As Pakistan has not facilitated Indo-Afghan trade by extending the transit land route to India, India aims to use the new link for a maritime route to enter Afghanistan
Pictures can, at times, say more clearly what verbose writings and lectures fail to deliver. A photograph showing the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan, and the prime minister of India joining hands as a show of unity is a potent commentary over the changing dynamics of the South Asian region. If the shared smiles of the heads of governments of three neighbouring countries are the most telling feature, the absence of Pakistan is not a less conspicuous observation as well.
For the last year or so, Pakistan has been declaring the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a game changer in the region with massive Chinese investment amounting to around $46 billion. In terms of monetary value the Chabahar project appears to be peanuts as it is worth only $500 million, but the symbolic and strategic value of the initiative cannot be overemphasised. The Indian Ocean has traditionally attracted a huge maritime trade. Controlling choking points of a water route is a strategic ambition of every imperial power. As China does not enjoy direct land connection with the Indian Ocean it began expressing an interest in persuading the coastal nations such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan to let it acquire ports in the ocean to secure Chinese strategic lines of communication, a plan that is popularly known as China’s “String of Pearls” strategy. CPEC is the latest manifestation of this renewed interest of China to have a firm foothold at the entrance of the Indian Ocean. Chabahar in Iran is less than 100 kilometres from Gawadar and is closer to the Strait of Hormuz. Both China and India can now use ports to keep an eye on maritime activity on the busy maritime route. If India was uncomfortable with Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean by acquiring Gawadar port, now Pakistani security analysts are not very happy about Indian presence in the Gulf area. If colonial India and Russia were engaged in the Great Game in the 19th century to enhance their influence in the Central Asian region, now the same game is being replayed between India and China.
Chabahar project, on a smaller scale, is like CPEC. It not only aims at the construction and operation of new port facilities by India, but also includes the creation of special economic zones and development of road and rail connections through Iran to Afghanistan and further into Central Asia. The agreement for developing Chabahar as a full deep seaport was signed between India and Iran in 2002. Iran is facing the same problem of an over-congested single seaport as Pakistan has been experiencing with overreliance on the Karachi port. Currently Iran’s main port is Bandar Abbas that handles about 85 percent of the country’s maritime trade. Just as Pakistan hopes to ease off its load on the Karachi port by developing another port in Gawadar, Iran wants to see Chabahar developed for the same reason. And as Gawadar is to be connected with the Silk Road project of China, Chabahar will be integrated with the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). Russia, Iran and India are the founding member states of the NSTC project when in 2002 they signed an agreement. Central Asian countries are also part of this project. Chabahar, therefore, provides the necessary hub for this intercontinental trade route.
The Chabahar port will give India direct physical access to Afghanistan. While Pakistan has relied heavily on its strategic assets like the Haqqani network to remain a key player in the Afghan game, India has been enhancing its influence by forging stronger economic ties with the war-battered country. As Pakistan has not facilitated Indo-Afghan trade by extending the transit land route to India, India aims to use the new link for a maritime route to enter Afghanistan. In times of estranged relations, the US may also like to use this route thus minimising its reliance on Pakistan.
The project is important for Iran as well. After years of economic sanctions the reformist government wants to play a more active role in the world affairs. Without economic revival such a vision is however not achievable. The Iranian hardliners, on the other hand, want to see President Hassan Rouhani fail in his attempts, as the state of despondency is always beneficial for radical elements. Chabahar is the first sign of international investment coming to Iran. Tehran is opening itself up to the world. As one analyst puts it, “Iran has become a major destination for several world leaders looking to get in on a piece of the pie that Iran is now offering. From consumer goods to automobiles, from big industry and infrastructure projects to banking, every part of Iran’s economy is wide open.” While Iran is keen on embracing new strategic partners, we thought that the visit of President Rouhani was the best occasion to play ‘tit for tat’ game with India by parading an alleged RAW agent before the media, and publicly accusing Iran of harbouring Indian agents. Perhaps recalling advice of the early 20th century French prime minister Georges Clemenceau is in order: “Not just wars, but foreign policy is also too serious a matter to be left to military men.”