For its commercial and political implications, the Chabahar Port deal with Iran marks the finest achievement yet of Narendra Modi’s global engagements.
The commercial implications are obvious—India was hemmed in by Pakistan’s intransigence to refuse direct trade between India and Afghanistan and China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) vision had the potential to clamp manacles on India’s ankles.
In one stroke, India has freed itself from the curfew and it could now entertain visions of trade and infrastructure links with Middle East and Central Asia and still further with Russia and Europe.
Let’s take up the bare details before we look at the wider implications and how Pakistan, China and United States, the other key players in the region, would react to it—Afghanistan, as we know from the history of Hindu Kush in the colonial times, is a prized land. So far it was its geographical location but now is the promise of immense mineral wealth which, according to Geological Survey of United States, could be worth as much as $1 trillion, due to its iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium potential.
Afghanistan, unfortunately, has always attracted predators who couldn’t care less about the welfare of Afghan people; who could go to any length to destabilize it in order to retain a degree of control over the cursed land. United States, on one pretext or another, stays put in the name of eliminating terrorism while, as everybody knows, promoting the same in cohort with Saudi Arabia, and not long ago, Pakistan.
The birth of modern terrorism occurred in the wake of Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan as United States planted mujahideens, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia providing men, resources and ground support. The country was soon in chaos, split between war lords of one camp or other, and the lure of illicit heroin trade, which by a conservative estimate is second only to oil and gas in volume, has kept them involved. They aren’t going to leave the country in our lifetimes.
Afghanistan thus has every reason to distrust Pakistan—after all its bête noire Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar were traced there—and by inference United States. It sure receives significant infrastructural aid from China but so tied are the fortunes of the Middle Kingdom with Pakistan that Kabul can’t ignore the political implications.
India has diligently nurtured its ties with Afghanistan. Since 2001, it has provided Afghanistan with $2 billion development assistance. In December last year, Modi inaugurated Afghan parliament built on India’s aid of 90 million dollars. It has contributed $300 million on Salma dam and hydroelectric power plant at Herat which Modi is expected to inaugurate next month. In 2009, India had built a 217-km highway costing $100 million that links Zaranj with Delaram, located on Afghanistan-Iran border. From there, the local road connects to Chabahar.
India has always worried over its energy supply, most of which emanates from the Middle East. It receives 57 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East which would only increase manifolds in the coming years. Saudi Arabia is its biggest supplier but knowing the close equation between the Arab kingdom and Pakistan, India has always been keen to get Iran on its side. The latter, for this very reason—after all the Middle East conundrum is largely a tussle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for dominance in Muslim world—seeks a natural affinity with India. Both nations have close cultural and historical ties. Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.
Chabahar is located on the Gulf of Oman, just 80km away from Gwadar which is the cornerstone of China’s pivot to Pakistan. Chabahar is just 299km east of world’s most critical passageway for oil tankers, the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran urgently wants this port to work as 85 percent of its seaborne traffic is managed by its Bandar Abbas port in the Strait of Hormuz. However, this port can only handle 100,000-metric ton ships. Large ships first offload at the Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates en route to Iran. In contrast, Chabhar is a deep-water port and could process large ships. Chabahar would also allow both India and Iran to access large parts of Africa, Asia, Arabia and Australasia.
India has so far committed $500 million on the Chabahar project. It’s also assisting the 500-km rail link between Chabahar-Zahedan-Zaranj. The free trade zone of Chabahar could also encourage investment by its industries in urea, smelter and aluminium etc. In 2012, India had already used the port to transport a 100,000 metric ton shipment of wheat to Afghanistan.
According to the JV plans, India will develop two berths in Chabahar, one to handle container traffic and the other a multi-purpose cargo terminal. The MoU includes the sea-land access route to Afghanistan. India has plans to build a road-railroad network from Chabahar to Milak in Iran which in turn would link up the Indian-built 223-km Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan.
India has also allayed worries on Iran’s part over its pending $6.5 billion payment. It has begun the process of payment in Euros, as requested by Turkey’s Halkbank. A cash-strapped Iran urgently needs investment and repayment of dues.
It’s a win-win all situation for all three nations. Both India and Iran are surrounded by hostile powers; both need avenues to grow. Afghanistan would finally be able to access the Indian Ocean.
Don’t expect United States to sit and watch this alignment of India-Afghanistan-Iran to take shape. Already we hear of encroachment of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. US could again find a reason to impose sanctions on Iran. India too remains handicapped by its financial and regulatory hurdles.
But such is the opportunity in front of India, Afghanistan and Iran that one expects Chabahar Port to be a reality soon enough. There sure would be hurdles and interventions, but the three must stand together for their own good.
The Russia-India-China (RIC) meet of its foreign ministers in Moscow is unlikely to have thawed the freezing relations between two Asian giants, China and India.
The same is true of the simultaneous visit of India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar to China where he met his Chinese counterpart Gen. Chang Wanguan and stated India attaches highest priority to its relationship with China.
Both China and India suffer from a trust deficit though the niggling issue is simple enough: Both China and India need to look at each other’s territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin plateau in a spirit of cooperation and resolve the long-standing dispute.
As a nation which stands to gain the most through India-China alliance, Russia could offer its own example: the Russian-Chinese borders were formalized in 2004 after 40 years of bad blood between the two nations.
The last fortnight has been particularly frosty: China blocked India’s move in United Nations to have Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief and allegedly Pathankot terror attack mastermind, Masood Azhar be designated as terrorist,
India, on their part, went ahead a signed an agreement with the United States on sharing military logistics in Indian Ocean, the area which is strategically and economically lifeline to Beijing.
But the RIC meet is unlikely to have much influence. Despite it being a foreign ministers’ conclave, it largely deals with the economic, and not security, issues.
The economic prospects of trade between India and China are mammoth. It’s already worth $100 billion and given their market and areas of strength, it holds immense possibility.
India could offer its Information Services strength and avail China’s expertise to build high-speed rail network in India. China’s excess production could also be easily absorbed within India.
India is extremely touch on matters of terrorism and finds itself regularly frustrated by China on international forums. Last year, China had blocked India’s bid to question Pakistan over the release of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a commander in Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had carried out the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks that claimed 160 lives.
A leaked cable of US State Department in 2010 had revealed that China had in the past blocked UN sanctions against Lashkar-e-Taiba and the al-Akhtar Trust (a charity front for Jaish-e-Mohammad). It had also blocked India’s request to list Syed Salahuddin, a terrorist wanted in relation to numerous Hizbul Mujahideen attacks.
Though China’s moves were procedural within the UN sanctions committee, it was in opposition to the stands of US, UK, France and Russia all of whom were willing to back India on the issue.
China has a history of shielding Pakistan-based terror groups from sanctions under resolution 1267 even though it hardly ever uses a veto—exercising it only 10 times in its 70-year history of UNSC. It parrots the same line in defence that Pakistan does: “Pakistan is a terrible victim of terrorism itself.”
Such acts hardly endear China to India. It also reveals the closeness between Pakistan and China in modern context. India feels hemmed in between its two nuclear-armed northern neighbours. All it is doing is to drive India into US’ arms which dread the prospects of close India-China relations.
It still is encouraging that RIC has shown its concern on terrorism and a willingness to use international forums, such as BRICS, SCO, East Asian summits and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) to get the three nations closer.
Russia is keen to play a mediator’s role between China and India. It won’t be Asia’s century unless India and China draw closer to each other. Joint enterprises, preferential trade system and a common trade currency offer a huge opportunity.
China’s Great Silk Road project involves a huge territory—from Southeast Asia to the Caucasus. Russia, like India, isn’t yet a part of it even though a cooperation between the Silk Road and Russia-inspired Eurasian Eonomic Union exists.
There is a need to cool down the tempers from both sides. Says NewsBred columnist Shen Dingli: “China actually has many ways to hurt India. China could send an aircraft carrier to the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China had turned down the Pakistan offer to have military stationed in the country. If India forces China to do that,” there could be a threatening navy at India’s doorstep.