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China started developing Gwadar Port in Pakistan in 2002. In 2013, China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), a subsidiary of China's state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), took over the management of the port on a 40-year lease. Since then, China has invested billions of dollars in the construction of infrastructure at the port, including a new terminal, a free trade zone, an airport, and a highway connecting the port to Pakistan's northern regions. The development of Gwadar Port is a key component of China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is expected to provide China with a strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

On the other hand, India began investing in the development of Chabahar Port in Iran in 2016. In May 2016, India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement to develop the port as a hub for regional connectivity. India pledged to invest $500 million in the project, which includes the development of berths, cargo terminals, and other infrastructure at the port.

It is widely believed that India is competing with China's Gwadar project through Chabahar:

However, I am skeptical as China has considerable clout on Iran and Afghanistan.

China signed a $400 billion investment deal with Iran, Iran trades with China in Chinese currency, and Iran is becoming a member of the Chinese-dominated SCO. China also signed a trilateral agreement with Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Afghanistan has also practically become a Chinese vassal.

My question is, is Chabahar a natural project, i.e. undertaken merely out of necessity, or is it undertaken in order to challenge Gwadar?

If it is undertaken to challenge Gwadar, is India in a reasonable position to challenge China in this region?

Note: Please add research-based citation/reference in favor of your argument rather than referring to newspaper reports which are merely based on the writers' personal opinions.

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  • "is Chabahar a natural project, i.e. undertaken merely out of necessity, or is it undertaken in order to challenge Gwadar" That may not be answerable. It's very close to ask about intentions or internal motivations and we cannot read minds of people. So unless somebody said something about that, we will never know for sure. You could ask though if both ports are profitable. If they are, they both fulfill an economic purpose. Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 9:36
  • @NoDataDumpNoContribution, I already posted an answer.
    – user366312
    Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 13:59

3 Answers 3

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Indian investment in Chabahar port in Iran is undertaken out of necessity and to challenge both Pakistan and China. The objective of India in funding the Chabahar port are:

  1. To project India's infrastructure prowess by building it's first offshore port in the Gulf.
  2. To create a sea trade route bypassing Pakistan.
  3. To create an alternative land route to Afghanistan.
  4. To counter China's Belt and Road Initiative and provide Eurasia with an alternative route through Iran.
  5. To improve relationship with Iran, reduce Pakistan and China's influence there and project India's soft power in Gulf.

Pakistan has often denied India permission to freely trade with Afghanistan, and this has often curtailed Indian and Afghanistan interests and relationship. The creation of an alternate trade route for Afghanistan will help Afghanistan increase its connectivity with the rest of the world, and reduce its dependence on Pakistan.

India will develop and operate the Chabahar port. India Ports Global, a recently formed port project investment arm of the shipping ministry and a joint venture between the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and the Kandla port, will invest $85 million in developing two container berths with a length of 640 metres and three multi-cargo berths. ... State run railway body IRCON International will set up a railway line at Chabahar to move goods right up to Afghanistan. The 500-km rail link between Chabahar and Zahedan will link Delhi to the rest of Iran's railway network. - The Economic Times, May 2016

India - Iran - Afghanistan Economic Corridor

The full development of the port would lower landlocked Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistani ports for assured access to the sea. Besides, the trilateral arrangement could balance joint forays by China and Pakistan into the Indian Ocean. In February, Pakistan decided that China would operate its Gwadar port, just 76 km from Chabahar. For the first time, Gwadar would provide Chinese ships sustained anchorage in an area on the edge of the Arabian Sea, not far from the Strait of Hormuz, through which the bulk of the world’s energy supplies pass. - The Hindu, May 2013

It is a part of the International North–South Transport Corridor (NSTC) to provide Eurasia an alternate trade route with India:

In addition to the China-led New Silk Road, Eurasian players are boosting the development of the North-South International Transport Corridor which aims to connect South Asian countries with North and Western Europe ... The North-South International Transport Corridor (ITC) is the ship, rail and road route which aims to increase transit and foreign trade freight flows within the Eurasian continent. The initiative to connect the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea and beyond to North and Western Europe via the Russian Federation was kicked off back in September 2000 in St. Petersburg by Russia, Iran and India. The agreement was ratified by the founding states in 2002 ... its major advantage compared to other transport routes, most notably the Suez Canal, is that it will reduce the transportation distance at least by half, thereby cutting the transit time and cost. - Sputnik International, August 2016

International North–South Transport Corridor

“India now maintains a balanced West Asian policy of maintaining good relations with Saudi Sunnis, Iranian Shias and Israel’s Jews,” he said. “It is a policy all three have come to understand, perhaps even appreciate.” - Quartz, May 2016

If it is undertaken to challenge Gwadar, is India in a reasonable position to challenge China in this region?

It isn't just about India and China though.

Iran in particular too has been keen to develop the port since the 1970's. Its then ally, the US, even wanted to develop it as a naval base but the plan was dropped after the Shah of Iran was deposed. So Iran has a long vested interest in developing Chabahar that it is unlikely to abandon. (In fact, it had even invited China and Pakistan to invest in the port and develop it). Iran's strategic interest to develop the port cannot be ignored here:

But far outweighing the economic significance of Chabahar and under-played both by India and Iran is the strategic significance of Chabahar when developed to its fullest potential.

Iran would be able to have an Indian Ocean deep-sea port, the first for Iran outside the Gulf. Iran has had notable naval ambitions to emerge as a regional naval power in the North Arabian segment of the Indian Ocean. Chabahar’s development and the economic activity that it would generate would enable Iran to undertake sizeable development of its outlying Eastern Regions bordering Pakistan. It would also enable Iran to adopt a stronger defensive posture on its Eastern Border with Pakistan, and neutralise Pakistan’s propensity of providing its territory as a springboard for external military intervention in Iran.

...It needs to be noted that Iran did extend an invitation to China and Pakistan to participate in the development of Chabahar but they did not express interest. Reasons for their disinterest are fathomable. Only Japan has expressed willingness to participate in the Indian effort to develop Chabahar. - Chabahar’s Imperatives To Emerge As Flagship Of Iran-India Strategic Partnership – Analysis

The project has indeed faced a lot of hiccups and delays primarily because of US sanctions against Iran. India has often had to do a fine balancing act between Iran and US which did slow down the project. Russian interest and participation has helped counter US sanctions and speeded up the project, and increased Iran's commitment to the project as it allows it to counter the US imposed economic isolation.

Afghanistan falling again under Taliban's control did result in a deterioration of its relationship with India and hence India's foreign policy ignored it temporarily. However, India also hopes to invest in Iranian gas field in the future to increase and secure its energy needs and so Chabahar port continues to be of strategic interest to India in which India will continue investing in it despite the hurdles from foreign powers. Iran also has historic and cultural ties with India and improving its relationship with India, and not being dependent on China, is also an important priority for Iran too. They are thus highly unlikely to let either Pakistan or China derail this project:

When China clinched a massive $400 billion bilateral investment pact with Iran, a 25-year deal that seeks to revive the heavily sanctioned and economically isolated nation, few noted that India was already well-engaged.

By the end of May, India will begin full-scale operations in its first foreign port venture at Iran’s Chabahar, a facility that opens on the Gulf of Oman that will aim to facilitate more South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East trade while bypassing Pakistan.

... It’s not immediately clear how the new China-Iran deal will work, if at all, to develop Iran’s trade and port infrastructure as the precise terms of the bilateral partnership have not been made public.

If it does, India will have a distinct first-mover advantage through its nearly completed development of two terminals at Chahabar’s Shahid Beheshti complex that opens onto the Gulf of Oman. ... Chabahar has seen limited operations since 2019, a result of US restrictions imposed on Iran’s energy exports ... That’s set to change. New Delhi ultimately aims to link Chabahar to its International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a project initially proposed by India, Russia and Iran in 2000 and later joined by 10 other Central Asian nations.

.... Initial estimates suggest INSTC could cut current carriage costs by about 30% and travel times by half. That means more trade and port activity for Iran and less for Pakistan, according to industry experts. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) claimed last year that Iran has already usurped 70% of Pakistan’s recent transport business at Karachi port. - India has key first-mover edge on China in Iran

So no, I do not see China de-railing the Indo-Iran Chabahar port project anytime soon, because it is in Iran's interest not to. China cannot invest in the project because it competes with Gwadar port and the move will displease Pakistan. Its other option is to completely abandon the Gwadar port project and sign a deal with Iran to take over the Chabahar port. But that can damage relationship with Pakistan.

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    @user366312 Improving its ties with Afghanistan and reducing both India's and Afghanistan's dependence on the trade route through Pakistan is one of the contributing necessity factor. That it helps undermine both China and Pakistan is also a strategic factor (Pakistan has often dictated what India can trade with Afghanistan through its routes, and India doesn't want China to have any influence in the Indian Ocean).
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 15:14
  • @user366312 What do you feel lacks in the second part of the answer? The project is on-going, after all. Russia has also been roped in.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 15:20
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To cut the long story short, just simple facts:

  • India's interest in Chabahar predates China's Gwadar project. India has been discussing developing Chabahar since the early 2000s, before China became involved in Gwadar. This suggests India has its own strategic interests there beyond countering China.

  • Chabahar and Gwadar are not necessarily direct competitors. They are in different countries and serve different hinterlands. Chabahar allows India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, while Gwadar serves western China. There is room for both to develop.

  • India faces significant challenges in fully developing Chabahar due to US sanctions on Iran and its own budget constraints. Meanwhile, China has invested over $60 billion in Pakistan alone under CPEC and can bring far greater resources to bear.

  • While Iran has deepened ties with China in recent years, it has also continued strategic cooperation with India in areas like energy and the Chabahar port. Iran is unlikely to align wholly with either India or China.

So, yes - some strategic rivalry exists, but it is not the sole factor driving India's interest in Chabahar. India has its own reasons to develop better access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Given the challenges it faces, India is unlikely to be able to seriously challenge China's position in the region, at least in the near future.

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    India's interest in Chabahar predates China's Gwadar project. India has been discussing developing Chabahar since the early 2000s, before China became involved in Gwadar. --- factually incorrect. This negates the entire answer.
    – user366312
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 9:54
  • @user366312 Serg is correct - The INTSC was formed in 2000 and ratified two years later following a pact between India, Russia, and Iran. - India and Iran stepping up efforts to route shipments via Chabahar port.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 10:31
  • @sfxedit, Chabahar Port was not part of INSTC, Bandar Abbas was. Chabahar was proposed in 2002 when the Iranian president was visiting India. Chinese development of Gwadar was almost completed by that time.
    – user366312
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 16:39
  • 1
    @user366312 That's a good point that the originally planned INSTC route includes only the port of Bandar Abbas, and not Chabahar port, as Bandar Abbas was an already operational port. But the connectivity of Chabahar port to the INSTC was one of the planned proposals. As you noted, India and Iran jointly planned to develop it since 2002 (actually long before that - it was only made public in 2002). After trial shipping were conducted, India has already proposed that Chabahar be included in INSTC.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 19:59
  • @sfxedit, I already wrote an answer. I didn't take random tweets and newspaper articles into account as there are millions of conflicting information given. I only consulted open-access research publications.
    – user366312
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 20:02
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Disclaimer: I discarded all kinds of newspaper articles and sought help from research articles from open-access journals.


The other posted answers are factually incorrect.

  • Chabahar was not undertaken out of necessity of India
  • Chabahar was not undertaken to challenge Gwadar by India

Explanantion

India, Russia, and Iran signed the INSTC Corridor project was established on 12 September 2000. Chabahr Port was not part of this project. It was Bandar Abbas.

enter image description here

In the above map of INSTC, there is no mention of Chabahar Port.

Chabahar was proposed by Mohammad Khatami in January 2003 when he was visiting India. Chabahar agreement was signed on 23 May 2003 during Indian PM Atal Bihari's visit to Tehran. It was Iran that requested Indian authorities to invest in and develop that port.

Pakistan started negotiations with China for the development of Gwadar Port in 2001. The construction started in March 2002.

Apparently, Iran's proposal for the development of Chabahar Port was inspired by the Chinese undertaking in Gwadar.

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  • Downvoted as you completely ignore that it is in India's best interest to bypass Pakistan when trading with Afhanistan. You also ignore the fact that India has objected to the CPEC route, that connects China with Gwadar port, as it passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir which is a disputed region between India and Pakistan.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 20:07
  • @sfxedit, Bandar Abbas was enough to bypass Pakistan. Chabahar was not an Indian proposal, it was an Iranian proposal.
    – user366312
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 20:08
  • You may be interested in reading Revitalizing INSTC: Analyzing Geopolitical Realignments and the China Factor.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 20:11
  • @sfxedit, This article doesn't negate my answer.
    – user366312
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 20:13
  • It does as it clearly spells out the strategic factor driving India's commitment to the Iranian trade route: The INSTC is strategically crucial for India because the corridor route circumvents Pakistan and provides Delhi access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, providing a viable counter to the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) of the BRI (Map-3) that India alleges violates its sovereignty. India is thus looking to expand the strategic value of the INSTC ... The INSTC may hold the key to India’s “Connect Central Asia” policy ...
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 22, 2023 at 20:19

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