India has this week officially taken over control of operations at the Iranian port of Shaheed Behesti in Chabahar. And credit for this must go to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who remained steadfast in the face of possible American sanctions following Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord. As things turned out, however, Trump Town issued New Delhi a waiver; covering its continued role in the project as well as the construction of a railway line from the port to Zaranj on the Afghan side of the border. This is not to mention how Modi also secured the go-ahead to continue importing Iranian oil. Yet what is good for India is naturally viewed with apprehension from this side of the border. This goes, too, for Washington’s recognition of the geo-strategic importance of Chabahar; representing a trade and transit corridor between India, Iran and Afghanistan. Meaning that Pakistan needs to urgently readjust its own geo-strategic realities given the robust Indo-US regional alliance.
Chabahar has been touted as the only viable trade route between New Delhi and Kabul; particularly after Pakistan denied India transit access for Afghanistan-bound goods. Meaning that Chabahar will serve to reduce Kabul’s reliance on Islamabad while rivalling Gwadar port .When viewed from the US prism this is considered a positive; even as it calls on this country to do more, more, more to secure the quagmire across the western front.
But above and beyond all this, Chabahar represents Indian regional ambitions. Not least because it is all set to connect New Delhi with the markets of Central Asia and Russia, too. By way of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) — a 7.2 kilometre-long multi-mode network linking ship, rail and road routes that extends right up to Europe. All of which signals to the Chinese that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not only game of interconnectivity in town. Indeed, India has heavily invested in Chabahar: $500 million earmarked for the port complex; and $250 million for port expansion. It will also be building the 500km-rail link between Iran and Afghanistan. In other words, New Delhi is an active participant that exerts considerable influence in the future direction of the venture. In addition, it has demonstrated maturity in successfully balancing relations with both Tehran and Washington. This is not to mention Indian wooing of Moscow.
This a lesson that Pakistan must learn when it comes to juggling ties with other nations. It has made a little progress on this front in its dealings with Iran and Saudi Arabia. But even here, much more needs to be done. Especially given how Riyadh’s cash injections have left the Iranians sceptical as to the extent that Islamabad will be able to conduct a fully independent foreign policy. The same holds true when it comes to American apprehensions regarding Chinese influence over the national economy. Though this likely has more to do with the ongoing Sino-US trade war; even as both sides remain committed to playing nice for 90 days.
When all is said and done, Pakistan needs to be more assertive in playing up its geo-strategic location. Central to this is getting rid of the begging bowl mentality and replacing this with viable investment opportunities that do not leave this county at the mercy of those who have cash to splash. Thus far, the ruling PTI has scored well on the first part. It cannot afford to wait five years before reaching the next level.*
Published in Daily Times, December 28th 2018.