As an aspiring global power, India is expected to play an important role in all regions of the world. Currently, India’s path to Central Asia is blocked because of a hostile neighbour that we have in the form of Pakistan. Afghanistan happens to be a close ally of India. However, our path to Afghanistan is also blocked due to Pakistan. Chabahar is the answer to both these crucial problems. India can completely bypass Pakistan and establish direct contact with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries through Chabahar and this has great strategic, diplomatic, and economic implications.
Chabahar is already looked with promise in ensuring better trade between India and Afghanistan. In 2017, India shipped about 1.1 million tons of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar. This number is expected to go up with the full development of the port. India has also meanwhile opened a trade corridor through the air with Kabul and all things considered, India and Afghanistan trade is likely to benefit tremendously thanks to the port.
Central Asian countries meanwhile view Chabahar as their gateway to the Indian Ocean. Countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan view Chabahar as their gateway to ports in India like Kandla and Mumbai.
This extract from the article Chabahar port critical to Delhi’s Eurasia strategy & connectivity initiatives in Indo-Pacific region nails it completely.
The Modi government maintains that once functional, the Chabahar Port will serve as a “growth engine” to India, Iran, Afghanistan and several Central Asian countries. Chabahar is India’s most viable gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia with Pakistan denying India any land access to Afghanistan. Central Asian powerhouses — Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — also view Chabahar Port as their gateway to the Indian Ocean Region. Officials here are of opinion that located some 1,000 km from Kandla and 1,400 km from Mumbai, the Chabahar port will ease sea route access for cargo, trade and business.
Basically, Chabahar is of critical importance to India as far as strategic and economic interests are concerned. Originally, India wanted a railway line also to be a part of a trilateral agreement between India, Afghanistan, and Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran also expected that India would play a role in facilitating the connection between Chabahar and Zahedan and from Zahedan to the Iran-Turkmenistan border.
However, the fear of sanctions from the United States of America (USA) has put a dent in India’s hopes of utilising the Chabahar port to full advantage. Due to the delay in disbursement of funds from the Indian side, Iran has now gone ahead and initiated the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project without taking assistance from India. Iranian sources suggest that despite repeated requests, there has been a delay from the Indian side in the disbursement of funds. However, Iran has maintained that India is welcome to join the project anytime and as a part of its “Look-East” foreign policy, Tehran is committed to fostering better ties with India.
What is more worrying to India is that as this unravels, China has started entering the Persian Gulf. The Dragon is involved in several sectors across Iran such as banking, telecom, ports, defense, and railways. Tehran and Beijing are on the verge of completing a $400 billion deal relating to economic and strategic matters. Moreover, Chabahar was touted as India’s answer to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan which forms the core of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Given the strategic importance of the Chabahar Port, India cannot afford China to become a partner in railway projects involving Chabahar. India faces a huge challenge and now Chabahar is perhaps the test of its foreign policy. How India can ensure that its interests in Chabahar are protected, sanctions from the USA are avoided, and the Chinese are restricted from entering the sphere of influence is perhaps the sternest test that the Indian foreign policymakers and diplomats are currently facing. Only time will tell how all this unravels.
This article will be published in the August 2020 edition of Abhijnah