Multiple considerations drive New Delhi’s Chabahar port project

By Qian Feng Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-25 0:48:01

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his two-day visit to Iran on Monday. What tops Modi's list is energy cooperation as well as an agreement between India and Iran on developing the Chabahar port, about 74 kilometers from Pakistan's Gwadar seaport which China is developing as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Some Indian media are claiming that the Chabahar project is aimed at countering the CPEC. However, such claims highly exaggerate and mistakenly interpret the true purpose of Modi's visit.

As an important country in West Asia and the Persian Gulf region, Iran has long maintained a friendly relationship with India.

Even when Iran was on the target of heavy sanctions by the US, India had withstood pressure and continued the bilateral cooperation with Iran. New Delhi's Iran policy was once one of the barriers in the US-Indian relationship.

But nowadays Tehran has reached reconciliation with the West over the nuclear issue. Given the warming Iranian-West relations, India now has no qualms.

It hopes to continue to cement the traditional friendship with Iran, expanding its regional clout as a major South Asian power.

India, lacking in oil and gas resources, is a major global energy importer, while Iran, with gigantic oil and gas reserves, is well-positioned to supply India's needs. Chabahar is the sole Iranian port located in the Indian Ocean, and is of particular importance to Iran's oil and gas exports. Transporting oil and gas to India from this port will further reduce transportation costs. This provides common ground for India and Iran to cooperate.

In fact, India has been engaged in the construction of the Chabahar port for a few years, long prior to China's participation in the Gwadar project. India hopes it will bypass Pakistan to open up access to Afghanistan and Central Asia using this port.

Afghanistan is one of the areas hit hardest by terrorist violence.

In India's view, Afghanistan now is in a complicated and subtle period given the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops, and the country's future development will not only affect India's security interests, but the massive investment in and assistance offered to Afghanistan over the past decade.

Linking up Iran and Afghanistan through the Chabahar port will help reduce Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistan's trade and transit routes, increasing Afghanistan's strategic reliance on India and India's influence on Afghanistan. Advancing northward from Afghanistan, India could bypass Pakistan to open up land access to the Central Asian countries.

Both the Chabahar and Gwadar ports are strategic footholds in the northern Indian Ocean. Undeniably, the speeded-up development of the CPEC worsens India's anxieties. India does have the intention to hedge against the CPEC using the Chabahar project. But it's not the main reason to develop the port. 

China has also invested greatly in setting up the Chabahar port free trade area and particularly participated in the construction of an oil city adjacent to the port, with flourishing grass-roots trade with the locals. The Iranian government has publicly welcomed all countries including China and India to invest in the Chabahar port.

The China-India relationship has maintained a positive momentum in recent years and could be said to be at its best point in half a century. Neither the government nor media in each country should view the cooperation of the other side with a third party in a zero-sum context.

The author is a councilor of the Chinese Association for South Asian Studies.

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