Chabahar Port: Strategic Importance

Chabahar Port | Strategic Importance for India

Chabahar Port

  • International North- South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connects South and Central Asia to North Europe via Russia.
  • Iran is a partner nation in INSTC and Iran’s efforts to enhance utility of Chabahar Port by developing linkages that will connect it with Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics most economically should also be seen in this context.

Strategic Importance and India

India and Iran agreement signed in 2002 to develop Chabahar into a full deep sea port.
WHY?

  • Circumvention of Pakistan
  • Route to landlocked Afghanistan which has security ties and economic interests.
  • Trade with Europe.
  • Indian Ocean outlet for New Delhi’s grand International North- South Transit Corridor (INSTC) initiative.
  • With India’s overland access to Central Asia blocked by Pakistan, this will provide New Delhi vital access to Central Asian, Russian, and ultimately European markets, enabling India to effectively compete with China.
  • Compared to current Indian Ocean-European transport route via Red Sea, Suez Canal and Mediterranean, Chabahar-based INSTC is estimated to be 40% shorter and will reduce cost of Indian trade by 30%.
    • Recently India also proposed membership for Turkmenistan for NSTC.
  • Possibility of importing gas from Iran via Mundra Port along with enhanced trade and oil import opportunities – South Asia Gas Enterprises Pvt Ltd (SAGE) – undersea pipeline to bring gas from Oman and Iran to India. 
  • For protection of interests in Afghanistan, India requires a viable access and Iran provides India most viable transit.

Strategic Importance | Benefits for India

  • India’s intentions to build a 900 kilometer rail link from Hajigak iron ore mines in Bamiyan to Chabahar Port and 600 kilometer road from Chabahar to Iranian city of Zahedan.
  • India considering investing in Chabahar-FarajBam railway.
  • Chabahar port will serve as a cost-effective outlet to bring iron ore.

Past Hiccups and Future Prospects

  • Until 2012, India ceased construction of Chabahar port under US pressure to toughen international sanctions against Iran.
  • However in 2012, when a China took over administration of Gwadar port, India resumed construction of Chabahar port.
  • Whereas original Chabahar port project and transit corridors involved a trilateral agreement between Iran, India and Russia, Indian- led 2012 resumption of project involves participation of 11 additional countries from Middle East, Caucasus, Central Asia and Europe, each lured by benefits of easier access to Indian Ocean.
  • Trade between Afghanistan and Chabahar will bolster Iranian and Indian influence in Afghanistan after NATO’s withdrawal, providing a measure of counter- balance to Pakistani influence.
  • India’s substantial investment present and future in Chabahar and traditional old ties with Iran, also provide India with an opportunity to become a player in Middle East and Indian influence over Chabahar could be leveraged in many ways.

Strategic Importance Vs Gwadar | India Vs China

  • Chabahar is located on Arabian Sea’s Makran coast in Sistan and Baluchistan Province.
  • Pakistan’s Gwadar port also is situated on Pakistan’s Baluchistan province’s Makran coast.
  • Both offer direct access to Indian Ocean.
  • Both China and India are seeking closer relations with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
  • For India, Chabahar is nearest port to Indian Ocean providing direct access to Middle East and Central Asia.
  • For China, Gwadar with a substantial head start over Chabahar could be a terminus for pipelines in its oil and gas supply chain from Africa and Middle East, allowing it to bypass congested pinch point that is Strait of Hormuz.
  • Gwadar also brightens prospects for a pipeline corridor bringing oil and gas to China from Middle East as an alternate route to transport oil around Indian Subcontinent and through increasingly disputed territorial waters of South China Sea.
  • Route will be cheaper, less vulnerable and give Beijing greater freedom of action to pursue its claims to sovereignty over South China Sea.
  • Direct access to India Ocean would give China a strategic post of observation and a key location for its navy and a listening post from where Chinese may exert surveillance on hyper-strategic sea links as well as military activities of Indian and American navies in region, and second, dual-use civilian-military facilities providing a base for Chinese ships and submarines.
  • For India, Gwadar port being so close to Straits of Hormuz has implications for India as it would enable Pakistan to exercise control over energy routes along with challenging Indian assertion over Indian Ocean.
  • Iran is more stable than Pakistan, it has better relations with Afghanistan and Central Asian states, Chabahar route goes through relatively stable parts of Afghanistan and Iran already has good relations with everybody along route leading north (including local “warlords”) into Tajikistan.
  • Significantly, it is in Tajikistan where Iran has already been financing several transport projects including Anzob tunnel.
  • Luckily for Iranians, U.S. constructed a bridge over Amu Darya that fits in nicely with Chabahar to Khojent route.
  • Problem with Gwadar is that while port has been built -supporting infrastructure of railroad link, industrial capacity, and civic structures at Gwadar is almost non-existent and proposed Gwadar route also goes through more problematic areas of Afghanistan.
  • Countries of Central Asia will likely benefit from both Chabahar and Gwadar.

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INDO–US LOGISTICS SUPPORT AGREEMENT

Logistics Support Agreement | Some major pointers

Logistics Support Agreement

  • Initially Logistics Support Agreement was called Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) but later it was renamed Logistics Support Agreement. 
  • ACSA is a standard agreement that US has with its NATO allies and other countries like Singapore, Afghanistan, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. US and Pakistan also signed an agreement in 2002, which lapsed in 2012.
  • Under Logistics Support Agreement, two sides can access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed.
  • In past, India has provided logistics assistance to US on a ‘case by case’ basis. 
  • So for a short while, we permitted refueling of American aircraft in Bombay during first Gulf War in 1991. 
  • During Operation Enduring Freedom, India permitted US ships to visit Indian ports for repair and fuel. 
  • It also offered US military bases for operations in Afghanistan before Pakistan was coerced into doing needful. 
  • India also escorted US vessels through Malacca Straits in this period.
  • CISMOA would allow US to provide India with its encrypted communications equipment and systems so that Indian and US higher commanders, aircraft and ships can communicate with each other through secure networks in peace and war.
  • BECA would provide India with topographical and aeronautical data and products which will aid navigation and targeting. 
  • These are areas in which US is very advanced and agreement could definitely benefit India, although armed forces which use systems from many other countries like Israel and Russia are not comfortable with sharing information about their systems with US.
  • All these agreements are reciprocal. 
  • Two other agreements are not being discussed, but remain problematic. 
  • US require all foreign buyers to sign up to these agreements, and this includes close allies like UK and Australia. 
  • EUMA and EEUMA remain major deal-breakers when it comes to India acquiring US equipment, because India cannot always permit US to access locations where equipment or weapons systems are located. 

Does India need these foundation agreements?

  • If India intends to maintain its relations with US at current level, it can live without them.
  • But if it plans to enhance its ties to level of strategic coordination, or even cooperation, India would be well advised to sign them.

What would India gain by these agreements?

  • India could definitely benefit from BECA.
  • Logistics Support Agreement can theoretically extend reach of Indian Navy deep into Asia-Pacific region, where it has no base facilities.

Does India intend operational deployment in those areas anytime in this decade?

  • Logistics Support Agreement could also be useful in Indian operations in its backyard in Indian Ocean, but could it access American facilities in Oman for some future contingency in relation to Pakistan? Probably not.
  • Downsides of CISMOA are obvious – it would enable US to listen in on Indian conversations in operations where US may be neutral or even adversarial, such as contingencies relating to Pakistan.
  • It is for this reason that India has refused to accept advanced communications equipment with US made C-130J transports and P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and instead outfitted them with non-US communications equipment.
  • As for US, it does not quite have to depend on an Indian Logistics Support Agreement.
  • It has prosecuted two wars in past decade and more, without any real need for Indian facilities.
  • But getting India to sign up on LSA, CISMOA and BECA would serve purpose of binding India closer to US militarily, because it would make their equipment interoperable.
  • US’ larger goals in its ties with India are no secret.
  • 2006 version of National Security Strategy of US noted that US interests required a strong relationship with India, and that “India now is poised to shoulder global obligations in cooperation with US in a way befitting a major power.”
  • But Indian perspective remains clouded because it has no declared national security strategy, and hence it is difficult to determine what exactly it is seeking from its relationship with US.
  • Most obvious and general answer is that it wants high-technology, trade and good political ties with world’s primary power which would aid its economic growth.
  • Only US has clout to line up Nuclear Suppliers Group to waive its rules governing civil nuclear trade, as it did in 2008.
  • American blessings are needed to get rid of other technology restraints arising from Wassenaar Arrangement or Australia Group, and for big prize – a permanent seat in UNSC.

Would India be game for Joint Military Operations?

  • If so against whom? China or Pakistan, or some other party?
  • India and US do not have a common world or regional view – US may be inimical to China, but its relations with Beijing are denser than those between India and China.
  • Likewise, it may have difficulties with Pakistan, but not of kind India has.
  • India views good ties with Iran as a strategic asset, and US position is different.
  • Same could be said of Russia on whom Indian military machine will be dependent for at least another decade and a half.
  • Draft US-India Defence Partnership Act introduced in US Congress seeks to amend US Arms Control and Export Control Act to give India a special status equivalent of US treaty allies and partners.
  • In addition, this act will call on US president to “develop military contingency plans for addressing threats to mutual security interests” as well as call on president to “annually assess extent to which India possesses strategic operational capabilities to execute military operations of mutual interest to US and India.”
  • Presumably, if India lacks those capabilities, US will help to make up deficit.

Whether India wants that kind of a relationship with US

“Military operations of mutual interest” implies a military alliance. And military alliances come up when there is an imminent sense of danger.

What India Needs to Do?

  • So, one calculation that India has to make is whether balance of power in its region has become so skewed and situation so dangerous in its relations with China that it needs a military alliance with US to maintain balance of power.
  • Whether or not Washington and New Delhi are on same page on issues relating to not just South China Sea, but Sino-Indian border, Sino-Pakistan relationship and so on.
  • New Delhi should learn from way other US allies and proto-allies have dealt with Washington. Countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and even China have gained a great deal of political and strategic support or military aid by lining up with US. But at end of day they have played their own game.

Indo-US Important Agreements :

  • Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA)
  • Logistics Support Agreement (LSA)
  • Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence.
  • End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA)
  • Enhanced End Use Monitoring Agreement (EEUMA).

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