Beijing's decision to deploy its warships and submarines in conjunction with the Pakistani Navy at Pakistan's strategic Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea has set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.
The port features prominently in China's 2,442-km, US$51 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which once completed in 2017 will open up cheaper cargo routes for China while facilitating export of Chinese goods to the Middle East and Africa, although the port and the corridor are not without their problems, as Asia Sentinel reported on Nov. 11.
Nonetheless, India sees the development as a threat to its security and a strategy by its two belligerent Asian neighbors to counterbalance its naval force and ramp up the presence of the Chinese navy in the troubled Indian Ocean Region.
Indian defense analysts fear that the Gwadar port will not only bolster the military capabilities of its enemies but also allow the Chinese Navy easy access to the Arabian Sea along India's periphery.
"Such a foothold offers a tailor-made platform to the Chinese navy for future missions,” a senior officer in the Defense Ministry told Asia Sentinel. “It potentially redraws the region’s geopolitical map by giving China a new trade link to key Arabian Sea shipping routes at the mouth of the oil-rich Persian Gulf while also bestowing strategic depth upon the Pakistan Navy."
India's former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta said earlier that Gwadar could also be leveraged by Pakistan to “take control over the world energy jugular.” Pakistan, incidentally, is also scheduled to receive eight new attack diesel-electric submarines from China in a US$5-billion-plus deal. But more than that, what rankles India most is that the development of the port, entirely funded by the Chinese, and the corridor to Kashgar in Xinjiang province has blocked its own ambitions to revive its traditional routes to Central Asia.
The new port and the associated geopolitical developments will impact India's own security and primacy in the region. China’s involvement in the project will also lead to greater rapport between Beijing and Islamabad, a potentially troublesome brew for New Delhi.
The Gwadar project, policy analysts say, is about much more than simple trade. Once its problems are straightened out, it could potentially strengthen China and Pakistan's positions versus India, and hedge against US influence in Asia.
"We're fully aware of the fact that Gwadar port has been developed both for commercial and military purposes. Pakistan and China would like to use it to squeeze India to the extent that is possible," Major General (Retd.) Sehgal told ANI news agency.
These regional dynamics, and the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, have led New Delhi to step up its own vigilance. It is keeping a hawk's eye on Chinese warships in the ongoing shadow-boxing for the same strategic Indian Ocean space. As Indian Admiral Sunil Lanba said earlier this week in New Delhi: "We keep a close eye on Chinese warships and submarines, including nuclear ones, and constantly monitor their movements in the IOR. We have the capabilities, assets and plans in place to tackle any threat or challenge."
As a counterweight to Pakistan’s activities, India has also stepped up action on the Chabahar Port that it is building in Iran along the Makaran coast. Chabahar, in which India has decided to invest some US$100 million, is considered strategically and economically important for the country’s exports to landlocked Afghanistan. It is also the first overseas venture by ports owned by the Indian government.
Iran and India decided in 2003 to develop Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, near Iran's border with Pakistan. However, India's investment lay pending for years, in part owing to US sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, many of which were lifted earlier this year.
Gwadar port and Chabahar – located barely 72 km away from each other – are not mere commercial hubs, say experts, but "geopolitical launch pads that can alter the strategic balance in the region." While Gwadar allows China to monitor US and Indian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, its proxy Pakistan can dominate the energy routes from there. On the other hand, Chabahar port is India’s gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and beyond. It can allow India to keep a watchful eye on Pakistani and Chinese naval activities in the IOR and Gulf.
In May this year, India also signed a tripartite agreement with Afghanistan and Iran to link the Chabahar port with Afghanistan via the Zaranj-Delaram highway, also constructed by India. The agreement will provide land-to-sea connectivity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics through Iran, bypassing Pakistan.
As expected, Pakistan regards the building of Chabahar as a security threat to itself and a move to counter the Gwadar development.
"The Great Game rivalry is clearly on. The battle for dominance is expected to see the Pakistan-China axis do everything possible to ensure its dominance in the region. On the other hand, Chabahar Port is part of India’s larger geo-strategic calculations to limit the China-Pak influence in the region and gain access to the Middle East and Central Asia," said defense analyst Chris Silverkris, a foreign policy scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
However, the broader view in India's defense circles is that India needs to keep promoting Chabahar as a strategic port to address both the ease of trading as well as its own security needs in the region and, if required, even block the energy sea lanes of China.
Chabahar, analysts say, is also a staging point for launching India’s soft power. "Washington broadly supports Chabahar as it outflanks the CPEC project with Gwadar as its focal point. From the Indian perspective, these developments hold profound implications, especially against the backdrop of the United States’ unfolding pivot strategy in the Asia-Pacific," said Rajesh Rao of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. "The whole world will be watching these developments with interest."