Chabahar anchor to counter China's 'String of Pearls'

Chabahar anchor to counter  China

Monish Tourangbam Significant signals vis-� -vis the contours of India's foreign policy emitted from Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid's trip to...

Monish Tourangbam

Significant signals vis-� -vis the contours of India's foreign policy emitted from Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid's trip to Tehran for the 17th session of the India-Iran Joint Commission recently. Notwithstanding clouds of corruption scandals hanging like a razor's edge on UPA's jugular and election fever gripping the central government, the Tehran mission did well to the country on three scores.

One, reaffirm India's practice of the much-mentioned 'strategic autonomy' that allows New Delhi to strengthen its emerging tactical partnership with the US and yet continue and build on its relationship with Tehran. Two, recognise and construct mechanisms for a near-term future in Afghanistan where India needs to safeguard its own investments and contribute towards a stable and economically viable war-torn country in the midst of the graduated drawdown of US forces there. Three, respond to China's takeover of the significantly- positioned Pakistani port Gwadar.

Importantly, New Delhi managed to send these messages across, with the reiteration of India's resolve to continue to significantly contribute towards the building of the Chabahar port in South-Eastern Iran. And, as Tehran and Islamabad signalled their intent to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, previously touted as the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, New Delhi had to play its Iran card where it could.

Pertinently, pursuant to a media report, South Block officials pointed out that investment in port infrastructure was among the identified areas that would not attract US sanctions. Located about 70 kilometres from the Gwadar port in South-Western Pakistan (where the Chinese have moved in with heavy investments), the Chabahar port is seen as India's potential counter ploy to any Sino-Pakistan alliance in the maritime domain.

Undeniably, Gwadar would provide Beijing a significant foothold on the edge of the Arabian Sea, not far from the Strait of Hormuz, a major route for the world's energy transport and a major bargaining chip for the Iranians when it comes to negotiating with Western powers. Indeed, even the Iranians would be wary of increasing Chinese footprints close to Middle East waters.

There is no gainsaying the Chinese moves in the Arabian Sea and its involvement in the Gwadar port are seen as part of a larger geo-strategic move to encircle India by strategically located Chinese developed ports (popularly termed the 'string of pearls' strategy) that could serve as potential bases for the Chinese Navy in future.

Consequently, India has a sustained interest in the Chabahar port facility, especially in the present circumstances where it is only the way, through which Indian goods could reach Afghanistan via Iran, bypassing Pakistan which has not allowed in-land transport and trade from India to Afghanistan. And, given the circumstances, it is unlikely to do so.

Remember, India used the Chabahar port for the first time to transport 100,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan as part of its humanitarian aid to the war-torn country in early 2012.

Besides, the Chabahar port is connected to the Iran-Afghanistan border through a series of roads built by the Iranians. From there, goods can be transported by road to South-Western Afghanistan's Zaranj city through the Delaram-Zaranj highway (Route 606) that India helped construct. New Delhi has also shown interest in building a 900-km railway linking Chabahar to Hajigak, Bamiyan province in Central Afghanistan, where an Indian public-private companies consortium has won rights for mining huge iron ore deposits.

Additionally, future Indian investments in Chabahar's container terminal project and the Chabahar Free Trade and Industrial Zone (an area of around 140 sq km that is carved into 9 functional zones) were also explored during Khurshid's visit. Alongside, Indian and Iranian officials discussed the possibility of establishing a 12-lakh-tonne urea plant in Chabahar.

Notably, New Delhi, Kabul and Tehran have shared interests in instituting mechanisms by which large scale economic investments and infrastructure in Afghanistan could be secured. India and Iran have a common objective in not wanting a completely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. India has concurrent interests with the US regarding Afghanistan's stability. In fact, other than New Delhi's massive civilian assistance funding, another example is the US-sponsored New Silk Road Strategy, a major component of which is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

It is no secret that of late India-Iran ties have been strained as a consequence of the latter's tumultuous relationship with the US wherein, the Tehran factor imposes equal constraints on New Delhi-Washington relations.

But, at the end, it is easy to discern that Iranians and Indians, despite India voting against the Iranian nuclear programme at the UN, do converge on a number of sub-sets. These flow purely out of mutual interests, based on the merits of each case. Thus, the Chabahar port facility and other initiatives aimed at continuing energy transactions are decisions that stem out of interest-based policy-making.

Ably spelt out by Khurshid in Tehran, "The convergence of views between India and Iran goes beyond the ambit of bilateral relations and extends to the regional and international arena. The Chabahar port project is one such area which reflects our commitment to the stability and peace in Afghanistan."


(The writer is Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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