In early December 2017, the inauguration of the first phase of expansion and modernisation of Iran’s deep-sea port of Chabahar was attended by high-ranking Afghan and Indian representatives. Located on the shores of the Gulf of Oman, a mere hundred kilometres eastward, is an even more ambitiously developing deep-sea port: the Pakistani port of Gwadar. While the envisaged maximum capacity of Chabahar is dwarfed by that of Gwadar by a factor of thirty, both deep-sea port expansion projects showcase sets of rival strategic partnerships across Asia.
The development of the firstly mentioned port in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province is financed chiefly by Indian capital while the costs of the expansion of Gwadar, located in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, are being covered by China. Gwadar Port is a cornerstone of the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC), a flagship project of Beijing’s One Belt One Road Initiative. The CPEC should allow China to have more direct access to the Indian Ocean and to import modest volumes of Persian Gulf oil through a terrestrial route. This would somewhat reduce the ‘Middle Kingdom’s’ vulnerability to disruptions of shipments traversing the strategically important ‘choke points’ of the Malacca and Sunda Straits. The ‘Corridor’ has been criticised by New Delhi for crisscrossing territories it claims as parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir but administered by Pakistan as Gilgit-Baltistan Province.
It is not hard to see how they can be seen as the most recent manifestation of decades-long Indo-Pakistani rivalry. Tehran steers clear of alienating Pakistan, issuing diplomatic reassurances that the Chabahar and Gwadar deep-sea ports are not competing projects, even going as far as extending an invitation of participation in the former project to Pakistan and China. Doing so, Tehran wants to keep its foot in the door for possible future use of the CPEC for its own hydrocarbon exports to China. Besides enabling greater connectivity in the future between the hydrocarbon-rich Persian Gulf and the energy resource-poor rising economic giants of China and India, both projects also aim to provide landlocked countries and regions of Central Asia (like, for instance, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang province) with the closest link to global shipping lanes.
Without the possibility of using Pakistani territory for transit, India will gain unprecedented overland access to natural resource-rich Central Asia—above all Afghanistan—through Indian-built rail and road connections planned to emanate from Chabahar. India has already taken modest steps in gaining strategic depth in the region. It is believed to have been maintaining a presence at Farkhor air base in Southern Tajikistan, in considerably close range to northern Pakistan. When it comes to Afghanistan, Chabahar could emancipate Kabul from its current near-complete dependence on Pakistani territory for transit of traded goods and thus reduce Islamabad’s political clout.
The two neighbouring deep-sea ports illustrate further entrenchment of the Sino-Pakistani strategic alliance, all while hinting at an alignment of strategic interests between Iran, India and Afghanistan (with signs of Russian backing). It thus seems counter-intuitive that both Pakistan and India, bitter rivals since independence, both completed their accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation last year. While arguably an opportunity for India and Pakistan to broaden links with Central Asia (be it Western China or post-Soviet Central Asia) or to try make progress on the Kashmir issue on the side-lines of the forum, the tale of two ports appears to be one of ‘stepping up the game’, rather than one of New Delhi and Islamabad working out their differences.