By Aarti Bansal
‘He who controls heartland, control the entire world,’ comments Halford Mackinder. This claim legitimises the Great Game 3.0 unfolding in Eurasia. Central Asia sits at its heart. The five states comprising the Central Asian Region (CAR) shares common boundaries with a couple of other regions, including South Asia, South-East Asia, the West Asia, and Europe. The region is rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas, making it a crucial and ever-developing player in regional and global energy markets. Moreover, its location offers Strategic significance for the geopolitical interests of China, Russia, and the United States and it also enables it to emerge as a potential transport corridor for trades between Eurasia and the West Asia.
This century has unfolded numerous ways for India to emerge as a regional superpower. It is well understood fact that for acquiring stakes in Central Asian gas fields, we need stable access and unhindered connectivity to the region. It can’t do so through Pakistan. So, it looks forward to a more circuitous but feasible path via Iran’s only deep-sea port-The Chabahar port. Chabahar port consists of two-port complexes- Shaheed Beheshti and Shahid Kalantari. The port, inaugurated in 2017 is significant as a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia.
External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar described it as extremely strategic to India’s plans of doing business with the world. Though not explicitly mentioned, he indicated that it’s going to be offsetting and upsetting China’s interest in the region to a great extent. It is not only a highly potential resource for India and Iran but Chabahar port is a regional asset for central Asia. Being ideally situated, it provides sea access to the land-locked Central Asian countries. Here the mutual relationship between India and Iran and Afghanistan is crucial for the regional stakeholders. Chabahar through the International North-South transport corridor provides connectivity routes for India towards Europe and Russia. These developments have led to renewed interests in Chabahar.
What’s in store for Afghanistan
Since Independence, Pakistan refuses to give transit rights to Indians to transport their goods into Afghanistan. Thus, this port allows India an alternative route from Iran into Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan, where India has landed quite a few lucrative deals. It enables India, a sea-land access route to Afghanistan and Central Asia – an energy-rich region that is very appealing to energy-starved India. Chabahar holds tremendous potential to be a way station for energy imports coming from the Gulf region, Afghanistan will be able to better connect with markets in the West Asia and Europe.
It’s an economic bonanza for a war trodden economy like that of Afghanistan which is a mineral-rich country. Its total mineral wealth amounts between US$1-3 trillion according to the US Geological Survey. These resources remain untapped largely due to a lack of connectivity.
The only way to ensure victory in this Graveyard of Empire lies in Economics, connectivity, and resulting security. In effect, Afghan trade volumes could soar exponentially, as Afghanistan would be able to more easily ship goods to key markets in Europe and the West Asia and vice versa. This could all in turn make investors and donors more comfortable about providing financing to Afghanistan, and in turn, boost reconstruction projects in a country that is still in great need of them. This port unleashes a plethora of opportunities to build a modern economy in impoverished Afghanistan. This connectivity brings two new players to the game – India and Iran- sharing civilizational links – emerging as a strategic partner.
India and Iran share entangled relationships. On the one hand, they have been cordial enough to sustain a very deep energy relationship, but at the same time, it bears strains owing to Indo-US relations. India has tremendous stakes in Iranian oil, although we’ve reduced its intake due to US sanctions, but the changing regime in the US brings us hopes towards a more balanced policy pursuit towards Iran. Since Biden has promised to offer Iran a credible path back to diplomacy. Thus, if the US and Iran reach a final nuclear deal, this tension point in India-Iran ties may well be defused.
In May 2016 India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed the trilateral agreement which entailed the construction of a rail line from Chabahar port to Zahedan in Iran and go further to Zarang in Afghanistan as an alternate trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. State-owned Indian Railways Construction Ltd (IRCON) signed an MoU with the Iranian Rail Ministry and promised to provide all services, superstructure work, and financing around US$1.6 billion.
But four years down the line, India was dropped out of this great railway games project on the charges of delayed funding. But India had its share of apprehensions, including US sanctions and Comprehensive Plan for Cooperation between China and Iran which gives China access to the duty-free zone in Chabahar. It was a huge roadblock in India’s ambitions in Central Asia. India’s loss is China’s gain. Both Iran and China have a common enemy- the United States. This development came at a time when China finalised a US$400 billion deal with Iran. And it gets to poison one more of India’s allies. Chabahar’s loss is also Gwadar’s gain.
However, India has just been sidelined from the railway construction project. It can’t let an easy go of the port. It is making mammoth investments in the ‘STANS’. India-Uzbekistan recently conducted a virtual summit in December 2020. Uzbekistan contains ample resources such as gold, oil, coal, gas, and uranium in abundance. India had already made a huge strategic breakthrough in ties with Uzbekistan in 2019 when India agreed to import Uranium for its nuclear power plants.
As per Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reports, New Delhi and Tashkent signed an MoU where the Indian side confirmed the approval of US$448 million of Line of Credit thereby checkmating the Iran-China deal. Both sides reiterated their continued commitment to enhancing connectivity between India and Uzbekistan and in the larger central Asian region to bolster trade and investment. India accepted the proposal to hold a trilateral dialogue between India, Iran, and Uzbekistan to promote connectivity through Chabahar. India also emphasised Uzbekistan to join the International north-south transport corridor for the overall improvement of connectivity in Eurasia.
India’s access to the port not just sidestepped Pakistan but was also set to counterbalance the Chinese controlled Gwadar port which is just 72 km far from the Chabahar. This strategic façade looks, even more, brighter while looking down the coastline at the China-built Gwadar port in Pakistan. The two harbours are barely at a distance of 72 km. But there is a difference between the two and the objective behind the two benefactor countries. China looks at it as a gateway into the Arabian Sea as a part of its maritime silk route. Gwadar offers the ability to carry greater tonnage of cargo through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Chabahar, on the other hand, is supposed to give India strategic land access to Afghanistan and CAR. However, Iranians have time and again reiterated that Chabahar and Gwadar are not in competition but both are ‘sister ports.’ Apart from offering strategic benefits and economic and trade linkages, it also exposes India to the murky politics of the region. When both harbours will be fully functional, it could increase competition and tension between shipping companies in the region.” Thus, the strong Chabahar key is destined to unlock the loggerheads to aid India to checkmate China’s global aggression competitively.
Pakistan is wary of the ‘existential threat’ usurping from India’s presence on its west, which could kick Pakistan into insignificance out of this great game. This port is set to demolish all the blockades set up by Pakistan to render useless all the connectivity measures pursued by regional neighbours. It juxtaposes China’s string of pearls in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It spelled out a potential to circumvent Chinese encirclement on India’s western flank.
The Way Forward
The prospects related to Chabahar are not only ambitious but very crucial to where India wants to stand tomorrow. A major challenge confronting India is Iran’s growing proximity with China since Iran is cash strapped country owing to sanctions put by the US. It made Iran vulnerable to easily fall into the hands of China. And as stressed by some experts in Iran, India’s lacklustre enthusiasm in the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan rail line may push it closer to China. Close geographical proximity to Gwadar where the Chinese military is stationed may further stimulate the tensions between India and the two recalcitrant neighbours.
Thus, balancing relations in the region is the way forward for India. The strategic location of Iran lying in the close vicinity of the Gulf is crucial for every stakeholder in the region. Strategic congruence and coordination are thus highly crucial with the changing regime in the US. India should also look beyond its regional interests and make Chabahar a multi-nation connectivity project to build a better counter-strategy to China’s BRI. India should also diversify its energy alternatives and must tap the potential within its boundaries.
Thus, West Asia is all the more set to test India’s diplomatic and maritime capabilities over the course of this decade and more to come. The juggling of central Asia had complex diplomatic and geopolitical intricacies that India is supposed to sail through. Terrorism and energy security are some of the other roadblocks, need to be tackled for stability in these manoeuvres. India must try to fulfill its commitment before or at least on time to keep pace with the growing complexities of the geopolitical situation.
-The writer is a student of Political Science in the University of Delhi. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda