India has taken over a strategically important port in Iran, giving it a potential bulwark against China’s growing influence in the region and access to Afghanistan and Europe that bypasses Pakistan.
India signed the lease on Saturday for Chabahar port in eastern Iran about 90km west of the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which is being developed by China.
Gwadar is the centrepiece of a massive Chinese infrastructure programme in Pakistan and is expected to be the site of China’s second overseas military base, according to a US Department of Defence report last year.
India and Iran signed the 18-month agreement for the first phase of the Chabahar port building after talks between Iranian President Hassan Rowhani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.
Once completed, the port will open up a new sea-rail transport route between India, Iran and Afghanistan, bypassing rival and neighbour Pakistan.
Indian officials said they hoped the route would boost annual trade with Afghanistan from US$700 million to US$1 billion in three years.
New Delhi sent shipments of wheat aid to Afghanistan through Chabahar last year.
The route will run roughly parallel with the US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that links Xinjiang in China to Gwadar, which China has leased for 40 years.
The announcement from New Delhi comes as ties between India and China have been strained by territorial disputes and India’s suspicions that China is encircling India through investment in its neighbours under the “Belt and Road Initiative”.
Zhao Gancheng, a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said the Iranian port was part of India’s backup plan, given the lack of trust between China and India.
“If China turns Gwadar into a military port, I believe India will by all means do everything it can in the region to contain China, including using Chabahar,” Zhao said.
“But now that China is not doing anything in that direction, it is too early to judge what India will do.”
New Delhi-based political commentator Madhav Nalapat said India needed a port in Iran where it was “free to trade” because Pakistan refused to allow India access to the corridor or Gwadar.
India has stressed repeatedly that the corridor passes through areas contested by both New Delhi and Islamabad. It also sees China’s port-building activities in South Asia as an attempt to create “a string of pearls” to contain India’s regional power.
India and Iran have been in talks to develop Chabahar since 2003 but they were stalled by tensions between Iran and the United States.
London-based South Asia expert Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the new agreement was in line with the White House’s regional strategy, which sees India playing a key role in Afghanistan’s stability and security.
“This deal has more to do with Pakistan-Afghanistan rather than China, but strategically, it helps counter China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean,” Roy-Chaudhury said.
Tridivesh Singh Maini, assistant professor with the Jindal School of International Affairs, said the real importance of the Indian trade route through Chabahar port was to “develop an alternative narrative to the [Belt and Road Initiative]”.
“Chabahar is part of this narrative, yet New Delhi is realistic enough to realise that matching the belt and road project is a Herculean task. Iran [is providing] India with the best opportunity to link with Central Asia and Afghanistan through this port, “ he said.
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