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Collapsing Reach: Is Chabahar the next Indian strategic defeat?

Chabahar
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The Iranian port of Chabahar, touted to be the lynchpin of the “great Indian move to circumvent Pakistan” seems to be on the verge of passing out of the hands of New Delhi. This would be the latest inclusion of the strategic setbacks to India.

India has pledged more than $500 million to develop the strategically located port of Chabahar — roughly 1,800 kilometers (1,110 miles) from the capital Tehran — since it first expressed interest in 2003. Yet repeated delays have prompted Iran to turn to China in the hope of speeding up construction.

On a March trip to Islamabad, Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he’d welcome the Chinese and Pakistani investment in Chabahar, as according to media reports. He cited China’s development of Gwadar, a port down the coast is a showcase of President Xi Jinping’s Belt-and-Road infrastructure initiative.

Sri Lanka has also shown a flight away from the Indian orbit by moving closer to China. It seems that the Indian hubris, bully tactics and overestimation of its powers has led New Delhi to a path of strategic failure.

The shift makes sense for Iran, which wants to ensure Chabahar is an economic success. But it could be a strategic loss for India, which opposes China’s inclusion in the Indian Ocean and is already worried that Gwadar could one day be used as a military base — along with other China-backed ports from Myanmar to Bangladesh to Sri Lanka.

Any formal investment from Beijing would further weaken the strategic advantage for India to invest in Chabahar, which is close to Pakistan’s western border. The Gwadar port is part of Xi’s plan to finance $50 billion in infrastructure investments in Pakistan, and Chinese merchants already have a strong foothold in Chabahar.

Read more: Link Chabahar with Gwadar: Iran tells Pakistan

While it’s unclear whether China will take up Iran’s offer, the involvement of the financial and technical might of China would almost certainly speed up development of the port. Iran’s invitation to invest was welcomed in Pakistan. “It’s a positive statement that came for the first time from their side,” Dostain Khan Jamaldini, chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority, said by phone. The two countries are already discussing a new ferry service that would link ports in Gwadar and Karachi with the Iranian ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, Jamaldini said.

India first agreed to help Iran expand Chabahar port in 2003, constructing two terminals—a multipurpose cargo terminal and a container terminal. Progress slowed particularly as Western nations imposed sanctions on Iran, which were lifted in 2015. Delays have persisted since then, including a two-year dispute over whether India would pay $30 million of excise duties on port equipment imported into Iran.

The Iranian port of Chabahar, touted to be the lynchpin of the “great Indian move to circumvent Pakistan” seems to be on the verge of passing out of the hands of New Delhi. This would be the latest inclusion of the strategic setbacks to India.

Cooperation between the two ports could be awkward. India and Pakistan are historic foes that have fought several wars, indeed Indian media and academia has painted Chabahar as “India’s master stroke” in circumventing Pakistan to reach Afghanistan.

If Chabahar slips out of India’s fingers it would be the latest setback in a chain of embarrassing defeats to the South Asian state. India’s strategic reach seems to be collapsing all around it, specifically, in its self-proclaimed backyard of South Asia.

The island nation of Maldives, with just over 0.4 million population, is repeatedly rebuffing Indian directives, which is a sign of growing independence in the region. Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Male last week completes fast developing axis between China, Pakistan and Maldives.

Read more: Does Chabahar matter?

India has always used a policy of power maximization in the region. It has stormed and annexed territory such as Junagarh, Hyderabad and Goa in the name of police action. It has utilized proxies in the form of LTTE in Sri Lanka, Shanti Bahini in Bangladesh & BSN militants/Mukti bahini in Pakistan and through economic measures such as a blockade on Nepal in 1989 and 2015-16.

The much touted 2016 SAARC summit boycott is a recent sample of India’s venting of rage against the members. New Delhi has forced postponements of SAARC Summits on four occasions: in 1991 at the 6th Summit in Colombo, in 1999 at the 11th Summit in Katmandu, in 2013 at the 12th Summit in Islamabad and in 2005 at the 13th Summit in Dhaka.

However, recent events in the subcontinent show that the member states are backing out of India’s backyard. Nepal has recently undergone elections with a leftist victory that has moved closer to China irking India. Sri Lanka has also shown a flight away from the Indian orbit by moving closer to China. It seems that the Indian hubris, bully tactics and overestimation of its powers has led New Delhi to a path of strategic failure.

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