Chabahar: a step into Central Asia

With India Ports Global Limited taking over operations at the Shahid Beheshti Port in Chabahar in Iran, India has taken another step forward towards realising its economic and strategic ambitions in Central Asia and beyond. A deep-sea port that is situated at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, Chabahar has immense strategic significance. Just 72 km from Chabahar is Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which is being operated by China. Managing Chabahar’s operations will give India a foothold in a region that is key to its energy security and where China’s presence and influence has grown manifold in recent years. Chabahar has economic significance, too. Hitherto, India’s plans for participating in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and building trade ties with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) were restricted by Pakistan’s refusal to allow Indian cargo to take the overland route to these landlocked countries. India’s development and management of Chabahar port will change that. Indian cargo transported via the sea will now be offloaded at Chabahar, from where trucks and trains will carry it to Afghanistan and then onward to the CARs. In addition to opening up new markets for India in Afghanistan and the CARs, Chabahar will boost their economies, too, and strengthen India’s economic relationship with Iran.

India, Iran and Afghanistan have had to overcome several obstacles to make their Chabahar dream a reality. For one, India had deep apprehensions over the port’s viability. American economic sanctions on Iran stood in the way of India participating and investing in developing the port. Indeed, it was after the Donald Trump administration waived sanctions six weeks ago on Chabahar port, construction of an associated railway and shipment through the port that New Delhi, Tehran and Kabul could heave a collective sigh of relief.  Whether they will be able to tap the potential of the port project and the transit arrangement will depend on the situation in Afghanistan. With the civil war there likely to surge in the coming months, trade is likely to be hit. The three countries must pull on board more partners to increase the project’s viability.

Chabahar port is not just about providing a gateway linking India, Iran and Afghanistan. It is a key hub in the International North-South Transport Corridor initiative, a 7,200-km-long multi-modal network of ship, rail and road routes to move cargo between India, Iran, Afghanistan, the CARs, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Europe. It is for India, Iran and Afghanistan to shed their apathy and apprehensions to realise Chabahar’s full potential. Competition between Chabahar and Gwadar is inevitable, given their proximity. However, India must be guided by its own long-term economic and strategic interests rather than remain preoccupied with China and Pakistan’s moves at Gwadar.

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Chabahar: a step into Central Asia

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