US backs India-Iran Chabahar port deal as it outflanks China-Pakistan Gwadar project

New York: Washington broadly supports India and Afghanistan signing a deal with Iran for a transport corridor opening up a new route to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar, as it outflanks the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project with Gwadar as its focal point.

Analysts say Washington is acutely aware that China's plans to develop Pakistan's southern coastal fishing town of Gwadar into an economic hub, potentially redraws the region’s geopolitical map. It gives China a new trade link from its relatively undeveloped west to key Arabian Sea shipping routes at the mouth of the oil-rich Persian Gulf — giving it potentially strategic as well as economic leverage.

File image of Pakistan's Gwadar Port. AFP

File image of Pakistan's Gwadar Port. AFP

"The massive Gwadar project reveals China's regional power play. There is no comparison in scale and intent between China’s role in Gwadar and India’s in Chabahar, but the Americans are pleased that India is pushing back against the Chinese expansionist mindset," said author and South Asia expert Adam V Larkey.

"The transport corridor will open up a much-needed independent route to Afghanistan via Iran's Chabahar port circumventing Pakistan. This is significant for India and Afghanistan, whose economic stability in turn, is important to the United States. There are fissures in Pakistan’s relations with the US and Afghanistan, while its ties with old friend China remain rock solid," added Larkey.

The Gwadar project is about more than simple trade — its backers hope that once finished, it will bolster Pakistan's economy and potentially give China's navy access to the Indian Ocean. The plan would also strengthen both China and Pakistan's positions versus India, and hedge against US influence in Asia.

India's Chabahar investment has been pending for years, in part owing to US sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, many of which were lifted earlier this year. New Delhi will invest $200 million to develop two terminals and five berths at Chabahar.

Gwadar is being built as a commercial port and not as a naval facility for China’s navy — at least for the time being, but it could potentially be developed as one in the future. Situated on a barren, hammerhead-shaped peninsula in the south of insurgency-ridden Balochistan — and just north-east of the strategically important Straits of Hormuz — Pakistan's generals and China's politicians predict the development of Gwadar will be a game-changer.

It would give China a firm and reliable long-term beachhead in the Indian Ocean and close to the Persian Gulf, "effectively making it a two-ocean power," said Claude Rakisits, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Some US senators were caught off guard by the announcement of the Chabahar port deal, but the Obama administration has batted for India.

"For India to be able to contribute to the economic development of Afghanistan, it needs access that it does not readily have across its land boundary. And India is seeking to deepen its energy relationship with the Central Asian countries and looking for routes that would facilitate that," assistant secretary of state for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal told the Senate foreign relations committee on Tuesday.

Biswal assured the senators that the Obama administration has been "very clear with the Indians what our security concerns have been and we would continue to engage them on those issues".


Published Date: May 26, 2016 08:00 am | Updated Date: May 26, 2016 08:00 am


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