Chabahar Port as a Double-edged Sword: Will Chabahar Intensify Rivalry between India and China?

Dalileh Rahimi Ashtiani
December 2018

Iran's Chabahar port and Pakistan’s Gwadar port may not be known to all people in Iran and Pakistan. Perhaps the name of Chabahar will bring to mind a small lonely port on the easternmost corner of southern Iran. On the other hand, perhaps what people of Pakistan have in mind of Gwadar port is no more than a small fishing port. However, such images held water only until the time when these two ports had not drawn attention from big and, of course, rival regional powers; that is, India and China. Now, these two ports are on course to turn into a connecting point, which can get those big powers closer to their development goals. In the past, Gwadar and Chabahar were two small fishing ports located at a distance of 104 kilometers from each other. Now, however, through the presence of these two regional economic superpowers, they are in the process of turning into two major economic rivals. In the meantime, the main concern for Iran is how to regulate its policies under these circumstances in a way to meet its interests in these two strategic ports?
The strategic rivalry, mostly on the economic and military fronts, which existed between India and China in past years, is still on the rise. In the meantime, China’s economic outlook as an emerging power has changed. While that outlook was mostly terrestrial in the past, at the present time, Beijing is trying to develop maritime routes and pay more attention to marine routes. One of the efforts made by China to develop its influence in the high seas is aimed at facilitating marine access in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. To do this, China has come up with a strategy, which is called the “string of pearls” strategy. In fact, the string of pearls strategy is made up of a chain of commercial facilities and military bases of China, which are located along marine routes of the country. They start from the Chinese port city of Hong Kong and continue up to the port of Sudan in the Red Sea.
China is determined in cooperation with Pakistan to circumvent India through Gwadar port. On the opposite side, India is cooperating with Iran and Afghanistan in Chabahar port to counter China and define a new route for access to Central Asia and Caucasus. India, being wary of China’s increasing influence and clout, is not only distancing from its traditional strategy, but is also trying to adopt a comprehensive and multifaceted foreign policy to secure a footprint in the high seas. On a larger scale, to counter China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, India has been working out its own string, which includes Iran's Chabahar port, Oman’s Duqm port, Seychelles’ Assumption Island and Agaléga island in Mauritius in addition to Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, west of the Myanmar coast.
A closer look at these actors’ complicated and interconnected goals and positions will reveal that Chabahar port can serve as a factor to increase tensions between China and India. Of course, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif paid a visit to Pakistan during which he urged on the governments of Pakistan and China to join the development project of Chabahar. However, China has not given a clear answer to his proposal for taking part and investing in development of Iran's Chabahar port. Of course, accepting this proposal by Beijing will speed up development of Chabahar. However, regardless of the extent to which China will take part in the Chabahar project, it will undermine India’s strategic opportunity to take advantage of and invest in this port. In other words, any form of China’s presence in Chabahar, even when it has no share in the management of this port, will undermine India’s standing in this project.
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At the present time, India and China are entangled in a close rivalry in the Indian Ocean, and are closely monitoring each other’s actions as well as structural facilities and bases along major shipping lines. Both countries are bent on bolstering their presence and influence in this region more than before. In the meantime, any development, which may be able to undermine one rival’s standing in the port city of interest to them, might be supported by the other rival. The recent terrorist attack in Iran's Chabahar port can be assessed within this framework. It must be noted that regardless of the intention of any group that has been behind the terrorist attack in Chabahar, it can finally end in China’s benefit. This is true because it proves China’s upper hand in bringing stability to its rival port; that is, Pakistan’s Gwadar. It can also cast doubts on the security of commercial transportation through Iran’s Chabahar port. This issue can be better understood when it is considered in parallel with China’s low willingness to invest in Chabahar port. Therefore, it is proposed that Iran should continue its cooperation with India for the development of Chabahar port.
Exemption of this Iranian port of US sanctions against Iran has provided a good opportunity for the development of southeastern parts of Iran. This opportunity must be valued by the Islamic Republic as a window for restoring full stability and security to that region. Of course, some people believe that the goal pursued by the United States through exempting this Iranian port city of sanctions is to meet the interests of India and Afghanistan. However, even if this were true, India and Afghanistan would still need Iran and this gives Iran an upper hand to bargain for its interests. Within the framework of their strategic rivalry, India and China want to turn their navies into “strategic marine forces,” and military experts have noted that it is quite possible for them to achieve this goal. At any rate, the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean has now turned into a serious arena for strategic rivalries between India and China, and successful implementation of Chabahar development project can further intensify these rivalries.