Pakistan’s Pessimistic and Optimistic Views on Development of Chabahar

Saturday, June 17, 2017


Farzad Ramezani-bonesh
Expert on regional issues

Pakistan’s Gwadar port is located along the coast of Makran at an approximate distance of 533 kilometers from Karachi port city and 120 kilometers from Iran’s shores. During the past decade, China has made a lot of investment in Gwadar port and was committed to investing 1.62 billion dollars in that port in 2015. From another viewpoint, Gwadar port is located in the southern part of the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” which is supposed to be made operational through an investment of about 52 billion dollars to connect Xinjiang in northwestern China to Gwadar. The corridor is expected to come on-stream in 2017. On the opposite, Iran’s Chabahar port is only about 140 kilometers from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, but due to deep waters around it and the natural state of its shores, the port can accommodate ships with a capacity of over 100,000 tonnes. In addition, it has security and is backed by Iran’s economic potential to attract investment in its economic infrastructure. This issue has made Pakistani officials see Chabahar as a potential rival for Gwadar. The following paper discusses Pakistan’s optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints toward development of Chabahar.


A)    Pakistan’s optimistic viewpoint on development of Chabahar

Pakistan and an ineffective rival

In fact, certain circles in China believe that development of Iran’s Chabahar port by India is doomed to fail citing new Delhi’s ambitious and strategic goals. However, Chinese leaders believe that development of Chabahar would not create a practical obstacle to implementation of plans related to revival of the ancient Silk Road. There is also a viewpoint in Pakistan, which argues that before reaching the desirable level of development, Chabahar has a long way to go and when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor becomes operational, Chabahar would be no threat to Pakistan. As evidence to their argument, they cite considerations and challenges related to development of Chabahar such as India’s impractical promises, the bureaucratic red tape in India, the challenge of connecting rail and road routes to Chabahar port, the slow pace of development of Chabahar in comparison to 45 billion dollars invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the fact that development of Gwadar port is already way ahead of that of Chabahar.

This optimistic viewpoint believes that Pakistan has the upper hand as strategic ally of China and when the two countries’ economic corridor is complete by 2030, Pakistan’s economic growth will increase by 2.5 percent. On the other hand, while Beijing has undertaken 80 percent of the cost of developing Gwadar port (more than 1.1 billion dollars) in the form of financial aid and low-interest loans, India and other actors cannot do this in Chabahar and problems related to India’s foreign liabilities and lack of an extensive effort on the part of Iran to develop Chabahar port will all work to the benefit of Pakistan’s Gwadar port. From this viewpoint, some parities have also mentioned different roles for these two ports and believe that development of either port will not be against the other. Proponents of this viewpoint believe that cooperation and rail connection between the two ports, turning Chabahar and Gwadar ports into sister ports, transfer of passengers between Iranian and Pakistani ports, increasing border exchanges through border markets, establishment of a special economic zone in Chabahar port, development of port and marine infrastructure, physical development of the port, providing grounds for participation of the private sector in development of the port, making effort to attract major shipping lines of the world, development of passenger terminals and maritime tourism, and connecting rail and road routes can increase cooperation between the two ports. As a result, they believe that development of Chabahar port will not necessarily lead to isolation of Pakistan’s Gwadar port and argue that boosting economic cooperation between the two ports is better than negative rivalry.


B)    Pakistan’s pessimistic viewpoint on development of Chabahar

Pakistan and the geopolitical threat resulting from development of Chabahar

As strategic rivalry escalates between China and the United States, presence of China’s economic fleet and naval forces in Gwadar will create new conditions in this energy hub. Some analysts believe that in a bid to reduce importance of Gwadar port, Americans have set their sight on Oman’s port of Duqm, an oil dock in the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah port, and Iran’s Chabahar port and, therefore, are supporting India’s effort. This is why despite serious opposition of US Senate with India’s investment in Chabahar port, former president, Barack Obama, supported New Delhi’s investment in the Iranian port. Some people in Pakistan believe that a trilateral agreement among India, Iran and Afghanistan over Chabahar will be continuation of the big game among China, the United States, India and Iran and will be a step toward isolation of Pakistan at regional level. Therefore, when it comes to development of Chabahar, Pakistan sees it as a major threat.


Pakistan and the security threat posed by development of Chabahar

In fact, investment by India in Iran’s Chabahar port has drawn attention from Pakistan and some former Pakistani officials believe that this agreement is a direct threat to national security of their country. From this viewpoint, destabilizing Pakistan’s Balochistan province and increasing security costs of Islamabad in that region is India’s main motivation for circumventing Pakistan’s Gwadar port and the corridor that is attached to it. As a result, some former government officials in Pakistan, including General Yasin Malik, have considered development of Chabahar port by India as a direct threat against Pakistan’s security. On the other hand, it must be noted that Gwadar port can be used to boost military might of Pakistan and China, facilitate Chinese navy’s access to the Arabian Sea and countries located along the northwestern coasts of the Indian Ocean, and change geopolitical map of the region. In the same way, despite the fact that unlike Gwadar, Chabahar will remain under Iran’s management and will not turn into a military port for India, Pakistani officials are afraid that providing logistical support to India by Iran in Chabahar port will enable the Indian navy to increase its reconnaissance operations close to Pakistan’s borders. Another fear in this regard in Pakistan is that India will use Iran’s Chabahar port as a base for espionage operations against Pakistan and also take destabilizing measures in Balochistan province.

In fact, any increase in cooperation between India and Iran in the fields of regional security and defense, which would be pivoted around Chabahar, is considered to be against Pakistan’s national interests. As a result, from this viewpoint, development of Chabahar port is considered as a serious threat to security of Gwadar port, in particular, and Pakistan, in general.


Pakistan and the fear of negative consequences of development of Chabahar

In fact, Pakistani officials believe in superiority and importance of Gwadar port compared to Chabahar and believe that development of Gwadar port is five years ahead of that of Chabahar port. However, the point is that possible closing of the common border between Afghanistan and Pakistan will not only lead to 1.5 billion dollars decrease in transactions with Afghanistan, but may also cause a human crisis in parts of Pakistan as a result of food shortages and so forth, because Chabahar would be a more secure and shorter route for Afghanistan than the current routes that cross Pakistan. As a result, it is of strategic importance to Pakistan that the development project for Chabahar will not be implemented. Therefore, many Pakistani officials have frequently described the development of Chabahar port as a rival project to Gwadar in their interviews. There is no doubt that development of Chabahar will cause the alliance between China and Pakistan to fail in restricting India’s clout in South Asia through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and this is good reason for India to pay more attention to Chabahar port instead of Gwadar port in order to have better and easier access to Central Asian markets.

Therefore, India’s plan to invest in Chabahar port is considered by Islamabad as a means for New Delhi to circumvent Pakistan through Iran’s route and have easy access to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asian countries. As a result, Islamabad believes that development of Chabahar will reduce Pakistan’s control over strategic transit routes through diversification of trade and transit routes in the region. From this viewpoint, although the possibility for participation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in this project, granting loans to Iran, or participation of China in Chabahar project is low, the Iranian port can still help India gain more power to play a more effective role in determining the future prospect of Afghanistan and region.


Encouraging Iran’s participation in Gwadar and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects

Pakistan’s Gwadar port is not yet ready for trade and big parts of countries that make up the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are plagued with unrest. While Pakistan has been trying to address the existing security concerns by creating a special security circle to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, China has been trying not to make its presence in Gwadar look like a threat to Iran, because it believes that development of Chabahar port will strengthen Gwadar as well. Under these conditions, it seems that Pakistan is trying to encourage Iran to take part in the completion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project in order to ensure a more promising future prospect for that project and Gwadar port. From this viewpoint, efforts made to get Iran’s attention during the post-sanctions era can increase the possibility of the success of Gwadar project and the 50-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project due to Iran’s high trade, economic and energy potentialities and its geographic position. Therefore, even low-key presence of Iran in these projects can help Gwadar become a port city equivalent in importance to China’s Shenzhen and the United Arab Emirates’ Dubai over the next ten years. It is for this reason that Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan, recently invited Iran to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.

*More By Farzad Ramezani-bonesh:
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*Photo Credit: Dnaindia

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