India-China Rivalry & The Chabahar Route

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The last week of May 2016 was one of the most eventful weeks which India had been waiting for. Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran, President Pranab Mukherjee made a trip to neighbouring China. It is evident from these two visits that relations with Tehran and Beijing play an important role in New Delhi’s foreign policy in the changing regional geopolitical landscape.

Despite sharing the global stage as members of different groups and blocs (like BRICS – the acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the two Asian powerhouses are engaged in a rivalry over regional supremacy.

Since the lifting of economic sanctions on the West Asian nation by the US and other Western powers, India and China have shown a great interest in investing in different Iranian projects, as they know that friendship with Tehran will help them not only secure cheaper energy imports, but also play a dominant role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond.

For Prime Minister Modi, Iran visit was an opportunity well utilised as India had to stave off the Red Dragon to ink Chabahar port agreement with Iran. When a Chinese consortium expressed interest in developing the port while visiting the Chabahar free trade zone in April, India decided to move quickly and implement its commitment fast.

The top political leadership in New Delhi was well aware of the fact that India had no other option, but to offset China’s growing influence and reach in the region (through Gwadar port in Pakistan). Beijing is heavily invested in developing the Pakistani port, of equal significance, some 100-odd km west of Chabahar as the crow flies. The Chabahar port agreement also fits into PM Modi’s plans for energy and maritime security, as it gives the South Asian country a strategic heft in the region and helps it build closer ties with both Iran and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan that has been reluctant to allow Indian goods to pass overland through its territory.

Geographically, the Chabahar port route helps connect India with energy rich Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and other Central Asian nations (in the backyard of China). This route is 40% shorter and 30% less expensive than trade via the Red Sea-Suez Canal-Mediterranean route, as Chabahar sits at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz area and connects three regions: Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia. Also, Chabahar is the only Iranian port with direct access to the IOR.

Prime Minister Modi’s two-day visit to Tehran provides a significant boost to New Delhi-Tehran ties, apart from enhancing India’s strategic depth in West Asia. His visit comes at a time when Iran’s re-emergence in world affairs after decades of isolation is forcing significant realignments in the region. The Indian premier’s outreach to Iran is in line with the latter’s growing geopolitical importance and it will certainly help pull India out of the narrow straitjacket of South Asia.

The commitments to develop the Chabahar port and connectivity within Iran and Afghanistan are significant ventures. So, New Delhi will have to ensure that they are delivered on time. It is a fact that sanctions on Iran posed a big obstacle in the past. But now they are gone and India needs to push ahead. Over the last decade, India’s foreign policy has been hobbled by its inability to deliver on promises. India’s record on delivering promised infrastructure is patchy as the experience with Nepal shows. But now, India can’t afford to let China move into vacuums it has created, as the country has moved to becoming a more active international player. However, none of the visions of connectivity and co-operation will have much value if West Asia remains locked in conflict.

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