By Saima Ali
Both Pakistan’s Gwadar and Iran’s Chabahar Port have a unique geostrategic and geopolitical significance. Economically and strategically both are vital chokepoints which provide unrestricted access to the India Ocean where about 100,000 ships cross yearly and around 70 percent of the world’s petroleum trade passes.
The strategic significance of these ports is visibly clear from the fact that these sea trade centers are located at the crossroads of international sea shipping and oil trade routes while linking three regions that are: South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. For India, Chabahar is the adjoining port to the Indian Ocean providing direct entrance to the Middle East and Central Asia. Chabahar will provide India with an entry to Afghanistan via the Indian Ocean. Recently Iran, Afghanistan and India have marked an agreement to give Indian supplies, heading for Central Asia and Afghanistan along with special treatment and tariff decrease at Chabahar. For China, Gwadar with a considerable head start over Chabahar could be a finishing point for pipelines in its oil and gas supply chain from the Middle East and the Africa, allowing it to find a way around the crowded nip point that is the passage of Hormuz. Gwadar also opens up the projection for a pipeline corridor bringing oil and gas to China from the Middle East as an exchange route to transport oil around the Indian Subcontinent and through the progressively more disputed territorial waters of the South China Sea. The path will be economical, less at risk and give Beijing greater freedom of action to chase its control over the South China Sea.
Declaration of CPEC brought India yet again in an open conflict with Pakistan. In November 2013, Pakistan handed over the Gwadar Port to Chinese Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd. (COPHCL) for further expansion. This progress worried India and it started asking from the Iranian officials to resume the construction of the Chabahar port. Chabahar is located at approximately 150 kilometers from the Pakistani deep-sea port, Gwadar. In a way, chahbahar development by India was a result of strategic rivalry of Gwadar.
Many in Pakistan view Chabahar as India’s answer to Pakistan’s development of the Gwadar port, associating with China, which is something India should invest in by all means. India has many strategic and political reasons to have partnership with Iran. India wants to counteract China and the place it chose in Iran (chahbahar) is just 106 miles away from Gwadar. No doubt it is a strong effort to reduce the economic weight of Gwadar. The imprisonment of Indian naval officer Kulbushan Yadev, along with a huge detective network carrying out rebellious activities in Baluchistan and Karachi, specified some Indo-Iranian nexus. Later, arrest of some Afghan spies in Baluchistan further uncovered Indo-Afghan alliance. Also droning of Mullah Mansoor further brought such facts into the attention, which strengthened assumption regarding Indo-Afghan-Iran nexus. In fact this strategic competition represents the intensity of Indian panic because of Pakistan China economic corridor. Certainly Chabahar can affect the timelines of CPEC, prohibiting reaping full benefits of the expected game changer.
There are several mountains to cross before the chabahar port. Despite the strategic importance of Chabahar for India, there has been very little progress observed for several reasons. First is Iran’s unresponsive support for the project. Although the idea was first mooted in 2003, it was only in 2012 on the sidelines of the 16th Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran that Iran (then wobbled under sanctions for its nuclear activities) approved to set up a joint working group to function the port project as part of the trilateral agreement between Afghanistan, India and Iran on investment cooperation, business and transportation. A chief factor behind Iran’s unwillingness to allow an Indian presence at Chabahar was the opposition by the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, which reportedly uses the port to ship arms to Yemen and militant groups in the region.
Furthermore, given the existence of Gwadar next door, where China has invested $46 billion for CPEC, it is unclear whether the Chabahar route will produce enough trade to justify the investment. In fact Iran, which has been playing hardball with India and demanding greater Indian investment in Chabahar, itself plans to invest $4 billion to build a plant in Gwadar to process 400,000 barrels of oil per day. Clearly, resolving the Chabahar challenge is vital to securing India’s interests in Iran and beyond. Nevertheless, given the challenges noticeable in this project, India is unlikely to succeed on its own.
Additionally, Gulf region is in a state of strategic instability and it is difficult to forecast Iran’s strategic route, including its relationship with India. Competitors such as China and Pakistan could obstruct or otherwise trump India’s involvement in the project. Expectantly the development of Gwadar will attract Kabul and Central Asian Republics more. India wants to get back Karzai type government’s influence in Afghanistan which is only possible if Islamabad’s control is reduced by upsetting the newly formed cooperative relationship between the two Muslim countries. The present government of Ashraf Ghani has been shifting policies to bring a long-lasting peace in Afghanistan, which is only possible if the aggression of Taliban is eliminated and in this case only Pakistan can help Afghanistan.
In order to be triumphant Pakistan should exercise effective leadership by employing its administration, military and diplomacy to maximize the Gwadar port’s potential. If Pakistan succeeds in this regional game, the Gwadar Port will guarantee connectivity to the world as well as speedy movement of its workforce, goods and services. And the CPEC will result in qualitative improvement of Pakistan’s land connectivity related infrastructure. Otherwise, India and Iran will end up collecting the benefits. Pakistan must ask China, to sign and announce high-status cooperation agreements and openly announce that the two countries going for a strategic and military coalition, to help each other in achievements of common interests, and also help each other in case of any violence. Particularly emphasizing the completion of CPEC.