“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. India in one of its most crisp foreign policy & diplomacy has checkmated China in the form of its control on Chabahar port.
History has been made with the operationalizing by India, albeit partly, of the Chabahar port in the oil rich Sistan-Balochistan province of energy rich Iran’s southern coast. What is more significant is that this port is merely 80 kms from the Gwadar port developed by China for Pakistan & hence such a landmark day has serious strategic & economic significance for trilateral trade & cooperation between India, Iran & landlocked Afghanistan. This port is easily accessible from India’s western coast that makes movement of heavy goods & cargo much more convenient & cost effective apart from serving India’s larger geo-strategic objective. The takeover of operations was done during the Chabahar Trilateral Agreement meeting between Indian, Iranian and Afghan officials held on December 24th. According to Shipping, surface & highways minister, Nitin Gadkari, India has placed $85 million machinery order for Chabahar Port.
Much of India’s long awaited trade impetus & economic good health vis a vis central Asian region depends a lot on the utilisation of the strategically located Chabahar Port, since it provides direct sea-land route access for India to reach Central Asia via Iran. Purely from the point of view of its close proximity to our Kandla Port, the cost of transporting goods would be minimal. Once the Chabahar port is fully operationalised, there would be a seamless movement of goods from India to Afghanistan & beyond, along the yet to be developed International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Central Asia. Talking on this issue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “the arc of economic benefit from this agreement could extend to the depths of the Central Asian countries. When linked with the International North South Transport Corridor, it would touch South Asia at one end and Europe at another.”
The realisation by India to this project came about in 2003 & subsequently there were an occasional murmur between the two sides, if not a full blown dialogue. It was only in May 2016 when India, Iran and Afghanistan inked a pact which entailed establishment of Transit and Transport Corridor among the three countries using Chabahar Port as one of the regional hubs for sea transportation in Iran, besides multi-modal transport of goods and passengers across the three nations. This was preceded by Narendra Modi’s visit to the five Central Asian States that presented India with a unique opportunity of bridging the gulf to central Asia in areas of strategic importance including defence & economic cooperation. In this context, Chabahar can act as a game-changer in India’s favour.
India has scored a brilliant field goal in the form of Chabahar port deal that circumvents hostile Pakistan to reach Central Asia. Such a possibility could not be explored few years ago when the TAPI pipeline project funded by the Asian development bank was being conceived. The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline also known as Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, is a natural gas pipeline is supposed to transport Caspian Sea natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India. Though economically highly significant for both the warring neighbours, an unstable Pakistan has meant that that the project & it’s obvious benefits to both the countries in energy sector are far from coming true in the immediate future.
Hence Chabahar deal is India’s masterstroke in as far as connecting itself to Central Asia is concerned. The problems do persist with a marauding China bent upon stalling India & her resolve to meet its energy needs & also to improve its economy manifold using Pakistan. Even though Chinese economy is far ahead of India, it can feel & sense the enthusiasm & zeal with which India is courting central Asian nations. China fears competition from India and Indian companies in the energy rich central Asia region & it is trying every trick in the book to ward off such advances by its immediate & only capable power in the region.
India must not restrict its engagement with the region in just energy, oil and natural resources; instead it should seek a more pro-active role for itself in other areas like geo- politics, culture & defence. This is where our admission to SCO would make more sense. India’s quest to become a full-fledged member of the SCO is a reflection of its desire to diversify its trans-regional ties in the emerging regional order in Eurasia. We must use our ‘Soft Power’ while extracting advantages of our allies in the region. More importantly the engagement must remain consistent, holistic & uninterrupted given the reticence India has shown on matters involving world politics & diplomacy. India can no longer afford to be a power & yet be a pariah.
After meeting with visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Shipping minister Gadkari told reporters that the Indian government has allowed an Iranian bank to open a branch in Mumbai to facilitate transactions related to the Chabahar Port. He said that “The Chabahar port is very important for us. We are working very hard on it. Some problems were there, but the Iranian government are (is) also in the process to resolve all the issues as early as possible. I am confident that we will be in a position to start full function of Chabahar port at the earliest”. He said the Reserve Bank of India has given clearance to an Iranian bank to open a branch in Mumbai within three months.
“The two banks will facilitate transactions relating to operation of berths at Chabahar port,” he added. In lieu, the Iranian Minister expressed the hope that “in spite of the illegal US sanctions”, both India and Iran can cooperate further for the benefit of the people of the two countries and for the region. We had very good discussions on both Chabahar as well as other areas of cooperation between Iran and India. The two countries complement each other and we can cooperate in whole range of areas,” Zarif said.”We are very happy that both UCO Bank from India and Pasargad Bank from Iran are getting started with the business,” he added.
In being able to ally with Iran on such a landmark agreement, India has very astutely checkmated China which had woven a string of Pearl around India by intruding from the back door into Maldives, Srilanka, Malaysia, Bangladesh & Pakistan.