“The historic event unfolded when Chabahar Port in Iran’s Sastan-Baluchistan province was inaugurated with buzz and fanfare. The port is developed by India with support from Iran and Afghanistan. The landlocked Afghanistan exclusively depended and heavily relied on the mercy of Pakistan for its trade with India. The road link passed through Pakistan, which used to close down the link at its sole will, while truckloads of goods, from and to Afghanistan, queued up for indefinite time.”
Before official inauguration of the Chabahar Port, India has sent its first consignment of 1.1 lakh tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan in October 2017. Pakistan had blocked Indian wheat consignment In 2002 through land route at the time when Afghanistan badly needed it. The USA was engaged in a bloody war on terror in Afghanistan, then, post 9/11 attacks by Osama. Thus, new port would effectively bypass Pakistan and it would facilitate seamless flow of Indian goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia without caring for Pakistan’s stand.
The inauguration of the Chabahar port marked first phase of port development with 2.5 million tonnes per annum handling capacity. The port, once completed, it can handle about 80 million tonnes of freight per annum. With such huge capacity India can take its trade as well as bilateral relations with both Iran and Afghanistan to the place where no one could have imagined.
The beginning of the Project Chabahar:
Indians were desperately searching for alternative route for Afghanistan, where India has huge commitments to fulfil as one of the biggest aid partner of war torn country. After 1999 Kargil war, which experienced all time low in India- Pakistan bilateral relations; Indians couldn’t rely on land link to Afghanistan passing through Pakistan. In the quest for all weather supply route to Afghanistan, India zeroed in on Chabahar, which was best bait for both, at the time when Iran was experiencing US led embargo and facing isolation from international community for its controversial nuclear program. India was its prominent buyer of petrochemical products and US was not in mood to oppose Indians from cosying up with Iran for the reason that Indians were lending credible help to USA in stabilizing Afghanistan post 9/11 war.
India under visionary PM Vajpeyee, jumped the bus and in 2002 when Indian NSA Brajesh Mishra opened discussion with then Iranian NSA Hassan Rouhani on various bilateral projects including Chabahar Port. Later in 2003, when Iranian president Khatami visited India as chief guest for Republic Day, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr Khatami formally signed plethora of deals including high value strategic agreement to develop Chabahar Port.
Taliban and Ahmad Shah Massoud Angle
Iran and India, both, during Taliban rule in Afghanistan, were opposing radical Islamist regime of Taliban and at the same time both were helping Northern Alliance (Shumali Ittehad) Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud from Panjashir valley, who was fighting Taliban single handed. The Chabahar deal was of great help for both in this regard, to open reliable supply line and to increase footprint in Afghanistan.
Chabahar Vis-a-Vis Gwadar
China is aggressively developing Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Baluchistan region under ambitious CPEC- China Pakistan Economic Corridor Project, which is part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese have pumped funds in getting it functional as early as possible. Once CPEC becomes fully operational, it would end China’s dependence on Malacca strait for its vital crude oil supply. Malacca is vulnerable spot for China in case of military hostility, as Indian and US navies can squeeze Chinese oil supply bringing her economy to the knees.
Thus, development of Chabahar and Indian presence at the post in a close vicinity of Gwadar would scuttle any move by China to suffocate Indian merchant vessels heading towards India fearing reprisal and tit for tat action by Indians around Strait of Hormuz. Though this doesn’t mean Indians should be complacent and we must develop deep strategic partnership with all major Central Asian nations to thwart Chinese neo colonial designs in the region. The Delaram- Zaranj highway connecting Chabahar to Afghanistan could play vital role in executing the dream.
Another aspect of the project is utilizing it in countering Chinese designs against India. China is effectively dragging India’s neighbours under its field of influence and carefully encircling us since last few years. For the first time India has achieved something to rejoice as it can establish foothold in the region where China is also striving hard.
North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)
Once Chabahar starts functioning to its optimum capacity planed by both countries, it would open up unbelievable opportunities for India in the direction envisioned in year 2000 between India-Iran-Russia, which is termed as North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). For INSTC to optimally function, Chabahar is the key asset, as it is located strategically, connecting sea lane to SE Asian sea route passing through Arabian Sea on one side and opening up gates of Strait of Hormuz in Persian Gulf on another. It will further reach to Caspian Sea via Iran by road, straightway connecting Europe and Russia to Indian consignments. The geographical reach is immense and trade potential on this corridor is tremendous.
Chabahar and Trump’s new South Asia Policy
In August last year US President Donald trump declared his new South Asia Policy. It was Afghanistan centric. In his speech Trump openly called for increased participation of India in Afghanistan and lavishly praised India for its role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Trump’s surprising bold statements favouring India set off volleys of reactions from Pakistan which always blames Afghan agency NDS and Indian oversees intelligence agency RAW for terror strikes on its soil.
Pakistan, through its proxies in Afghanistan’s restive tribal areas under control of Haqqani Network and Taliban has always tried its best to disturb Indian interests in the country and dealt repeated blows to Indian presence. In 2008 Haqqani Network suicide bomber attacked Kabul Indian Embassy killing Indian military attaché Brigadier Ravi Dutt Mehta.
The situation in Afghanistan is still very much volatile with Haqqanis and Taliban successfully targeting Afghan government offices, police academies, Shias and security forces. In the year 2016 alone hundreds of Afghans lost their lives in waves of bloody attacks. Americans overtly and covertly pursuing Indian leaders to deploy troops in the country to assist US troops but India is, so far, firm on “No Boots in Afghanistan” policy. Still India wants to establish firm foothold in the war-ravaged country and help US in rebuilding it. Pakistan is vehemently opposing India’s growing clout and it won’t allow to use land route connecting Afghanistan to India only to witness soaring Indian fortunes in its western neighbour. At this important juncture Indians have viable, reliable, all weather route of Chabahar- Delaram- Zaranj to maintain Indian projects and necessary supplies in Afghanistan without any hindrance.
More-over there were numerous incidences in the past when US and NATO supply convoys carrying crucial fuel and other material came under heavy attacks within Pakistan. Following these attacks, there were tensions in US-Pakistan relations. Though Iran won’t allow passage to any material which could help US troops in Afghanistan, US can rely on Indian trade and material reaching to Afghanistan to replenish and maintain its forces engaged in anti-terrorism operations with viable non-military supplies pouring in from India.
Afghanistan- India Trade
As Afghanistan is landlocked nation; India- Afghanistan trade was limited to just $300 million, which gradually increased to $700 million in recent years. Both countries have explored huge business opportunities which could hit $10 billion mark provided regular, speedy and reliable supply is ensured. Chabahar is gamechanger in this regard. With decades of bloody war and no business -friendly atmosphere in the absence of quality infrastructure and security related issues, Afghanistan is craving for market which could help its farmers and traders to sell their goods on regular basis. India- Afghanistan Air corridor didn’t fulfil expectations due to its cost and irregular schedules and newly opened port is in a position to fill the lacunae.
“ As per the MoU signed between India and Iran in May 2016. India is to equip and operate two berths in Chabahar Port Phase-I with capital investment of USD 85.21 million and annual revenue expenditure of USD 22.95 million on a 10-year lease.
Ownership of the equipment will be transferred to the Iranian side on completion of 10 years or for an extended period, based on mutual agreement. The Iranian side had requested for provision of a credit of USD 150 million in accordance with the Mou. By gradually increasing capacity, Chabahar Port will open markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia to Indian products while bypassing Pakistan. The current capacity of the harbor after the expansion is reported to be 8.5 million tons of cargo annually.”
Farkhor Air Base and Ayni Base
During Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a military hospital in Ayni in Tajikistan was set up by India, which lend medical help to wounded fighters of Sher-e-Panjashir Ahmad Shah Massoud of Northern Alliance. Later India repaired and refurbished Farkhor Airbase, earlier used by Russians. During Modi’s visit to Tajikistan, there was news in various media outlets regarding possible agreement between India and Tajikistan to establish full-fledged Indian military base either in Farkhor or Ayni but no official statement was made from both countries on this issue. Neither anyone expects the statements on such issues of military presence in the country which could spark diplomatic row. Media kept guessing on the issue only to draw no conclusion at last. But once Chabahar is fully operational, India would be in a position to ramp up her military presence in Tajikistan if they want india to do that.
With growing Chinese trade, diplomatic and military footprint in the region, India may think upon officially deploying its troops in Central Asian nations to ramp up pressure on China and Pakistan and to monitor their activities in Afghanistan.
“Bypass to Central Asian Markets for India
India is to equip and operate two berths in Chabahar Port Phase-I with a capital investment of $85 million (Rs 546 crore) and annual revenue expenditure of $23 million (Rs 147 crore) on a 10-year lease. This will establish a Transit and Transport Corridor among the three countries using Chabahar Port as one of the regional hubs for sea transportation in Iran, besides multi-modal transport of goods and passengers across the three nations. The port is expected to be operational by the end of 2018 with New Delhi committed to developing a free trade area around the port, and finally completing the loop with a $1.6 billion (Rs 10,000 crore) railway line to Zahedan.
The port, whose new extension will take its capacity from 2.5 million tonnes to 8 million tonnes of cargo a year, is seen as an important route for India and Afghanistan to bypass obstacles posed by Pakistan for trade on the direct route.
It is also seen as a feeder port to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Russia as well as land route to Central Asia. It is also seen as a rival to the Chinese-built Gwadar port off Pakistan, about 80 km away, which is a critical link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.”
Alternative to Chinese Debt Trap Model
Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is moving fast in Asia, with newly developed roads and other infrastructure. After inauguration of the first phase of Chabahar, India won’t afford to sit idle, to lose to China. India must deploy best efforts to achieve full development of the port and necessary road infrastructure in the region as the project is already lagging behind due to US-Iran tensions and redtapeism from Indian side. If everything gets completed with fast pace, many countries would come forward to get participated with Indian connectivity initiatives.
Sri Lanka handed over its Hambantota port to China after failing to repay infra loans. Nepal and Pakistan are also very much disturbed due to stringent credit lending conditions and high interest rates from China. Every nation viewing Chinese BRI initiative with skepticism and many prominent newspapers, writers and economists have started raising concerns about Neo Colonial approach of China and their one way trade favoring Chinese traders using BRI initiatives.
Thus, carefully executed, efficiently operated and mutually beneficial implementation of Chabahar Port and Afghanistan road link would set an example for all nations in Asia and those craving for infrastructure and trade development would opt for Indians rather than falling to Chinese debt trap.
It would be best, positive and long lasting option for projection of India’s soft power in Asia, needless to say most worrisome and disturbing thing for China.
Learning the lessons from its botched projects in Myanmar, marred by pathetic bureaucratic hurdles India must evolve mechanism to avoid delay in execution of such projects where India’s trade interest are involved and Indian prestige is at stake. If India could set an example post-Chabahar and establish itself as non-exploitative, non-predatory business partner in developing joint ventures like Chabahar, Indians can easily outcast China’s BRI establishing itself as most trusted power in Asia.