The writer works for the Jinnah Institute in Islamabad.
As global players reorient their power calculus, Pakistan’s maritime rim land is experiencing new cartographic anxieties. In Tehran this summer, President Rouhani, President Ghani and PM Modi heralded the Chabahar corridor as a historic reassertion of collective geostrategic agency.
Barely miles away, Pakistan continued to define and leverage its CPEC gateway as a project of national significance. But with hard nationalisms forcing the erasure of old trade routes, and the emergence of neighbourhood alternatives, Gwadar’s place in Pakistan’s strategic ambit is already shaping the Great Game at play around it.
Pakistan’s centrality to China’s Silk Road project has coincided with a plurality of great power ambitions aggregated on the Iran-Pakistan coastline. Recent developments include: the India-Iran-Afghanistan transit agreement; Pakistan and India’s accession to the SCO; the finalisation of an Indo-US military agreement on logistics support; a ratcheting up of Chinese efforts to block India in multilateral forums. On the fringes of this is the port of Chabahar’s rise as an Indo-Iranian response to Gwadar’s promise.
As China expands into the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, India’s maritime politics will try to preserve the status quo, seeking to safeguard naval territoriality in and around its waterways and 7500 km coastline. Nor are New Delhi’s interests in the Middle East likely to wane, with India presently sourcing 70 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf. As the first major seaport outside the shield of India’s powerful navy, Chabahar signals an expanded Indian naval-security presence in these waters.
The US by virtue of the US 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain still remains the dominant naval power. A planned Indo-US Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), when signed, will signal a critical realignment of Indian security and foreign policy, and will likely not be limited to operations in the South China Sea where India is already scaling up maritime surveillance in the Straits of Malacca.
Recent efforts to foster an Indo-US maritime security dialogue, improved domain awareness and navy-to-navy discussions on submarine safety and anti-submarine warfare all suggest intensified, and more frequent collaboration between India and the US in the Arabian Sea.
With India also vying for increasing diplomatic and technological clout, the introduction of tactical weapons and sea-based deterrents is likely to amp up the pressure for deployment in times of crisis. This, in turn, will provide Beijing with enough of raison d’être to bankroll its own naval build-up in these same waters, risking a possible overlap with the Indian Navy’s current area of operations.
Since 2008 the PLA Navy has made regular deployments to anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea, and in 2015 Beijing announced its first foreign military and brick-and-mortar naval base in Djibouti to support Chinese forces operating in the western Indian Ocean. If confirmed, an Indo-US military commitment will send a blunt message to China about perceived Chinese expansionism in India’s high seas. But the subtext of such an agreement will also feed some level of insecurity in Islamabad.
Two-thirds of all weaponry purchased by India from the US is deployed against Pakistan. India’s latest induction into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) means that the purchase of Predator patrol drones for maritime security may also become a reality that Pakistan will have to contend with, with some analysts estimating the transfer of some 250 UAVs from the US to India for deployment over the Arabian Sea.
In terms of regional alignments, the US has publicly backed Chabahar as an alternative to Gwadar and independent route into Afghanistan, with American concerns about Beijing’s transformation into a hegemonic two-ocean power superseding Congress’s reservations about Iran. With India simultaneously eyeing a strategic foothold in the new super-port of Duqm with the Sultanate of Oman – a longstanding defence partner – Chabahar is just one a growing collection of crucial listening posts soon to be available to India in the Western Indian Ocean.
But as expansionary moves by India and China broker new neighbourhood fault-lines, Pakistan should also not assume strategic rivalries being forced onto its geography as a given, despite Chabahar’s packaging as a coastal counterweight to Gwadar. It is true that a joint Indo-US front in the Arabian Sea may be too early to call: the McCain Amendment that would have otherwise upgraded India to major US defence partner has fallen victim to domestic polemic on both sides. And despite the proximity of Gwadar and Chabahar to transit choke points for 40 percent of global oil tanker traffic, it remains unclear if China and Iran will impose costs on each other for their respective transit-trade alliances.
China’s trade with Iran is projected to quadruple to over $200 billion per year by the early 2020s, and China will be looking for increased access to Iran, and to modernise its coastal oil and gas sectors. So far the Iran-China relationship falls outside of Pakistan’s strategic calculus: Iran is presently exporting an estimated 620,000 barrels per day to China, its biggest customer. Much of this trade takes place irrespective of the CPEC and its accelerated development.
Simultaneously Pakistan needs to recognise that despite its status as an all-weather ally, it certainly does not represent the sum-all of Chinese interests in West Asia, and to assume any sort of surrogacy could be a mistake. China’s strategic ambitions in West Asia outflank its investment in Gwadar. Beijing carried out an experimental train run from Yiwu in Xingiang to Tehran earlier this year.
Both countries have inked an agreement to jointly develop a major oil terminal on Qeshm Island. When complete, this will store 30 million barrels of oil, principally from Iran’s West Karoun field. As oil prices slump and China’s GDP flattens, Beijing’s relationship with Pakistan will fundamentally be driven by real politik and a desire to protect Chinese energy interests while furnishing a broader geostrategic agenda, certainly not by any sense of political duty to Islamabad.
Pakistan, then, should be wary of drifting blindly into an alliance system which walls off valuable alternative options, while fanning unnecessary rivalry between the Indo-Afghan-Iran and Sino-Pak blocs. A more prudent approach would be for Pakistan to diversify on the regional opportunities presented by Gwadar’s transformative upgrade, and cash in on the regional contradictions around it. Indo-Iranian cooperation in the Gulf, for instance, will largely be checked by the fact that Saudi Arabia remains India’s top oil supplier, and Qatar its biggest seller of natural gas.
Trade economists, meanwhile, have already outlined problems with attempts to sell Chabahar as a low-cost tool to contain Pakistan’s geography: Wagah is and will continue to be the shortest and cheapest route to Afghanistan for Indian goods. Iran also faces considerable domestic opposition from its Revolutionary Guard over the outsourcing of Chabahar to India.
These are gaps that Pakistan can use to its advantage, beginning by leveraging its border with Iran, connecting the CPEC western route with the Iranian road and rail network emanating from Chabahar, and therein gaining access to Turkey and beyond.
So far, much of Pakistan’s strategic thinking around Gwadar’s has also been wedded to the port’s potential as an inland development project, rather than its real politik utility as a maritime gateway. But as the regional scramble to carve up the Arabian seaboard accelerates, so must Pakistan’s thinking about the CPEC, which must urgently find purchase beyond Beijing.
Both Pakistan and Iran stand to gain huge duty fees from the development of Gwadar and Chabahar, and efforts ought to be made to undercut polarities by regionalising the CPEC, and opening up trade routes that can help Pakistan become an indispensable cog in the Himalayan-Hindukush beltway.
As Europe reverberates with the shocks of continental disconnect, regional players in South Asia can certainly learn by focusing their energies on building corridors and sea-lanes that promote interdependencies, and not exacerbate existing polarities.
An unhelpful closing of the doors to dialogue by both Afghanistan and India has already compromised Islamabad’s policy of pivoting to the region. With great power aspirations further remodelling the regional order, the question now is whether history’s burden will be greater than that of geography’s.