As Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Tehran earlier this week to sign an ambitious trilateral agreement on the development of the Chabahar port along with his Afghan and Iranian counterparts – 72 hours before he travelled to Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh to celebrate two years of being in power – the unfolding of a new great game in the Indian Ocean became all too plain to see.
Much has been written about India’s initiative in developing Chabahar, some 72 km from Gwadar, which is being underwritten by China as part of its $42 billion undertaking in developing Pakistan from the Karakoram mountains to the sea. There has been considerable speculation about the presence of Ashraf Ghani in Tehran, embracing Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in turn.
Wasn’t Ghani supposed to be a good friend of Pakistan? Even I know two well-heeled families in Lahore who know him on first-name terms – and there are probably scores of others. In the wake of his ascension to the Afghan presidency in 2014, only a few months after Modi ascended the throne of Delhi, Pakistan’s elite trumpeted him as being everything that his predecessor Hamid Karzai wasn’t. I remember the hugely articulate and exceedingly bright former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar telling me soon after that ‘this is a man we can do business with’.
So what happened? Why has Ghani fallen out of favour with Pakistan? Why did he recently send only a second-rung official to the ‘peace talks’ between the Taliban and international players like Pakistan, China and the US? Why did Afghanistan’s CEO Abdullah Abdullah recently heave a sigh of relief when a US drone, on express orders of President Barack Obama, kill the previous Taliban chief Mullah Mansour in Balochistan?
It’s enough to rub your eyes and wonder if nations can be so stupid in the way they run their foreign and neighbourhood policies. One good reason, of course, is that all these leaders are men. (No woman is silly enough to think that my friend’s enemy is my enemy.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Indian Ocean, other games have been afoot. It seems the Chinese are telling India that they will not allow Delhi to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international organisation of 48 members which controls nuclear exports around the world. Beijing became a member only in 2004. So why not Delhi, only 12 years later, in 2016?
The reason is one that all of us in the Subcontinent are all too familiar with. I call it The Third Class Compartment In The Train syndrome. You may be yelling outside the third-class compartment of a train about to leave the railway station, banging the doors and shouting: Let me in! But the minute someone takes pity and opens the door for you, you become part of the entitled and self-satisfied lot inside that doesn’t want to allow any other poor sod yelling like you.
China is doing the same, forgetting that in 1949 when Mao and his soldiers reached Beijing at the end of the Long March, India had got rid of its British yoke only two years earlier. Of course, much water has since flowed down the Yarlung Tsangpo as well as the Brahmaputra. China and Pakistan have since sworn an all-weather friendship. But in these days of climate change, what is the value of this ‘all-weather’ friendship?
Geostrategists say that China doesn’t want India to rise to its full potential, so it has embarked on an encircling strategy. So it is building Gwadar in Pakistan, has proposed to build the Chittagong port in Dhaka (Bangladesh has not agreed so far), and has laid oil and gas pipelines connecting the rich Arakan fields in the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar with Kunming in the Chinese south.
And because Pakistan is an ‘all-weather friend’ of China, it will not allow Indian goods to travel overland to Afghanistan – no matter that this hurts their dear and beloved Afghan brothers and sisters. So not only does Pakistan not want India to expand its influence in Afghanistan, this tying down India nicely fits in with China’s own strategy.
So India side-steps Pakistan to build a brand new port in the north Indian Ocean, in Chabahar. Indian goods from Kandla in Gujarat and Mumbai in Maharashtra will now be able to able to reach Chabahar in record time, take the train within Iran (rail tracks to be built by Indian Railways) to the Afghan border and transfer to the road network at Zaranj inside Afghanistan.
Beyond Afghanistan lies Central Asia, and beyond that the enormous expanse of Russia. Imagine the markets that these countries can offer. Certainly it’s a geostrategist’s dream come true.
But the bigger question is, why would Pakistan cut its nose to spite its face in the first place? Why not allow Indian trucks overland into Afghanistan and make them pay hefty transit fees? Why not use its own incredible geostrategic location as a bridge to Inner Asia as well as to the Middle East and get a fat commission from all the traders who want smooth passage?
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist who is passionate about debate and discussion across South Asia.