Chabahar port set to change India’s strategic reach
by R Hariharan on 13 Dec 2017 2 Comments

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani inaugurated phase one of the US $1 billion southeastern extension of Chabahar port on the coast of the Gulf of Oman on November 3. The port is poised to become a key strategic transit route from India to land-locked Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. Already India had dispatched 15000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan through this port. At present, Pakistan does not allow transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan through its territory. After Chabahar becomes fully functional, we can expect greater strategic convergence between India and Afghanistan, which have always enjoyed a close relationship.


The Chabahar port route is closer by 800 km to Afghanistan than the Karachi port, making it an attractive gateway for trading with not only Afghanistan, but also with Central Asian countries. Chabahar port consists of two separate ports – Shahid Kalantari and Shahid Beheshti. The present project is the southeastern extension of Shahid Beheshti. India would have two berths for its exclusive use on completion of the project.


Undoubtedly, it is an Indian alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linking China and Europe through Central and South Asia. However, Chabahar port project was conceptualised a decade and a half before BRI was taken up. India and Iran agreed to jointly develop Chabahar port, when Iranian President Mohammed Khatami visited New Delhi in January 2003. However, the project went into a limbo when international sanctions were slapped on Iran. It was taken up for construction when sanctions were lifted in 2013. Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the bilateral port development pact with Iran when he visited Tehran in May last year.


India-Iran-Afghanistan Connectivity Agreement


On the occasion, the Indian Prime Minister also signed the India-Iran-Afghanistan connectivity agreement. This tripartite agreement plans to commit at least $21 billion to Chabahar-Hajigak (in Afghanistan) corridor including $85 million for port development by India. The $8 billion India-Iran MoU visualizes Indian industrial investment in Chabahar special economic zone. The development of $11 billion Hajigak iron and steel mining project in Central Afghanistan has been awarded to seven Indian companies.


India has also made a commitment to Afghanistan for $2 billion to develop support infrastructure for Chabahar-Hajigak railway under construction. Overall, the completion of the project is expected to boost two-way trade between India and Afghanistan and also provide direct access to Central Asia to both the countries.


The Chabahar port will also connect India to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) link providing sea, rail and road access between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia. This project came alive after the lifting of sanctions on Iran.  According a report in Economic Times, the INSTC corridor is set to be operationalized from the middle of next month with a first consignment from India to Russia. The corridor is expected to function fully a few months thereafter in mid-January 2018. As India and Russia enjoy close strategic security relations, its significance needs no emphasis.


Pakistan had always been concerned at India’s close strategic links with Afghanistan, considered as part of Pakistan’s strategic domain. So India gaining better and direct connectivity to Afghanistan would be a matter of serious concern to the Pakistan army. Considering this, Iran has tried to play down the strategic significance of the corridor, emphasizing its economic and development benefits to Central and South Asia.


In this context, it is interesting to note that Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardoost’s entire article on the inauguration of Chabahar port, published in Pakistan’s Express Tribune on December 6, does not refer to India’s role in the project, lest it irritate Pakistan’s acerbic views on India. The article pointed out the presence of Pakistan’s minister for ports and maritime affairs, Mir Hasal Bizanjo, and the chairman of the Gwadar Port at the Chabahar inaugural ceremony, and said the development of Chabahar Port was taking place simultaneously with that of the Gwadar Port under CPEC in Pakistan. The two ports were complementary to each other and every other perspective was “completely wrong and will be considered in line with the objectives of the enemies” of Iran and Pakistan.


China which is investing over $50 billion to build infrastructure connectivity between Gwadar port and Kashgar in Xinjiang province under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, will be keenly watching the progress of the Chabahar project located 80 kms from Gwadar on the Makran coast. China had repeatedly been trying to persuade India to join the BRI, even suggesting some cosmetic changes in the name of CPEC after India refused to participate in the BRI as it passes through Indian territory occupied by Pakistan. Chances of Indian participation in the BRI have turned bleak as Chabahar project will be providing an alternate route for India to the regions serviced by the BRI.


However, India and China have shown maturity in handling their mutual relations notwithstanding occasional confrontations along the disputed borders. They have focused on positive developmental relations, while trying to peacefully resolve potential confrontations between them. This was evident when India Ports Global, which is developing the Chabahar facility, awarded contracts worth Rs 3800 million for supply of cranes to a Chinese company ZPMC, even as Indian and Chinese soldiers were locked in a standoff in India-Bhutan-China tri-junction.


So the Chinese reaction was not surprising to the inauguration of the Chabahar port. Answering a question on China’s views on the launch of the Chabahar project, as China was investing heavily in Gwadar port as part of the prestigious CPEC project, the foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment directly. He said, “As for the (Chabahar) port, I want to give you a principled answer. We welcome the development of friendly relations between the regional countries and conduct mutually beneficial cooperation. We hope the relevant cooperation can be conducive to maintaining regional peace and promoting regional stability and prosperity.”


Does the Chabahar port project and India’s improved strategic reach and connectivity to Central Asia have any significance to Sri Lanka?


Of course, strategically India would increase its influence and strengthen its linkages with Russia and Afghanistan. The project will also have its own impact on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route of China in which Sri Lanka has a pivotal role in the Indian Ocean. As a country which enjoys very close, multifaceted relations with both India and China, Sri Lanka will be watching the developments closely. According to the UN COMTRAD data, Sri Lanka exports to Iran in 2016 was $173.46 million, with tea, coffee and spice forming 89 percent of the exports. With improved connectivity to Central Asia through Chabahar port, probably there is scope to explore and open up new markets for exports and tourism in Afghanistan and Central Asia.


Courtesy: Ceylon Today, 8 December 2017

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top