The last week of May eventful indeed! Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran, President Pranab Mukherjee made a trip to neighbouring China. These two visits show that relations with Tehran and Beijing play an important role in New Delhi’s foreign policy.
India and China are rivals. They share the global stage as members of different groups and blocs (like BRICS – the acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). But each want to be a regional super power.
Ever since the US and other big powers lifted economic sanctions against Iran, India and China want to invest in different Iranian projects. Friendship with Tehran will help them to secure cheaper energy imports. And their investments will help them play a dominant role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond.
Prime Minister Modi, raced to Iran to sign on Chabahar port agreement with Iran. In April, a Chinese consortium expressed interest in developing the port while visiting the Chabahar free trade zone. So, in May, India moved quickly and implemented its commitment before the China got its foot in the door.
New Delhi is well aware of the fact that India had no other option but to offset China’s growing influence and reach in the region (through Gwadar port in Pakistan). Beijing is heavily invested in developing the Gwadar port. It is some 100-odd km west of Chabahar , and of equal strategic importance.
The Chabahar port agreement also fits into PM Modi’s plans for energy and naval security. Chabahar gives the India a strategic weight in the region and helps it build closer ties with both Iran and Afghanistan. India can bypass Pakistan that has been reluctant to allow Indian goods to pass overland through its territory.
The Chabahar port route helps connect India with energy rich Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and other Central Asian nations (in the backyard of China). This route is 40% shorter and 30% less expensive than trade via the Red Sea-Suez Canal-Mediterranean route, as Chabahar sits at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz area and connects three regions: Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia. Also, Chabahar is the only Iranian port with direct access to the IOR.
Prime Minister Modi’s two-day visit to Tehran boosted Indo-Iranian ties. His visit comes at a time when Iran’s re-emergence in world affairs after decades of isolation is forcing significant realignments in the region. India recognizes Iran’s growing geopolitical importance and it will certainly help pull India out of the narrow straitjacket of South Asia.
Developing the Chabahar port ,and connectivity within Iran and Afghanistan are important. So, New Delhi will have to ensure that they are delivered on time. India needs to push ahead. Over the last decade, India’s foreign policy has been hobbled by its inability to deliver on promises. India’s record on delivering promised infrastructure is patchy as the experience with Nepal shows. But now, India can’t afford to let China move take advantage of this.
However, if West Asia remains locked in conflict, developing the Chabahar port may not be a cake-walk!