China, the world’s second largest economy, thinks that India may soon challenge its supremacy not only in Asia but also in the world arena. Hence it encircles India through a ‘string of pearls’, a term used for a network of Chinese military and commercial installations spread from China to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. Besides encircling India, China also assists and instigates Pakistan to carry out hostile activities against India.
In view of the Chinese-Pakistan axis, Indian policy planners in 2015 signed an agreement with Iran to develop Chabahar port. It is a trilateral contract between India, Iran and Afghanistan. China is also developing Gwadar Port in Pakistan which is just 400 km by road and 78 km by sea. Chabahar has two ports, namely Shahid Kalantari and Shahid Beheshti. Both ports have five berths each. Chabahar port is situated on the Gulf of Oman and at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, giving Iran direct access to Indian Ocean.
Chabahar Port is labelled the “Golden Gate” as it gives easy access to landlocked countries like Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the ocean. Chabahar port will also enhance India’s access to Iran, now the main gateway to Russia, Europe and Central Asia. Chabahar is also an important intersection of shipping and oil trade routes.
The port is strategic for India as it will sidestep Pakistan, allowing India to supply goods directly to Afghanistan. India can send more humanitarian assistance as the Zaranj – Delaram road, constructed by India in 2009, can be linked with the garland highway which will give access to Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, four prominent cities of war-torn Afghanistan. Islamabad has, in the past, prevented India from sending goods to Afghanistan via Pakistan. Chabahar port will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Karachi port and will reduce Islamabad’s economic influence on Kabul. Western countries can also use Chabahar port to send supplies to Afghanistan and other landlocked Central Asian countries.
October 29, 2017 was a historic day as the first shipment from India to Afghanistan was sent via Chabahar port. Kabul exported its first shipment to India through Chabahar on February 24, 2019. Pakistan’s economy will be adversely affected because of direct trade between India and Afghanistan.
India can also counter Chinese influence in the Arabian Sea, which it seeks to increase through the Gwadar port. Chabahar port will reduce the cost of oil imports and will help India’s trade in iron ore, rice and sugar. The cost of importing uranium from Kazakhstan will also be reduced.
Chabahar is a principal city in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province. It is adjacent to Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan. Although India, as a policy, does not assist secessionist outfits of other countries, it will remain a potential threat to Pakistan. In the late 1990s Iran, India and Russia assisted the Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-supported Taliban in Afghanistan.
India is constructing a railway line between Chabahar and Zahedan on the Iran-Afghanistan border. The railway link will further strengthen Indian trade relations with Iran and Afghanistan.
The Taliban have indicated that they have no problems with India and Iran and both countries can work in the economic progress of Afghanistan. Taliban also appreciates India’s consistent refusal to send troops to Afghanistan. However, if the Taliban comes to power, they are likely to choose Pakistan and China over India because of strategic reasons.
Pakistan, which always says India has no role to play in Afghanistan, will certainly push the Taliban to oust India from Afghanistan. President Donald Trump, because of internal pressures, wants to withdraw from Afghanistan at the earliest and peace talks between the USA and Taliban leaders are on in full swing. The possibility of the Taliban assuming power cannot be ruled out.
Western countries have placed stringent sanctions on Iran once USA pulled out of the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But Washington, in view of the importance of Chabahar and India’s involvement there, has exempted Indian firms from sanctions. India is among the eight countries temporarily exempted from oil sanctions against Iran.
The Chabahar agreement is beneficial to India, Iran and Afghanistan. It is of economic as well as of strategical importance. Tehran has declared Chabahar as a free-trade zone, which will enhance its economic and strategic importance in global trade. Iran is among India’s largest oil suppliers.
Pakistan considers the joint project of India, Afghanistan and Iran as a security threat while independent analysts claim that it only indicates Pakistan’s isolation. Although Chabahar port is a win-win project for the three signatories, it is not directed against Pakistan or Gwadar port. Both Gwadar and Chabahar ports could work together as Gwadar is a deep-sea port; hence larger vessels can go to Gwadar and goods can be transported from Gwadar to Chabahar.