The Chabahar deal signed by India with Iran in May last year is seen by many as its strategic response to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which culminates in Gwadar. Besides deepening ties between India and Iran, Chabahar deal provides a strategic edge to India by gaining connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.


Apprehensions around Chabahar and Gwadar


Both India and Pakistan have serious concerns over Gwadar and Chabahar respectively. According to Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who served as Chief of the Indian Navy from 3 October 2006 until 31 August 2009, Gwadar Port’s closer proximity to the Strait of Hormuz could enable Pakistan to exercise control over energy routes, with serious strategic ramifications for India. On the other hand, Chabahar deal has created a perception that the Chabahar port could be used by India to keep a watch on Pakistan, which got strengthened when Prime Minister Modi, during his visit to Iran in May 2016, stated that, “We have also agreed to enhance interaction between our defence and security institutions on regional and maritime security.”


Thus, Chabahar and Gwadar have accentuated the emerging New Great Game, underway in Central Asia. This has largely limited the perception of the potential these ports can offer to the region, if coordinated and integrated well. Moreover, other emerging factors in the recent past are set to cast shadow on delaying these port projects further.


Chabahar deal got a shot in the arm after the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was reached in 2015, which helped India to pursue Chabahar development steadfastly. However, deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Iran, under the Trump administration has jeopardized India’s Chabahar port development plans. India is already feeling the pinch with Western manufacturers not showing enough confidence to supply equipment for Chabahar port, as the fear of failure looms large over their investments. The U.S. may reimpose sanctions on Iran amidst deteriorating relations with latter.


Secondly, in case of Gwadar port, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that, while Chinese investments can support the economy of a cash-strapped Pakistan, its repayment obligations that come with it would have serious ramifications. According to IMF, for Pakistan, “reaping the full potential benefits of CPEC will require forceful pro-growth and export-supporting reforms.” With Pakistan already reeling under circular debts of its power sector, dealing with repayment issues related to the CPEC is a herculean task for the country.  


Thirdly, it is the geostrategic location of Baluchistan, which accentuates the importance of both Chabahar and Gwadar and thereby provides the biggest source of geopolitical conflict. Baluchistan is of geostrategic significance, linking Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. Further, Baluchistan being rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, uranium, coal, gold, iron ore, including its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, provides enough space for regional conflict. Notably, Baluchistan, which regained its independence after British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent was invaded and annexed by Pakistan, which led to the rise of Baluch nationalism. Disproportionate sharing of economic benefits from natural resource allocation in Baluchistan had also given momentum to such nationalism. Protests against CPEC and Pakistan’s atrocities are already growing louder in Baluchistan.


SCO and China’s Prudence can Make a Difference


However, the emerging geopolitical scenario in Central Asia, particularly with respect to the expansion of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in which archrivals India and Pakistan have been inducted as full members can alter this narrative. These ports, rather than being considered rival ports could be viewed as a catalyst to regional prosperity, if all the member countries, including, China, India, Pakistan and Russia keep regional integration at the top of SCO agenda.


While China may hope India and Pakistan does not bring hostility to SCO, it is high time for China to act towards securing and respecting India’s sovereignty in taking forward its CPEC ambitions. While inaugurating OBOR, Chinese President Xi Jinping, had asked all countries to respect each other’s sovereignty. Thus, China should leave the part of disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan from its $50 billion CPEC plans.  This paradigm shift on the part of China could be a game changer for the cause of regional prosperity, while taking India-China relations to greater heights.


Further, China would do well to pay heed to the statement of Wang Yiwei, Professor, School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, who had asked China to adhere to India’s sovereignty if at all it wants India to be a part of it.  Another Chinese expert went a step ahead to advise China to halt the CPEC work in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan if it amounts to dispute. According to Zhang Yunling, a member of the presidium of the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “Any transnational projects involve concerns of different countries, we need to coordinate that to strike a balance to be acceptable to all parties. If we can’t reach that balance, maybe we can stop it for some time.”


Accommodating the views of these experts would go a long way in securing sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity of India, giving enough room to rethink about joining OBOR, thereby resetting the strategic calculations completely. This is important, given the likely induction of Iran into the SCO, to which both Russia and China have already given their consent.


The inclusion of India, Pakistan and Iran in the SCO would further nullify the rivalry of Chabahar and Gwadar ports. In fact, these prospective scenarios would push new member countries to drive their economic growth, while working cohesively towards wider SCO objectives that extend beyond the original security architecture and touch upon peace, economics, business, innovation, trade, infrastructure development, human capacity development, and physical, social, digital and human connectivity.


Iran’s SCO membership would help them in developing a natural resonance of geo-strategic interests between Russia, India and China, while serving as a geopolitical counterweight to the U.S. Besides connecting Chabahar with India and Afghanistan through road and later by rail network, this port is situated at the heart of many Central Asian Corridors as well as the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC). Referred to as ‘Golden Gate’, Chabahar deep sea port can be a connecting point to corridors such as the East-West Corridor, the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia programme, the Asia Land Transport Infrastructure Development and the South Asia Corridor (which enters Mirjaveh, Iran, on the border of Pakistan). This brings out the relevance of linking Chabahar port with Gwadar port even more.


In his remarks at Chabahar Connectivity event in Iran on 23 May 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that, “the arc of economic benefit from this agreement could extend to the depths of the Central Asian countries. When linked with the International North South Transport Corridor, it would touch South Asia at one end and Europe at another.”


The Gwadar port is located on the Gulf of Oman, near to Persian Gulf and was held by Oman until 1958. Gwadar, which is just 72 kilometers away from Chabahar was unsuccessfully offered for port development by Pakistan to the U.S. in 1973 during the President Nixon’s visit to Pakistan. Thereafter, the Port of Singapore Authority was chosen to manage Gwadar in 2007, but it decided to pull out of a 40-year port management and development contract signed in 2007, allowing China to take operational control of Gwadar, the deep-sea port.




Thus, instead of strategic planners in both India and Pakistan vehemently trumpeting their respective ports and trying to undermine each other, both the countries should proactively look at the ways and means of integrating the region in a better way to optimise the benefits economically.


On the other hand, China should strongly go by the words of its President who has cited the respect of sovereignty in any trade arrangement to flourish; otherwise India would continue to look for alternatives to counter OBOR just like it did recently by joining the United Nations TIR Convention (TIR), the international customs transit system. TIR, with the widest geographical coverage, is expected to boost INSTC and Chabahar project.


On the positive side, the SCO should look at the bigger picture, which would help member countries to take this block to a newer level, where regional integration would be as important a factor as security architecture.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “Chabahar versus Gwadar” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.