In the last week of May 2016, Afghanistan, India and Iran signed a tripartite agreement under which India will develop the Iranian port of Chabahar and link it with Afghanistan via the Zaranj-Delaram highway that had been constructed by India. The agreement will provide land-to-sea connectivity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) through Iran, bypassing Pakistan.
A week later, two former Pakistani defence secretaries expressed grave reservations at the move.Lt Gen Asif Yasin Malik said, "The alliance between India, Afghanistan and Iran is a security threat to Pakistan." He feared that Pakistan was getting isolated."In view of the regional and global environment, I see Pakistan falling into an abyss of isolation primarily because of its own mistakes and partly due to the hostile policies of other states."
Expressing similar apprehensions, Lt Gen Naeem Lodhi said that the existence of a "formidable bloc" in Pakistan’s neighbourhood would have "ominous and far-reaching implications". He said, "We need to break out of this encircling move with help from friends... diplomatic manoeuvres and by forging a strong deterrence."
Clearly, while the tripartite agreement is seen by the signatories as being intended to enhance trade and provide landlocked Afghanistan and the CARs access to the sea, Pakistan perceives it as a pincer movement designed to encircle it from the west. Hence, Pakistan sees the building of Chabahar by India as a security threat and a move to counter the development of Gwadar as a major port.
|Gwadar will be the southern point and the sea terminal of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.|
Gwadar and Chabahar lie directly opposite the Gulf of Oman and adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz. Both ports have strategic significance and were on the radar of the US and Russia till a few decades ago.
It has been long conjectured that the US was interested in developing Chabahar as a naval base, but the plans were foiled as the Shah of Iran was overthrown by the revolution led byAyatollah Khomeini. Before that, throughout history, both Chabahar and Gwadar had been of importance to the Greeks, the Arabs, the Portuguese and the British.
Now, a new great game is truly underway. As part of its strategic outreach, India has undertaken to develop Iran’s Chabahar port, 80km to the west of Gwadar. In 2013, Pakistan handed over Gwadar port on the Makran coast to China for 40 years.
Gwadar will be the southern point and the sea terminal of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will extend to Kashgar in Xinjiang. The CPEC is part of China’s "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) initiative designed to extend China’s sphere of influence and give a fillip to its flagging economy through large-scale construction of roads, railway lines and ports.
At the time of independence from Britain, Gwadar was a principality that had been in the possession of the Sultan of Oman for almost 200 years. Gwadar was given as a gift to Oman by the Khan of Kalat in 1783. From 1863 up to independence in 1947, it was administered by a British assistant political agent. At that time, the enclave was not much more than a number of fishing villages.
After independence, according to the diplomatic community grapevine, Gwadar was administered by India on behalf of the Sultan of Oman as the two countries enjoyed excellent relations. When the Khan of Kalat asked the Sultan to return Gwadar to Pakistan, reportedly, the Sultan first offered it to India, but India declined to accept the gift.
This offer was probably made verbally. While senior diplomats confirm that such an offer was made, its authenticity could not been verified independently. Oman then sold Gwadar to Pakistan for $3 million on September 8, 1958. Since December 1958, it has been an integral part of the Balochistan province of Pakistan.
Whether the government of independent India declined to accept the deep water port in keeping with its policy of shunning imperial inheritances, or due to the lack of contiguity and the inability to defend it, or simply because of a lack of appreciation of its potential, will not be known till the diplomats concerned decide to write their memoirs.
India would have had not only an enclave on Pakistan’s Makran coast, but also a deep water port. In hindsight, not accepting the priceless gift from the Sultan of Oman was a huge mistake at par with the long list of post-independence strategic blunders.