The geopolitical situation in South Asia is changing swiftly. This can be credited to the fact that the emerging powers in the region are redefining their presence. Friends are becoming foes, and vice versa.
South Asia’s proximity to oil-rich West Asia has changed the politics of the region. Pacts are being signed and countries are forming alliances befitting their economic and political interests. Pakistan’s quest to boost its ailing economy by signing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with the People’s Republic of China is seen as a landmark of economic cooperation between the two nations.
Why Gwadar Matters to China
As a part of the CPEC agreement, Pakistan handed over the construction of the Gwadar Port to China. Gwadar is a deep sea port located in the Balochistan province in the Southwestern part of Pakistan.
The Gwadar port’s location is strategic, as it is located at the confluence of Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea and because of its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz.
China’s dependence on Gulf oil is huge. It takes China about three months to transport oil from the Gulf of Oman through the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Gwadar will help China reduce travel time, while ensuring both safe passage, and a continuous flow of oil from the Persian Gulf under all weather conditions, all year long.
The port of Gwadar is connected by road to the Chinese city of Kashgar via the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan. India’s concerns are clear as it considers Gilgit-Baltistan to be disputed territory. The Chinese presence there adds to these concerns.
The Gwadar port will also facilitate trade between China and the Central Asian and Middle Eastern nations. The port is majorly Chinese sponsored and is funded on a cost-sharing basis with Pakistan in the ratio of 80-20.
Indian Interests in Chabahar
A commercial contract has also been reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and India for the development of infrastructure and regional connectivity. This cooperation includes the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran by India, which is part of a broader trilateral agreement signed between India, Iran and Afghanistan.
Chabahar is the Iranian port city on the Gulf of Oman. This port is connected to the national highways network of Iran. The Chabahar Agreement will facilitate India’s access to the oil and gas rich Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Developing a port in Iran will provide an alternative access route to Afghanistan via Iran. Iran will also use it to increase trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
India is providing more than Rs 4,000 crore for the development of the port. India’s process of developing highways in Afghanistan is in resonance with the construction of the port in Iran.
Apart from developing the port, India is planning to lay a pipeline to transport oil and gas resources from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Iran and from there to Gujarat. This way, India will bypass Pakistan, although it provides a much shorter route under the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) project for transporting oil resources to India.
Port development by India will also boost the International North-South Transport Corridor and its alliance with Russia. Iran’s port will be the gateway for moving freight between Iran, Russia, India and countries in Central Asia with an objective of increasing trade between major cities of these countries.
The Chabahar-Gwadar Competition
The Chabahar and Gwadar ports are at a distance of about 72 km from each other. Both India and Pakistan have been attempting to undermine each other in the region and the development of the two ports is bound to add to the animosity.
The fact is that Gwadar has an edge over Chabahar in terms of its geographic location. Chabahar is a part of the Gulf of Oman and not a part of the Indian Ocean, where India has dominance.
What’s more, Pakistan’s naval base is located in the region, which remains an irritant for India. And if Pakistan allows China to dock its naval ships or submarines at Gwadar port, it will further increase India’s insecurities.
However, it may not be the same in the case of India, as Iran may not allow India to use Chabahar for military purposes. Ties between India and US will have a profound impact on Iranian strategic thinkers. In addition, the Indo-US alliance in the Indian Ocean is against Iran’s interests.
India’s apprehensions that China is trying to encircle it by pursuing the string of pearls strategy is balanced by the apprehension in the Pakistani establishment that India is trying to isolate it in its own backyard.
South Asia is becoming a region witnessing the rise of a new great game. America’s alliance with India should also be seen in this context. Recent agreements signed between the US and India validate the fact that a rising China is a threat to the regional balance of power. The US is also concerned about the rise of Chinese economic power in the region.
China’s CPEC, coupled with its ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR), is considered by India and the US as a threat to their strategic interests in the region.
This will lead to foreign powers having influence in policy-making decisions in nations of the region. The relationship between India and Pakistan will also undergo significant changes in the coming years.
In conclusion, it can be inferred that if the Pakistani establishment effectively encourages its administration, military and diplomacy to maximise the potential of the Gwadar port, it can successfully ensure effective connectivity to the world. On the contrary, if Pakistan fails to do so, it will allow India and Iran to reap all the benefits.
(Gazi Hassan is a Research Scholar of International Studies at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached @gazihassan. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(The article was originally published on 21 February 2017 and is being republished after the first phase of the Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman was inaugurated on 3 December 2017 by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The port opens a new strategic route connecting Iran, India and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan.)