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A Tale of Two Ports: A Potential Shift in Indian Ocean Maritime Politics?

Graphic by China-Global South Project.

By Saniya Kulkarni

India recently signed an agreement with Iran to jointly develop and operate Chabahar Port, located on the southeastern Iranian coast on the Gulf of Oman. The new arrangement, which entails India committing to investing $370 million into the infrastructure of the port over the next decade, is seen as a major step towards New Delhi improving its ties with Central Asia through an extended corridor via Iran and Afghanistan since its only land routes to this region go through long-standing rival Pakistan.

The operation of this port would enable India to circumvent these routes and become a more important node in global shipping routes between Asia and Europe.

A mere 70 kilometres away is the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which is often cited as a major factor behind India’s interest in Chabahar. Gwadar is of immense importance to both China and Pakistan as one of the critical projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the only deep-sea port in the country.

Despite its strategic importance, the port city has been shrouded in controversy due to violence stemming from political instability in its surrounding region, as well as demands to mitigate Chinese activity in the port threatening local livelihoods. A rise in separatist violence in the Balochistan province over the past few months has spilled over into multiple instances of attacks on Chinese workers involved in the development and operation of Gwadar Port. Most recently, a foiled attack led to the death of eight militants.

Despite voicing concern over the attacks, China assured its partner that ‘deeply-rooted ties’ between the two would remain unaffected, and unsurprisingly so. Internal opposition to Chinese interests in Gwadar is not new, and neither is sporadic violence in the region. For Beijing, the benefits of having access to the Indian Ocean region from its Western border far outweigh the costs of maintaining it. However, it is now possible that these costs will rise a fewfold.

India’s investment in Chabahar is often dubbed as a counter to China’s presence in Gwadar and a mechanism for the South Asian power to project power in its naval neighborhood. An early version of the India-Iran agreement over the development of the port came into being in 2018 but remained fairly local in ambition, which resulted in the U.S. taking a milder approach and granting a sanction waiver to India specifically for this project.

However, the newer agreement plans to link the port with the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), connecting the IOR region with Russia, which seems to have ruffled some feathers in Washington.

Hours after news of the agreement broke, the U.S. warned India of potential sanctions, which Indian External Minister S Jaishankar labeled as a “narrow view” of the development. It is not entirely clear what caused a delay in India acting upon its 2018 agreement. Still, this shift is indicative of a perhaps more assertive and independent approach – a theme that has been gaining purchase in Indian foreign policy in the last few years.

If India were to continue on this path to seeking more autonomy in its neighborhood, in light of the rising costs for China operating in Pakistan, we could be seeing the emergence of a new security calculus in the Indian Ocean Region.

Saniya Kulkarni is a Programme Manager at LSE IDEAS.

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