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Can Chabahar, India’s strategic gateway to Central Asia, trump Gwadar and OBOR?

India’s development of  Chabahar, just 70 km away from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, handed over by it to China for 40 years and part of the CPEC, is being viewed by Pakistan as a threat, writes Anil Bhat for South Asia Monitor

Dec 1, 2017
By Anil Bhat
 
India’s first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chabahar is a landmark move marking the operationalisation of the port as an alternative, reliable connection with Afghanistan. The consignment is the first of India’s commitment to send 1.1 million tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan. The entire consignment will reach Afghanistan in six instalments over the coming months.
 
The operationalisation of Chabahar will also boost India’s efforts to connect with resource-rich Central Asia and Russia.
Located in the Sistan-Baluchestan Province on the south-eastern coast of Iran, Chabahar port is of major strategic importance to India, providing sea-land access into Afghanistan and, through Iran’s eastern borders, to Central Asia. From Chabahar port, there is a 883 kms road route to Afghanistan’s border town of Zaranj. From there the Zaranj-Delaram road, constructed by India’s Border Roads Organisation in 2009, provides access to four major cities of Afghanistan- Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
 
Chabahar will also serve as the Indian Ocean outlet for Central Asia, and the proposed 7200 km International North South Corridor (INSTC) running northward through Iran and Afghanistan, will also provide India vital access to the markets of five Central Asian Republics (CARs), Russia and, ultimately, Europe.
 
India’s trade with Central Asia has long been constrained by the absence of viable overland transit routes, denied by Pakistan and China who share boundaries with India. With Chabahar port becoming operational, India may be able to begin to compete with China.
 
Following his visit to Iran in early August 2017, Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, had said, "Talks are on for building railways and roads through Chabahar till Afghanistan and then we have access to Russia. Once Chabahar is operationalised, which we are hopeful will be in 12 to 18 months, it will prove to be a gateway to golden opportunities to boost trade and business….. would be a ‘win win’ situation for India, Iran and Afghanistan as it would serve as a “growth engine and gateway to golden opportunities….We are working on a fast track.”
 
In September 2014, on Iran’s request, the Indian government decided to participate in the development of Chabahar Port. After a series of meetings thereafter between the two countries, a Memorandum of Understanding for development of the Chabahar Port by India was signed in Tehran by Gadkari and Abbas Akhoundi on May 6, 2015.
 
Several rounds of meetings followed between the Ministry of Shipping and India Ports Global Pvt. Ltd. (from India) and the Arya Bander Iran and Port and Maritime Organisation, leading to an agreement signed on May 23, 2016.
 
Also in May 2016, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister in 15 years to visit Iran. During his visit, he pledged up to $500 million to develop and operate Iran's Chabahar port, as part of a trilateral engagement between India, Iran and Afghanistan.
 
On January 22, 2015, in preparation of India’s commitment, the India Ports Global Pvt. Ltd, was set up in Iran as a joint venture between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust with 60% shares and Kandla Port Trust, recently renamed as Deendayal Port Trust, with 40% shares, along with participation from private Iranian and Indian firms to develop and operate the port at Chabahar. The paid up capital of this company is presently INR 100 million.
 
The contract entails developing and mechanizing two terminals with four berths to be equipped with rail mounted quay cranes, rubber tyre gantry cranes, mobile harbour cranes, yard cranes, empty container handlers, reach stackers and terminal tractor trailors for handling cargo.
 
In June 2017, India reportedly ratified the United Nations TIR (Transports Internationaux Routiers) Convention. Developed and managed by the International Road Transport Union (IRU), the world road transport organisation, TIR is the global standard for goods customs transit, which will ensure a secured supply chain and boost trade and is part of India’s multi-modal transport strategy to integrate the economy with global and regional production networks through better connectivity.
 
This is expected to increase overland trade and regional integration across South Asia and beyond, fast-tracking the region’s potential to become a strategic trade hub. 
 
IRU Secretary General Umberto de Pretto said: “I am delighted to welcome India into the TIR family of nations. This is an important step in harmonising standards and boosting transport, trade and development across South Asia......We look forward to working closely with the Indian government and business community as we turn our attention now to implementing the TIR system.”
 
With India joining TIR, the INSTC comes closer to implementation and also becomes India’s suitable substitute to China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) strategy. 
 
During the 2nd meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council between India and Afghanistan, held in New Delhi on September 11, 2017 and co-chaired by External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, both sides welcomed the establishment of the Air Cargo Corridor between Kabul and Kandahar with New Delhi in June 2017. It was agreed to expand it to include other cities in Afghanistan and India as well as to increase the frequency of the cargo flights between the two countries. Reaffirming the importance of connectivity and free and unfettered transport and transit access for Afghanistan and Central Asia, both sides agreed to work towards expeditious operationalisation of the Chabahar Port in Iran under the trilateral Agreement for Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor signed in May 2016. In this context, both sides agreed to explore joint investments. Afghanistan also welcomed the imminent commencement of wheat shipments of 170,000 metric tons from India to Afghanistan via Chabahar port.
 
Claudia Waedlich, in her article ‘CPEC and military design eliminations for development, on September 25, 2017, stated: “The implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) raises many questions. Is it only an economic corridor as promised by China and Pakistan? Or has it another purpose? Will it bring the promised free trade, prosperity and development to Balochistan and the other nations in the artificially constructed state of Pakistan? The answer is a clear no. Regarding strategic designs - first Gwadar port, the end point of the CPEC, which stretches from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar, close to the Straits of Hormuz - will be in danger of being completely blocked with a high impact on international trade from around the world”. 
 
India’s development of  Chabahar, just 70 km away from Pakistan’s Gwadar port and handed over by it to China for 40 years and part of the CPEC, is being viewed by Pakistan as a threat.
 
According to Ahmad Bilal Khalil, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul, writing in The Diplomat on January 31, 2017, Iran also wants to connect CPEC (and Gwadar) and Chabahar. Given that both Afghanistan and Iran have embraced OBOR, it seems unlikely that Chabahar will be in direct competition with the Chinese project.
 
Gwadar cannot compare with Chabahar, which is in well-developed Iran, whereas Gwadar is in Balochistan, a ravaged, undeveloped and exploited province of Pakistan. Hence there is a possibility that Chabahar port will diminish the importance of Gwadar port (the end of CPEC) as a transit hub and route for Central Asian republics and Afghanistan. The reactions of the Pakistani media, particularly the Urdu media, have been uneasy. Some retired army generals and former defence secretaries have even referred to the Chabahar agreement as a “security threat” to Pakistan.
 
This will have to be appropriately factored by India, Iran and Afghanistan.
 
(The author, a strategic analyst, is Managing Editor, WordSword Features. He can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.com)

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