From the early 19th
to early 20th
century, the British Empire and the Russian Empire were jostling for control over the whole of Central Asia. It was called the ‘Great Game’ and it was so significant that Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling made it the setting of his defining masterpiece ‘Kim’.
A map of the world between the early 19th and 20th centuries showing the influence over Afghanistan (yellow) by British and Russian empires. StepMap
A century later, the Great Game is still on over the same region. Only the empires have been replaced by republics.
Late on April 17, India achieved a significant breakthrough with a tripartite agreement on expediting the development of the Chabahar port.
The agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan will give New Delhi the much-needed diplomatic strength in the wake of China’s speedy construction of Pakistan’s Gwadar port and the economic corridor that will give Beijing a direct access to Arabian Sea.
In the pipeline since 2003, the agreement came during External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Iran.
How will this port help India?
Pakistan imposes a lot of restrictions on goods movement between Afghanistan and India. Kabul is a strong ally of New Delhi’s and Islamabad is obviously unhappy about it. This makes Afghanistan not only economically but also strategically important to India. Since there is no other land route to reach Afghanistan except crossing through Pakistan, the development of the Chahabar port becomes crucial.
Once developed, the port will be connected to Afghanistan via a network of roads and railway lines running through Iran. A 220 km road from the port to Afghanistan has already been built by India.
This means that Indian goods will be able to reach Afghanistan, and from there to other Central Asian markets, by circumventing Pakistan.
That was economic; there is also a strategic reason.
The port’s location is around 70 kilometers by sea from Gwadar port in Pakistan. Gwadar is a port being built with China’s assistance. Beijing plans to use it as a major axle in its One Belt One Road policy (the new Silk Road).
Of course, there is every reason to believe that the port will also be used by the Chinese Navy.
China has stepped up efforts in the construction of Gwadar port as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pak-occupied-Kashmir and reaches Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China.
Once built, there is nothing between Beijing and Arabian Sea. This is why the development of the Chahabar port is strategically important for India, so that New Delhi can maintain its influence on Arabian Sea and continue trading with allies without roadblocks.
Why 13 years in making?
The development was delayed because of international sanctions on Iran, which was lifted only in January 2016. Despite the sanctions, New Delhi continued to maintain strong diplomatic and economic ties with Tehran. This has helped in Tehran quickly reciprocating to India’s plan of developing the port, which will of course benefit Iranian economy too.
In around a month after the lifting of sanctions, the NDA government cleared a $150 million line of credit for the development of the port; last week New Delhi announced an investment of $20 billion into the project.
When operational, the port will be able to handle a capacity of 12.5 million tonnes instead of the 2.5 million tonnes it handles now.
The Persian word Chabahar means ‘four springs’ because the Persians believe that spring remains in the place for all four seasons. New Delhi will hope that Chabahar stands true to its name for India’s economic and strategic progress and help it stay ahead in the Great Game.