Virendra Sahai Verma, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.
India-Pakistan rivalry in Baluchistan-Iran coast line is hotting up to become a new nerve centre of geopolitics with direct involvement of US and China. Pakistan’s media is flush with hailing China’s promised investment of US$46 billion for China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a game changer which will make Pakistan as the ‘next Asian Tiger’. The coast line sits at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz and 17 billion barrels of crude oil pass through from here every day. It connects central Asia, south Asia and west Asia.
The Chinese President’s signing of 51 MOUs during his visit to Pakistan in 2015 covers a number of sectors but major investment of US$46 billion would be for CPEC with focus on development of Gwadar and its connectivity. Pakistan is going overboard with praise to China for CPEC which will certainly boost development and provide employment to scores of people especially to unskilled labour in the backward region of Pakistan. It serves major strategic and economic interest of China. As a part of ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative, the road from Kashgar in China to Gwadar would provide direct access to Persian Gulf oil for starving western region of China besides huge strategic and economic returns. In Pakistan, US$46 billion investment is being compared to US$5 billion investment made by USA in Pakistan in the period 2009-15. It is also being contrasted with announcement by Chinese President of investment of only US$20 billion to India during the same visit.
India has deep interest to keep a balance in strategic Baluchistan-Iran coast line region and needs to develop even closer ties with Iran and Afghanistan. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Iran in first week of June and later to USA is significant in view of recent developments in Chabahar and Gwadar. India has already committed US$500 million to develop Chabahar port in Iran, some 100 km crow fly distance towards west from Gwadar, after USA has lifted sanctions. Gwadar is a deep and a natural port. Chabahar is not as well placed, would require dredging and is to be built up. Chabahar would provide connectivity to central Asian republics through Iran. India in 2009 had built 215 km long link road from Delaram in western Afghanistan to Zaranj on Iran Afghanistan border to link with Chabahar port. India is also investing in building a railway line to Afghanistan through Iran. India and Iran would contribute to peace and stability in Afghanistan by developing trade and transit routes along the border. At the same time, China is giving high priority to Iran and Arab states due to her energy needs and as a part of ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative would also want strategic presence in Iran. India is better placed in Iran due to historic and civilization ties. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that his country was rich in energy while India has “rich minds.” Prime Minister Modi also stated that India and Iran “share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity.”
Prime Minister Modi has signed Joint Strategic Vision with President Obama. India would need close cooperation of USA, Japan and Iran in its bid to challenge game changing ventures at Gwadar by China. Indian Navy is participating in annual Malabar exercises with USA and Japan as permanent partners. Concerned with the 2015 exercise in Bay of Bengal, China is cultivating naval interests in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Pakistan is well acknowledged as an epicentre of terrorism but USA was so far reluctant of taking action. Recently and probably in unusual sequence of events, USA made US$600 million aid to Pakistan conditional on latter taking action against Haqqani network causing casualties to US troops. US Congress blocked eight F-16 aircrafts sale to Pakistan. On 28 May US military drone killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, an Afghanistan Taliban leader.
Taking advantage of these developments which are favourable for India’s quest to counter Gwadar, India should take immediate action to firm up the commitment to develop Chabahar port which would include availability of credit for the contract and raw materials. The first phase of the port would involve development of two terminals and five berths which has to be done within time lines.