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Chabahar port: Pakistan has only itself to blame for its isolation

Tilak Devasher | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

The agreement

  • The India-Iran-Afghanistan Chabahar agreement has left Pakistan feeling encircled
  • It also feels that Chabahar port can be a counter to its own Gwadar port

The response

  • Pakistan has responded to the agreement with paranoia
  • It feels compelled to close ranks with China

More in the story

  • Why Pakistan is to blame for its own plight
  • What the Chabahar port means for India

Despite its myriad preoccupations - Panama leaks, Nawaz Sharif's health, the killing of Taliban Amir Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike and so on - the 23 May, 2016 trilateral Chabahar agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan, has raised a lot of concern in Pakistan. Basking in the glow of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which Pakistan hopes would transform its economy, the possible development of another port, in close proximity to Gwadar, the lynchpin of the CPEC, has jarred its reverie and raised fears of encirclement.

The dominant reaction in Pakistan is that of the military, articulated by retired generals and TV anchors known to be close to it. They see the development of Chabahar Port as posing a threat to the development of Gwadar and CPEC.

Seeing security primarily, if not exclusively, in military terms, the trilateral Chabahar agreement is viewed as an attempt to shift the regional balance of power against it. Some have even gone to the extent of stating that the agreement is clear proof that Iran had teamed up with hostile India and Afghanistan to isolate Pakistan in the neighbourhood.

Two retired Lt Generals who had also served as Defence Secretaries best represent this reaction. Speaking recently at a workshop in Islamabad, Lt Gen (r) Asif Yasin Malik termed the "alliance between India, Afghanistan and Iran" a "security threat to Pakistan" and attributed the situation on the "dysfunctional foreign office" and the absence of a full time foreign minister.

At the same seminar, Lt Gen (r) Nadeem Lodhi held that the existence of such a "formidable bloc" in the neighbourhood had "ominous and far reaching implications" for Pakistan. He feared that such a bloc would affect Pakistan's plans for regional economic integration, restoration of internal peace and maintenance of peaceful borders as also the CPEC timelines.

His recipe "to break out of this encircling move" was that Pakistan should formalise its defence and strategic relationship with China rather than keep it unwritten.

There are several reasons for Pakistan's insecurity.

  • First, Pakistan is worried that as and when Chabahar port and the road/rail link to Afghanistan and beyond gets operationalised, the floodgates will be opened for Indian investment in Afghanistan as well as improve transport connectivity and economic collaboration of India with countries in Central Asia.

    Pakistan is acutely aware of India's $2 billion investment in the reconstruction and rehabilitation process in Afghanistan and the fact that the Central Asian countries, as part of the erstwhile USSR, have a history of goodwill for India rather than with Pakistan's emphasis on a common religious bond.

  • Second, this sea-land link allows India to bypass Pakistan and have direct access to Afghanistan, something that Pakistan has prevented. Likewise, it provides land-locked Afghanistan an alternative route to the outside world instead of relying solely on the whims of Pakistan. This worries it as it could be the first step in Afghanistan shaking off its dependence on Pakistan.

  • Third, with the distance between Chabahar and Mumbai being less than the distance between Mumbai and Delhi, Chabahar could be the thin edge of the wedge for India to get involved in the 'brotherly' Iranian economy in a big way in the future.

    After years of international isolation, Iranian economy is thirsty for investments and development and India has some capital to invest and the market to absorb the energies that will be released from Iran. After all, India has been the second largest oil importer from Iran, whereas Pakistan has relied on Saudi Arabian oil dole-outs.

  • Fourth, Pakistan's reaction has also to be seen in the context of two developments: one is the down-turn in its relations with the US. The US Congress has stymied the sale of 8 F-16s through American funding and has also put conditions like action against the Haqqani Network on the disbursement of substantial quantity of aid. Pakistan, thus finds itself isolated not only regionally but also ignored by the only super-power.

    The second is the successful visits of PM Modi to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, countries that Pakistan considered its preserve due to 'brotherly' relations but where PM Modi was warmly received and major agreements were signed.

  • Fifth, this may not have mattered so much if its "all weather" friend China had struck to the CPEC script. The Chinese reaction on Chabahar is not what Pakistan wanted to hear. First, the state-run Global Times stated, "There is no reason for jealousy in China about a milestone deal signed between India and Iran." It further held that India can promote infrastructure development that will be conducive to economic development in the entire region.

    Chinese PM Li Keqiang followed this up by stating that the projects (Chabahar and Gwadar) have the potential to complement each other in boosting the otherwise sluggish economies of the region and that China did not see the development of Chabahar as an attempt to undermine the Gwadar project or CPEC.

    The Iranian Ambassador in Islamabad Mehdi Honardoost made a similar point that the trilateral pact on Chabahar would not rival Gwadar, or undermine CPEC but will seek to capitalise on their comparative advantage and reap benefits from each other.

    Few in Pakistan, however, seem to have taken into account what the Chinese or the Iranians have said

Pakistan's failure

In fact, Pakistan has itself to blame for feeling insecure, isolated and side-lined. For one thing, it was Pakistan's reluctance to provide India land-access to Afghanistan and onward to Central Asia that made India seek alternatives. For another, by not completing its part of Iran-Pakistan pipeline, despite solemn commitment to do so, it has irritated Iran at a time when Iran is being 'mainstreamed'.

During his

March 2016

visit to Pakistan, the Iranian President had to face embarrassment due to the ham-handed manner in which it was alleged that it was not doing enough to prevent Indian spies from entering into Pakistan.

What Pakistan does not see is that the trilateral agreement is less about geo-politics and more about geo-economics where the economic imperatives of the three countries are uppermost. For its energy requirements, Chabahar provides India a vital link to Iran, the resource-rich Central Asian states and Afghanistan, where India has major investments.

3 of Pakistan's 4 neighbours have come to an agreement essentially because it acted as a spoiler

For Afghanistan, Chabahar, and the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway provides it access to the Indian Ocean bypassing Pakistan. For Iran, as it emerges from international sanctions, it needs markets for oil and gas.

Stuck in a time warp of diplomacy being a zero sum game, Pakistan has failed to modernise its foreign policy in a changing world. What the Pakistani leadership has not understood is that development and regional trade, that can thrive only when there is peace, are the best instruments to erase the scars of a bitter and toxic past.

So long as Pakistan's foreign policy is a mere hand-maiden of its defence policy that sees security only in military terms, Pakistan will continue to face isolation in an increasingly globalised world where regional cooperation is the buzz-word.

Three of its four neighbours have come to an agreement essentially because Pakistan has proved itself to be the spoiler rather than a facilitator for regional trade. The danger is that the fourth neighbour, China, may well see Chabahar as a viable option if Pakistan does not get its act together in the future. After all, the first cargo train from China has already arrived in Tehran.

The author retired as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He tweets as @tilakdevasher1

First published: 11 June 2016, 11:41 IST
Tilak Devasher @tilakdevasher1

Tilak Devasher retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, to the Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is releasing shortly.