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Tale of two ports

India will soon assume operational control of the Iranian port of Chahbahar for 18 months, as per a bilateral agreement recently signed in New Delhi. China runs the management and further development of the Pakistani port of Gawadar on a longer-term basis. Gawadar port is the jewel in the crown of the ambitious 15-year project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is in full swing.
Both ports, less than 100 kilometers apart, are at the convergence of South and Central Asia in the vicinity of GCC countries. What are the regional implications of these developments? And are there ways to limit possible naval rivalry in the Arabian Sea?
Both ports became a reality owing to the security compulsions of Pakistan and Iran and the geographical location of the two coastal towns. During its 1965 and 1971 wars with India, Pakistan faced the grim possibility of a naval blockade of its major port Karachi and started looking for alternatives on the Makran coast. Similarly, during its war with Iraq, Iran realized the grave risk of the closure of the Hormuz Strait, which could bring its external trade to a halt.
Chahbahar, located outside the Strait, offered a commercial lifeline in such an eventuality. And then India got interested in Chahbahar for its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.
Some analysts see the two ports as part of Sino-Indian competition for trade routes and influence in the Indian Ocean. This may not be wholly true because Iran would have no incentive to promote Sino-Indian rivalry as it has good relations with both. Moreover, Chahbahar is Afghanistan and Central Asia-specific while Gawadar would cover a different and much larger area of the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.

Gawadar and Chahbahar, less than 100 km apart where South and Central Asia converge, should essentially remain commercial ventures promoting regional connectivity, trade and prosperity. But it is not that simple …

Javed Hafeez

In terms of current facilities and future potential, Gawadar is in a different league. By 2022, it could become South Asia’s biggest port and would be able to handle 400 million tons of cargo annually by 2030.
Both ports face formidable challenges. Gawadar suffers from potable water and power shortages. Iran is still under some economic sanctions and parts of its Sistan-Balochistan province are restive. Gawadar will meet the growing commercial and energy needs of the landlocked Xinjiang Chinese province and its road linkages will be much longer.
Pakistan has dedicated a contingent of 15,000 soldiers to secure CPEC. Chahbahar’s hinterland and link to Afghanistan could be susceptible to the twin menace of Jundallah and the Taliban, if not Daesh. Therefore, it is much too early for both projects to celebrate their respective success.
While Pakistan’s navy could defend Gawadar and the maritime lanes around it, India will have to depend on the Iranian navy for such a role around Chahbahar. But if commercial ships bringing cargo for China via Gawadar come under any kind of threat on the high seas far from Pakistan, China will be obliged to use its own naval muscle.
It is ostensibly for such an eventuality that China has established a military base in Djibouti. One can foresee multiple naval and mercantile flags fluttering in this region in the not-too-distant future. What if the perception of a threat on the high seas intensifies and China asks Pakistan to establish its military base on the Makran coast? Will Pakistan be in a position to refuse? My answer would be no.
There is an old Sri Lankan proposal to make the Indian Ocean a zone of peace. But it has made little headway since it was first mooted in 1971. On the contrary, naval activity has increased in this part of the world.
As the US pivots toward the Pacific, some European countries are filling that gap in the Indian Ocean. But even with intensified naval activity here, nations concerned have evolved ways to co-operate with a view to combating sea piracy and terrorism. A combined task force (CTF-150) based in Bahrain is an example of international co-operation on the high seas. The Pakistan navy has actively participated in this venture for peace.
Gawadar and Chahbahar should essentially remain commercial ventures promoting regional connectivity, trade and prosperity. Economic development and trade nurture people-to-people contacts and enhance prospects of peace. But the real politics is not guided by good intentions alone.
• Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed