Dueling ports underline China-India rivalry

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A Pakistani soldier looks on during the opening of a trade project at the China-backed Gwadar port on November 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/ Aamir Qureshi

India’s eagerness to develop Iran’s southern Chabahar port project has irked certain military circles in Pakistan which view the facility as a potential security threat that aims to economically isolate their country.

India has intensified its efforts to commission the Chabahar port in the strategic Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran within 12 to 18 months, as envisaged by a tripartite memorandum of understanding signed last year by India, Iran and Afghanistan.

Nitin Gadkari, India’s minister for transport, highways and shipping, said in Tehran on August 5 that the Chabahar port will start operations by the end of next year. Gadkari’s visit to Tehran was aimed at accelerating work on the project as he finalized tenders for the installation of key equipment and infrastructure.

“Civil construction work has started and we have finalized tenders worth 3.8 billion rupees (US$59.7 million) for equipment out of 6 billion rupees (US$94 million) and once the port becomes operational it will be a growth engine [for the region],” the minister said.

India has pledged investment worth US$500 million for the development of a Transport and Transit Corridor at Chabahar, situated less than 100 kilometers from Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

Gwadar is being built with Chinese investment under the US$46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, part of Beijing’s wider US$1 trillion One Belt One Road infrastructure-building scheme.

China's route through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Image: Agence France-Presse

China’s route through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Image: Agence France-Presse

New Delhi has already spent US$100 million on building a 220-kilometer road in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, which will be extended to Chabahar as a land route for the transport goods.

Unlike CPEC, which is viewed by many analysts as an economic “game changer” for the region in terms of trade and shipping, the Chabahar project has raised suspicions in Pakistan about the three participants’ intentions with a competing major port.

Although the military hierarchy in Islamabad has refrained from making a direct comment on the strategic trade and investment project, which will link India with Iran while bypassing its immediate neighbor Pakistan, at least two former defense secretaries have insisted the envisioned trade route is a “security threat” to Pakistan.

The former defense secretaries’ comments were made just a week after the agreement for the trade route was signed and mirrored the military establishment’s view of the Chabahar port project.

A handout picture provided by the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on May 23, 2016 shows him (L) arriving for a press briefing with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after signing a three-way transit agreement on Iran's southern port of Chabahar, at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran.The accord, which calls for joint investments, will significantly boost the role of the undertapped port of Chabahar, connecting Iran through India and Afghanistan to central Asia, the Iranian presidency said on its website. / AFP PHOTO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / Handout / == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C) after signing a three-way transit agreement on Iran’s southern port of Chabahar in Tehran on May 23, 2016. Photo: AFP

Speaking at a seminar last year, former defense secretary retired Lt-Gen Asif Yasin Malik said: “The alliance between India, Afghanistan, and Iran is a security threat to Pakistan”, adding that the gathering links between the three states threatened to isolate Pakistan.

At the same event, retired Lt-Gen Nadeem Lodhi was quoted saying the existence of such a “formidable bloc” in the region had “ominous and far reaching implications” for Pakistan.

The three-nation bloc, he feared, will affect Pakistan’s plans for “regional economic integration, restoration of internal peace and maintenance of peaceful borders.” He suggested breaking out of this encircling move with “Chinese influence.”

Iranian diplomats have consistently dispelled Islamabad’s apprehensions, saying that the project does not aim to rival Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

Fishing boats are moored in the southern Iranian port city of Chabahar on May 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE / AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE

Fishing boats moored in the southern Iranian port city of Chabahar in a May 14, 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Mehdi Honardoost, Iran’s ambassador in Islamabad, assured the Pakistanis that its cooperation with India and Afghanistan was not aimed against Pakistan.

He has previously said that after 37 years of “unfair” sanctions, Chabahar represents a “window of international cooperation” for his country. In May, he even invited Pakistan and China to join the initiative.

While Iran has taken a conciliatory line, Afghanistan has been more blunt and vocal against the criticism.

“Why are we so concerned that [Pakistan] can block two great nations [India-Afghanistan] from trade? Let’s organize it then, let’s put the logistics in place to end the monopoly,” Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani said in India last year.

Strategic analysts note that both India and China are striving to secure port facilities in the India Ocean in a budding power contest in the strategic waterway.

As China still lacks a viable land link to the Indian Ocean, it has recently invested heavily in ports and other facilities in coastal nations such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan, a maritime strategy often referred to as “string of pearls.”

As India is strongly averse to China’s rising presence and influence in the Indian Ocean, including through its investment in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, among others, Pakistani security circles may soon have cause to worry as India enters the Gulf region via a new ally in Iran.

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