Chinese development of trade routes through both Gwadar and Chabahar to Central Asian region in the near term, appear more certain.
Two deep-sea water warm ports situated roughly 70 kms away from each other on the gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea, are in news for various reasons in last few months. First, the Gwadar port in Baluchistan province of Pakistan built with Chinese assistance in the year 2002 and the other one is Chabahar port situated in Iranian Sistan-o-Balochistan province partially built with Indian assistance in the same year. The two rival ports are in the news for the involvement of two regional heavyweights of Asia, China and India respectively. Recently Pakistan has handed over the management of the Gwadar port to China Overseas Port Holding Company after a brief squabbled stint with Port of Singapore authority, the original manger of the port since 2007. Seeing this development, India pitched in and offered Iran $100 million aid to further develop the Chabahar port in the 4 May visit of the External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.
Both India and China are primarily investing in the Port infrastructure and management in the Gulf of Oman for economic reasons. Gwadar provides China access to the Indian Ocean and a listening post near Strait of Hormuz. About 20% of the world’s petroleum and about 35% of the petroleum traded by sea pass through the strait making it a highly important strategic location for international trade. China is planning to connect Gwadar port through Karakorum Highway and also planning to build a pipeline infrastructure up to Khunjerab Pass bordering Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang province of China. China and Pakistan are termed as all-weather friends and their deep rooted strategic relations have always been a cause of concern for India.
India on the other hand moved sharply and concluded the deal with Iran during the visit of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to attend the 17th Session of the India-Iran Joint Commission which was held on 4 May in Tehran to further develop Chabahar port to get access to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is worth mentioning that Pakistan has denied Indian transit access to Afghanistan through its land routes.
It is quite likely that the recent Pakistani decision to hand over the operation of Gwadar port to China injected some fresh enthusiasm in the Indian establishment for the Chabahar port project.
Both the ports have significant economic value for the host countries and their partners. While Pakistan and Iran want to build the infrastructure and are expecting to get huge duty fees from these ports, China and India are eying their safe Energy and goods transportation corridor. With Gwadar China will be able to bypass the hotly contested choke points of Malacca Strait and India will be able to bypass Pakistan to transfer its goods to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian republics. Meanwhile, Iran sees Indian investment in the port development as thwarting the US-EU imposed sanctions.
The engineering marvel of Karakoram highway (KKH) built jointly by China and Pakistan is already going through further expansion and development. The entire road will be broaden to four lanes and will be transportable in all weather conditions, since present roads get blocked in winter. Pakistan and China are also planning to build a 3,000-kilometer rail line between Kashgar and Gwadar with an adjacent pipe line to transfer the oil, and a large oil refinery at Gwadar is also on the cards. .
India has already constructed a major road in 2009, connecting Delaram on the Afghan ring highway with Zaranj, the capital of province of Nimroz, which borders Iran. This completed the linking of Chabahar port to the Kandahar-Herat highway. Chabahar port is vital for India’s strategy in Afghanistan to build transportation links that bypass Pakistan. Thereby, reduce the Afghan economy’s dependence on Pakistan and at the same time step up bilateral trade with Afghanistan. In the process, also increase trade links with landlocked Central Asian Republics through Afghanistan and Iran.
MILITARY AND STRATEGIC ANGLE
While both China and Pakistan tried to keep the Gwadar port transfer to Chinese company low profile, especially the Chinese foreign office that took days to confirm the news and termed the deal based on mutual economic benefits for both the nations. Yet the military strategists in India and abroad started crying foul and articulated that the transfer of port management to China has certain military angle too. They believe that Gwadar, in future will be modelled as a Chinese or joint Sino-Pak naval base. It is discussed and debated at length about the military aspect of the port and Chinese strategy to encircle India in the Indian Ocean region through the much famed “string of pearls” and Gwadar is one of them with Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
Pakistan Navy has already commissioned Chinese built four F-22 frigates and two Azmat class Missile boats and discussion is going on for six Yuan class Submarines. Ergo, much of the Pakistan’s naval inventory will be based on Chinese technology in foreseeable future. After Bin Laden raids in the Garrison town Abbottabad, the then Pakistani Defence Minister Chaudhry Mukhtar openly requested China to open a naval base in Gwadar, China then humbly refused the offer.
The complex relationship among the countries in this port game is of great significance. Only Pakistan and China are the strategic partners among the players and their relations are not prone to external factors. Neither Iran nor India has this much strategic depth in the bilateral relationship that can be countered with Sino-Pak relations. India has varying record when it comes to dealing the bilateral relations with Iran due to many external factors.
Politically, post-2014, Afghanistan will remain unstable and may not oblige Iran and India if the Taliban or any Pakistan-supported government is reinstated. Chabahar is also part of one of Iran’s most volatile regions where anti-regime Sunni Baloch insurgents have launched repeated attacks, though curtailed since the hanging of Jundullah chief Abdolmalek Rigi yet insurgency may resurface any time in the capricious region.
The other factor is US-Iran relations, India must factor in US attempts at isolating Iran because of Tehran’s nuclear policy. How far the Indo-Iranian rapprochement is compatible with the growing Indo-American alliance remains to be seen.
Iranian relations with China and Pakistan are also very important and keep profound credence on Iranian foreign policy. China has always been supportive to Iran in the United Nations and on other international issues.
However, Chinese naval presence at Gwadar is a possibility in the future, while development of trade routes through both Gwadar and Chabahar to Central Asian region in the near term, appear more certain.