The strategic vista of Chabahar Port
THE Chabahar Port of Iran has a potential of world trade centre and a field of geopolitical competition.
India has acted as a major investor in Chabahar Port as New Delhi sees the port as a gateway to Afghan and Central Asian markets without relying on Pakistan’s land routes and to balance the growing cooperation between China and Pakistan.
At the same time, China rapidly increased its influence in Iran, seeking access to key natural resources and shipping lanes.
Tehran thinks, the port could foster new diplomatic and economic partnerships in the West. The competition between China and India for investment in this port, Iran is trying to improve its international status during this situation.
Chabahar port is therefore an important case study in both international cooperation and competition: it could spark a trade revolution in the region, but it could also increase regional rivalries as well.
Chabahar Port is located in the southeastern province of Sistan and Balochistan, Iran. The port has a series of distinctive characteristics that make it attractive both from a national and international point of view.
Located on the shores of the Indian Ocean, it is the only deep-water port in Iran with direct access to the sea.
Its geographical proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as well as its status as a major transit hub in the growing North-South International Transport Corridor, has made it one of the world’s most important commercial centers.
Chabahar is also one of the few places in Iran that is exempt from US sanctions, significantly simplifying trade with other countries.
The port also has the potential to transform trade in South and Central Asia. It proposes land trade routes which connect to Afghan and Central Asian markets.
Chabahar also has the potential to generate massive economic growth in Afghanistan, as it will facilitate the easy entry of goods from other countries into the country.
As far as Central Asian countries think that Chabahar will offer access to maritime trade routes to these landlocked countries and act as a barrier to China and Russia’s efforts to dominate trade in the region.
Thus, increasing trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries has the potential to strengthen Iran’s position internationally.
In this context, Chabahar Port is a link not only with Afghanistan and Central Asia but also with the global economic institutions of the region.
India has a long history of engagement with the Chabahar Port, as New Delhi sees the port as an opportunity to strengthen India’s position as a regional and global power.
However, India has been severely hampered in establishing land trade with the West, as practically all such routes would have to pass through India’s traditional rival Pakistan.
Establishing a maritime trade route through the port of Chabahar to West and Central Asia would allow India to ignore Pakistan and establish a trade network with the countries of these regions.
India is not the only country which has been participating in the Chabahar Port, as China has also sought to strengthen ties with Iran to secure its mineral and energy resources and gain access to beneficial Eurasian trade routes.
China’s access to the Chabahar Port will greatly benefit these targets, as China will be able to connect the port to its vast maritime trade network.
Considering China’s investment in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, another important impetus for China’s interest in the Chabahar Port would be to block India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
China has directly involved itself in the Chabahar Port project and has signed 25-year cooperation program with Iran.
China agreed to invest $400 billion in the Iranian economy in exchange for discounted oil prices.
Although the scope of Sino-Iranian interaction at the Chabahar Port is limited at the moment, there is evidence of intensification of Chinese activities with Iran, indicating that it will be a China-India competition for greater influence in the region.
The growing involvement of China and India in the Chabahar Port has sparked a debate in Iranian political circles over how to maximize this competition while minimizing the threats to Iran.
The economic and diplomatic opportunities offered by China and India may help Iran reduce its isolation and as well as the impact of sanctions.
That is why Tehran is trying to find a way to strike a strategic balance between China and India.
The Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) reflects China-Iran desire to form an alliance against Western domination because it is more active in Western affairs.
Iran could use its membership in SCO and other multilateral initiatives to decrease China and India rivalry.
However, several variables could reduce the current pace of development of Chabahar Port. The Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan has seriously reshaped plans to establish a better trade network with the country and Central Asia is a headache for India.
At the same time, the instability of the Iranian government threatens to permanently undermine Iran’s long-term ability to pursue its regional and international interests.
However, the port of Chabahar serves as a major arena for the aims of the Chinese and Indian leaderships in South and Central Asia, and they can play a significant role in Iran’s desire to improve its position internationally.
—The writer, a PhD scholar, is associated with Islamia University Bahawalpur.