Economy, Business And Markets

Chabahar Economic Project Pursues Regional Prosperity

Chabahar Economic Project Pursues Regional Prosperity
Chabahar Economic Project Pursues Regional Prosperity

Lately, media outlets have been awash with commentaries about the new contract struck by Iran and India as its main signatories as well as Afghanistan to develop Chabahar Port in southern Iran.

The debate started after Chinese media implied that the Chabahar project undermines China’s plans to develop Gwadar Port and other China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects.

Indian Premier Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran last month resulted in the signing of 12 agreements, including $500 million of financing for the high-profile connectivity projects, which entails linking Chabahar by rail to the Iranian city of Zahedan near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and from there, connecting to Zaranj in Afghanistan and then going onward toward Delaram.

The primary goal of foreign investment in Chabahar Port, according to Hossein Ashouri, the deputy head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways, is to facilitate the transport of Afghanistan’s minerals to India through Iran’s rail network, IRNA reported.

“Thanks to its strategic location, Chabahar enjoys better accessibility to regional countries compared to other Persian Gulf ports. Moreover, for investors and traders, the costs of getting to Chabahar are far lower than those of Shahid Rajaei Port,” he said.

On the other hand, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor includes a collection of projects currently under construction, which is intended to rapidly expand and upgrade Pakistani infrastructure, as well as broaden economic links between Pakistan and China.

The corridor is considered an extension of China’s ambitious proposed 21st-century Silk Road initiative and the importance of CPEC to China is reflected by its inclusion as part of China’s 13th five-year development plan.

Iran’s Ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Honardoust was quick to respond to claims of rivalry between the two fronts and said Chabahar Port will not be a threat to Gwadar Port as the two facilities will act as sister ports in future and a great source of regional cooperation, peace and stability.

“The doors are always open for other regional countries to join the venture and we are waiting for Pakistan and China,” he added, echoing similar remarks made by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in his meeting with Modi in Tehran.

Later, the Pakistani media spoke of “a security threat” in reference to the newly-signed Chabahar project. In deliberations by two former Pakistani defense secretaries (Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik and Lt. Gen. Nadeem Lodhi) at a three-day workshop on “National Security, Deterrence and Regional Stability in South Asia” hosted by the Strategic Vision Institute–a Pakistani think-tank, Asif Yasin Malik was reported to have said, “The alliance between India, Afghanistan and Iran is a security threat to Pakistan” and added that he feared that Pakistan is going into isolation.

Nadeem Lodhi said the existence of such a “formidable bloc” in the neighborhood had “ominous and far reaching implications”.

“We need to break out of this encircling move with help from friends … diplomatic maneuvers and by forging a strong deterrence.”

In this context, Lodhi said that of the three countries, Iran is most likely to pay heed to Pakistani concerns. He, however, feared the three-nation bloc will affect Pakistan’s plans for regional economic integration, restoration of internal peace and maintenance of peaceful borders, apart from affecting the CPEC timelines.

An opinion piece by Lt. Gen. P.C. Katoch, a retiree of Special Forces of the Indian Army, published in US-based think tank Eurasia Review gave a crushing response to the Pakistani allegations.

“While India is perceived the number one enemy in the Pakistani (military) hierarchy, it would be apparent to even the most daft and naive that India has no option but to do trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia via Chabahar. It is the dogged denial by Pakistan to open the land route through her own territory that would have opened a South-South Corridor linking Afghanistan and Pakistan with Southeast Asia through India, which in tandem with the International North-South Transportation Corridor would have brought economic prosperity to the entire region benefiting all countries along these routes, including Pakistan,” he wrote.

Katoch noted that this has not happened because of the dogma in the manger attitude of the Pakistani military.

“A member of parliament of Pakistan disclosed last October that there was a time when Punjabi politicians of Pakistan were opposed to opening up trade and economic ties with India, but now there was political consensus on the issue,” he said.

“However, the Pakistani military put its foot down, not allowing it to happen. Little wonder then that Pakistan has consistently spurned Prime Minister Modi’s proposal since 2014 to develop connectivity within the SAARC countries for promoting economic integration, enhancing commerce and people to people contact.”

Meanwhile, Chinese state news agency The Global Times claimed that in Iran’s Chabahar, India seeks leverage point over Pakistan, China. “Actually, Chabahar is just the tip of the iceberg of India’s geostrategic ambitions. Besides building new berths and upgrades to Chabahar, what interests New Delhi more is a comprehensive scheme that can reshape India’s geopolitics to the northwest and extend its influence further into the Middle East, Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus,” the report said.

“Although New Delhi ostensibly highlights economic considerations, such as facilitating trade along the International North-South Transport Corridor and extracting minerals, natural gas and oil from the region, its larger geostrategic calculations and ambitions are obvious … India harbors suspicions–and anxieties–that Gwadar provides China a key post to monitor Indian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and a dual-use base for Chinese ships and submarines.”

It even went as far as saying the $500 million Chabahar development deal was unworkable “high-sounding rhetoric”, concluding that it was bound to fail.

It remains to be seen where the flurry of accusations traded by those who have a stake is headed, as the development project is aimed at bringing about economic prosperity for the region.