Chabahar is a deep-sea port located in Sistan-Baluchistan area of Iran at the mouth of Gulf of Oman. It is a strategically located port because it provides direct access to the Indian Ocean, enabling bypassing of Strait of Hormuz, a traditional choke point that separates Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Incidentally, 1/5th of oil consumed worldwide currently passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
Chabahar lies outside the Persian Gulf and can be easily accessed from India’s western coast. In fact, the distance from New Delhi to Mumbai is more than the distance from India’s Kandla port on western coast to Chabahar. It is located 45 nautical miles away from the port of Gwadar which is being built by China in Pakistan’s Balochistan. Gwadar is the outlet to Indian Ocean from the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) termed as a “game changer” in the region by both the Chinese and the Pakistanis. Gwadar provides tremendous strategic advantage to China, not only in its pursuit of encircling India, but also in the domination of Indian Ocean an unchallenged domain of India so far.
Another major geo-strategic factor that affected India’s outreach to strategically important Afghanistan and oil and mineral rich Central Asian Republic (CAR) is the continuous reluctance of Pakistan to allow access to these landlocked regions through its territory, and which is the only over-land access available presently. This has not only hampered India’s economic interests, but also its security concerns because of the lack of direct access to the terror-ridden nations in the region. Pakistan enjoyed a geo-strategic advantage in ‘War on Terror’ against Afghanistan, and hence, enjoyed American largesse despite enough evidence to prove its involvement in not only sheltering the terrorist leaders but perpetrating terror in South Asia, particularly India. The commissioning of Chabahar will not only provide India much needed access to Afghanistan and give boost to its connect-Central Asia policy but will also seize the strategic initiative back both from Pakistan and China. It will also act as an effective counter to China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean due to its location viz a viz Gwadar. It will also help India to fight terror and extremism in the region jointly with the regional players thus isolating Pakistan. Pakistan rightly views India’s so-called “expansive diplomacy” in the region as a threat whereas India looks at it as an opportunity for furtherance of its economic and strategic interests in the region.
The port will enable India to circumvent Pakistan which has been denying land-route access to India to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia. It will open up route to landlocked Afghanistan where India has developed close security ties and economic interests. Iran has already built a road from Chabahar to Milak on Iran-Afghan border. It will further be linked to the Zaranj-Delaram road constructed by the Indian Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in 2009 which will give access to Afghanistan’s ‘Garland Highway’ providing connectivity to four major towns of Afghanistan namely, Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. India has also announced its intention to link Afghanistan with rail network. It will also enable Afghanistan to carry out international trade without its dependence on Pakistan’s Karachi port. Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan will be considerably reduced thus reducing Pakistan’s influence in the region. The opening of Chabahar route will increase Iranian and Indian influence in Afghanistan leading to Pakistan’s marginalisation. Thus, Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth” against India will suffer a severe jolt.
The Chabahar port will also give boost to the strategic International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) by being its natural outlet to the Ocean. INTSC is an ambitious project to connect India to European and Central Asian markets through a network of ship, rail and land route. It will connect India to Russia via Iran and Azerbaijan. With India’s access to CAR nations blocked by Pakistan INSTC will provide India the vital access to the Central Asian, Russian and European markets enabling India to compete with China.
The aim behind INSTC is to cut transportation costs giving boost to better trading margins while competing in these markets. Compared to the current traditional sea route to Europe via the Suez Canal, Chabahar-INSTC is 40% shorter and reduces the cost of Indian trade to Europe by 30%. Moreover, international trade will be able to overcome the uncertainties of “Sea Politics” in the volatile Middle- East with the availability of an alternative. China’s ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) providing China international connectivity via Gwadar port passes through the most troubled areas in Pakistan and is vulnerable to many security challenges. The route from Chabahar to Afghanistan via Iran and the INSTC passes through relatively peaceful regions of Afghanistan thus, making Chabahar a natural winner viz a viz Gwadar as a preferred port for the international trading community and earning a greater share of trade.
India’s increased presence in the region would also enable her to become a significant player in the Middle-East. India’s influence over Chabahar could be leveraged in many ways. India’s energy security needs would also be addressed with the option of bypassing Pakistan. Turkmenistan- Afghanistan- Pakistan- India (TAPI) gas pipeline project can now be diverted directly from Afghanistan to India via Chabahar. So far India’s gas imports are confined to Oman only. Undersea gas pipelines can also be laid to bring gas from Oman, Iran & CAR nations to Indian ports on western coast. It will to a great extent meet India’s energy requirement so vital for her growth.
From the above it is evident that Mr Modi’s initiative to develop Chabahar would help contain Chinese and Pakistani influence in the region thus killing two birds with one stone. Nevertheless, the region is going to witness intense competition between China and India for its domination. Chabahar provides a definite strategic edge to India.
A word of caution lest we are let down. The success of Indian ambition in the region to a large extent will depend on a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. India will, therefore, have to keep reviewing its strategic options to ensure that Afghanistan is not allowed to drift away from the path of peace and development. India should be prepared to thwart any evil designs against India’s strategic interests in the region. India needs to develop the capability of ‘out of area’ intervention to protect its strategic interests. A complete sync between India’s foreign and defence policy is mandatory.