Home Chabahar: India's Opportunity to Connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia

Chabahar: India's Opportunity to Connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia

Indian External Affairs Minister reiterated in a seminar in New Delhi recently that “connectivity today is central to the global process and particularly imperative for Asian growth and development”. She went on to state “connectivity is as much a driver of relationship as its outcome”. Earlier participating in the Lahore Literary festival Pakistani scholar Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre in Washington stated, “The future landscape in South Asia will have to be connectivity and interdependence”.

This is indeed ironical that both India and Afghanistan, striving for better people to people contact and trade are held hostage to a belligerent mindset and denial of connectivity through a land route which for centuries has been the traditional route from Europe and Central Asia into India. India has shown its willingness to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement but has not met with success. Post removal of sanctions on Iran, India has been offered an opportunity once again to push for the development of Chabahar port and establish connectivity with Afghanistan and further into Central Asia for the development of the International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC).

Significance of Chabahar

Chabahar is Located in South Iran in Sistan Baluchistan region, just 72 kilometers west of Gwadar being developed jointly by Pakistan and China. The port provides direct connectivity to Indian Ocean. Once fully developed, Chabahar port will give India a strategic hold and facilitate direct access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, completely bypassing the need for land route through Pakistan. This will also significantly help reduce Pakistan’s hold over Afghanistan since all its sea-based imports have to pass through Pakistan. The project will facilitate easy and faster access to Arabian Sea and South Asia for Afghanistan and Central Asian countries which are land-locked. Once the project is completed and connected by road to Afghanistan, it will help in realization of the true potential of the Zaranj-Delaram road built by India at a significant cost and grave risk and further connect it to the

1300 miles long Afghan ring road. It is envisaged to link the port by rail network to Afghanistan and fully exploit the mineral wealth of Hajigak where India has successfully bid to mine iron ore in three blocks. Another major significance of the project is its ability to further Indian ambition of developing blue water Navy by enhancing its footprints in Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman.

Economic Dimension of Chabahar

Development of Chabahar has provided an opportunity to recommence development of the INSTC crucial to India-Central Asia trade which had not seen any progress due to inability to develop land connectivity and progress on development of sea route due to economic sanctions against Iran. It is forecast that Central and South Asia will see significant economic activity in the coming decades. The current trade between India and Afghanistan is worth US $ 684 million, while with Central Asian countries the figures are, India- Kazakhstan US $ 952 million, India- Uzbekistan US $ 210 million, India- Tajikistan US $ 55 million, India- Turkmenistan US $ 105 million and India- KyrgyzstanUS $ 38 million. Compare this with the China’s trade with Central Asia which in 2013 had expanded to nearly US $ 50 billion. As is evident there is ample scope for India to enhance trade relations with Central Asian nations. Development of Chabahar port and further rail and road network will escalate economic development of the region and facilitate better connectivity. In particular it will see significant gains for Afghanistan as a transit country for the goods originating in Central Asia and vice versa, as stated by ex-Afghan President Karzai in a recent seminar. In a nutshell it is a win-win situation for all stake holders - India, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.

Indian Concerns

India has finalised a contract for development of Chabahar Port and approved credit of US $ 150 million to Iran. The statement by Gen VK Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs in Parliament, on 02 March signifies India’s commitment and urgency to execute the project at the earliest. Notwithstanding, major concerns remain with respect to its execution on ground due to a lack of clarity on sanctions against Iran, absence of a tri-partite agreement between Afghanistan-Iran-India to extend link into Afghanistan and fragile political situation within Afghanistan to commit itself to secure men and material being transported within its territory to fully exploit the potential of the project. India will also need to significantly enhance its economic commitments and bear the burden to develop the corridor since other stake holders involved are unlikely to contribute to its development. India will also need to develop the rail infrastructure, especially within Afghanistan to facilitate movement of goods. It may be of interest to know that China has committed to invest US $ 46 bn in investment and credit line in a planned way to develop China-Pakistan economic corridor, its first phase likely to be completed by December 2016, and Pakistan in turn has committed 10,000 troops to protect Chinese investment projects in the region. Latest inputs also indicate PLA raising three divisions comprising nearly 30,000 troops to protect installations being built along the corridor, ensuring their presence in PoK, which is a serious security concern for India.

Providing India a Strategic Foothold

The takeaways of developing Chabahar port from strategic view-point from Indian perspective are well known. The project will provide India much denied connectivity to enhance trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian nations bypassing Pakistan, improve bilateral trade with Iran and provide an opportunity to establish under sea connectivity for transportation of hydro carbons, currently being planned through Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. It will counter Chinese presence at Gwadar in Pakistan and muscle-flexing in Arabian Sea and restore Indian interests in Middle East.

Conclusion

India has been cautious of its initiatives in the region, faced with a hostile and aggressive onslaught by Pakistan, who has used its proxies, to constantly attack Indian diplomatic and economic interests in Afghanistan. Denial of land linkages between the two countries has prevented India from playing an active role in economic redevelopment and extending assistance to Afghanistan and expanding strategic footprints in Central Asia. It must now play a leadership role to undertake the initiative to develop Chabahar expeditiously and in a time bound manner, taking all stake holders on board.

Brig NK Bhatia, SM (Retd) was the Chief Instructor at Military Intelligence School.

References

www.mea.gov.in

www.economictimes.indiatimes.com

www.indianexpress.com

www.quora.com

www.foreignpolicy.com

www.ft.com

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Brig NK Bhatia

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