India’s Chabahar approach needs grander strategic revisit

Jagannath Panda
Is India facing a new challenge over Chabahar, a port central to New Delhi’s alternative outreach to Central Asia? If the recent statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif welcoming Pakistan and China to become partners for Chabahar port development has any strategic bearing, India needs to rethink about its future approach to Chabahar. India has largely followed a “singular” approach to the port, by collaborating bilaterally with Iran and trying to configure a trilateral understanding among India-Iran-Afghanistan to enrich an alternative and secured route to Central Asia through Chabahar. This approach requires an overhaul, particularly in the context of Iran’s growing relationship with China and the evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a greater Eurasian platform.
In inviting Pakistan and China to participate in Chabahar development, Zarif said Chabahar is not meant to “encircle” or “strangulate” anyone in the region. Hitherto, Chabahar has been portrayed as a “success” channel in India-Iran relationship. India has nurtured Chabahar with Iran’s cooperation through strong investment to enhance its new Connect Central Asia policy and to promote the Intercontinental North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). India and Iran agreed recently to connect Chabahar within the INSTC framework and acknowledged the two countries’ centrality in promoting multi-modal connectivity. For long, Iran has tried to dispel the popular notion that strategically, Chabahar rivals Gwadar. In Iran’s perspective, the two are “sister ports” and Iran has plans to export electricity and other resources to Gwadar. Situated in the Sistan-Balochistan province on the energy-rich Iran’s southern coast, Chabahar is a strategic hub establishing a direct link for maritime commercial diplomacy between India’s western coast and Iran-Afghanistan region. A trilateral India-Iran-Afghanistan ministerial meeting further enhanced the idea of an integrated development of connectivity infrastructure that will boost road and rail networks, port development and offer impetus to regional market access and integration. Even though India sees Chabahar as competing with Gwadar for India’s maritime and energy interests in the region, still India’s approach to Chabahar is based on a framework of regional cooperation and coordination. India’s maritime vision of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region -expounds this perspective. Keeping this in view, India needs to embrace a regional mode of understanding on not only how to nurture Chabahar but also how to establish it as a regional connecting hub. More than this, India needs to read the evolving relationship between China and Iran and the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which would be discussing connectivity as one of the principal issues in coming times. The Qingdao SCO Summit scheduled for June this year in China might witness a beginning to this effect. The China-Iran relationship is much stronger today than it was a decade earlier. Over the years, China has pursued a multi-pronged engagement with Iran: Connecting bilaterally, and by establishing a stable network of contacts regionally through SCO. It may be noted that Beijing was instrumental in the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal amid Western pressure to curb Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran, to date, remains a major oil supplier to Beijing. Iran joined SCO as an observer in June 2005 along with India and Pakistan, with China vigorously pushing Iran’s case.
New Delhi’s approach to Chabahar is based on a Central Asia-plus-South Asia concept, which constitutes the core of New Delhi’s Connect Central Asia policy. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline that India promotes is a reference to that. India’s approach of reactivating INSTC is another illustration of how India wants to connect with the region physically. Connectivity, energy exploration, sharing security concerns on terrorism, and establishing political presence are some of the factors that shape India’s Central Asia policy. China’s approach to SCO is equally based on a South Asia-plus-Central Asia construct.
China sees SCO as an important Eurasian organisation and aims to induct Iran as a member at some point, and possibly Afghanistan also. China lobbied hard to bring Afghanistan as an observer during the 2011 Sanya
SCO summit.
SCO bids fair to emerge as one of the most important bodies in the Eurasian region where China-Russia understanding will evolve further. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agreed in May 2015 to establish strategic convergence between China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and Russia’s Eurasia Economic Union (EEU). This convergence is noticeable in areas like local-currency settlement in bilateral trade, financial cooperation through the Silk Road Fund (SRF) and under the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). For India, the greater challenge is how to participate intently in a Sino-Russian regional design while advancing its own strategic interest. The bigger test for India is how to integrate and accept SCO’s future undertaking where connectivity is one of the most important aspects. India has maintained strategic silence over SREB and has opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is planned through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). Can India realistically oppose SCO undertakings involving these connectivity issues where India and Pakistan have joined as SCO members? This calls for a serious policy deliberation on India’s part since the coming Qingdao SCO Summit might discuss some of these issues. Qingdao will prepare a five-year plan to advance cooperative projects under the SCO framework, including Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. India, therefore, needs to prepare how to pitch Chabahar as a port in the context of these evolving regional conditions.
India’s massive requirement for energy resources is a defining aspect of New Delhi’s Connect Central Asia policy. For energy resources, India would be facing stiff competition from China. SREB is an important aspect of China’s outreach in Central Asia today. Through its Maritime Silk Route (MSR), China is attempting not only to make an inroad into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) but also connect Central Asia-South Asia economic corridors where both Gwadar and Chabahar are seen as two important strategic points in China’s Indian Ocean strategy.
In terms of challenges for India from SREB, the biggest challenge comes from CPEC, which is an integral part of SREB. The challenge is fourfold. First, the investment involved. CPEC is estimated to involve an initial grant of $46 billion, now $62billion, to establish linkages between China and Pakistan. China has now announced that it will run the Karot hydropower project for the next 30 years, which is roughly estimated to cost $1.65 billion, before handing it over to Pakistan. The Karot project is supposed to be in operation by 2020.
Second, CPEC is meant to connect Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province with Gwadar. India has always been concerned about the China-Pakistan understanding on Gwadar. The volume of financial backing that Gwadar receives from China is far superior to what India can match as regards Chabahar.
Third, the outlay on CPEC that intends to run through India’s POK region is a challenge for India. It even portends that China may emerge as a silent third party in the Kashmir dispute in future. Even though China has maintained a somewhat neutral position on the Kashmir dispute in recent years after the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, terming it mostly as a “bilateral historical dispute”, the Chinese pursuit of CPEC may impel China to revisit its position on Kashmir in future. CPEC will run through the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a region adjacent to India.
Fourth, as one of the local immediate powers in the region, China has managed to outmanoeuvre India on many energy-related deals. India’s core aim in this region has been how to push TAPI and Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipelines. China has lately shown an interest in IPI, while TAPI remains somnolent. Consensus over the routes, price of the gas, and securitising the pipelines remain stumbling-blocks to progress in the matter.
In brief, Gwadar is an important part of CPEC as well as SREB. China’s control over Gwadar would mean Beijing challenging Indian energy and security interests in the immediate IOR. China will also be interested for a new strategic understanding with Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia within the SCO mandate.
Given India’s geographical distance from Central Asia, connectivity is an issue between India and the region. Land route connectivity through China, reviving the traditional Ladakh-Xinjiang route is an option, but may not be feasible given India’s reservation about SREB. India did share traditionally a greater bonding with Eurasia through the silk and spice trade routes. The time seems to have arrived to reconsider enlivening these traditional modes of connectivity and try to identify if India can have a greater understanding with China with regard to Chabahar and Central Asia both within and outside SCO. In a regional condition where cooperation comes along with competition, New Delhi needs to adopt a more open and versatile approach towards Chabahar that will enhance multiple strategic opportunities and advances for India while preparing an inroad for an alternate passage to Central Asia.
(The writer is Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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