role of the US in this battle of ports, Hassan says, “India’s apprehensions that China is trying to encircle it is balanced by the apprehension in Pakistan that India is trying to isolate it in its own backyard. South Asia is witnessing the rise of a new great game. Recent agreements signed between US and India validate the fact that a rising China is a threat to the regional balance of power. The US is concerned about the rise of Chinese economic power. This will lead to foreign powers having influence in policy-making decisions in nations of the region.”
All along, the US government has reportedly been trying everything to drive a wedge in the relationship between Iran and India, as pointed out by Indian writer and political scientist, Vijay Prashad, in a November 2013 research paper titled, India’s Iran Policy: Between US Primacy and Regionalism, published by the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs under the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.
In the revealing exposition, Prashad writes, ‘For the US, Iran has been a threat since 1979. Iran poses a political threat to the establishment’s order of things, and it has long been this establishment’s policy to reduce Iran by military and political means. Corralling India into this policy has been US policy since the early 1990s.’
Interestingly, the drive to aggressively develop ports hasn’t been a smooth one for either China or India. While China must tackle a breakaway movement in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, of which Gwadar is a part, India is battling poaching attempts by China in the projects associated with the Chabahar port.
A report published by Bloomberg on 11 April 2018 (India’s Grip on Strategic Port Loosens as Iran Turns to China), claims that contrary to popular belief, all is not well between Tehran and New Delhi when it comes to the Chabahar project.
‘On a March 2018 trip to Islamabad in Pakistan, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he’d welcome Chinese and Pakistani investment in Chabahar, according to Pakistan-based Dawn newspaper. Zarif cited China’s development of Gwadar,’ the Bloomberg report says. ‘The shift could be a strategic loss for India, which opposes China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean and is worried that Gwadar could one day be used as a military base, along with other China-backed ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.’
For a complete understanding of India-Iran relations with respect to the Port Wars and also much before that, you may grab a copy of the book Secret Notes from Iran: Diary of an Undercover Journalist (Leadstart Publishing/ Platinum Press).