Pause for a reality check

India’s estimates of the Chabahar dividend need to be tempered by a close reading of the security scenario in the extended neighbourhood

Published - July 04, 2016 01:19 am IST

160704 - NSG Diplomacy Keshav

160704 - NSG Diplomacy Keshav

>India’s abortive bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) highlights the perils of high visibility and volatility in diplomatic negotiations. Indian diplomacy in the past was careful to operate “under the radar”, but there has been a tendency, of late, to depart from this time-honoured practice. Added to this are attempts seen at times to impart a “spin” to developments. The frenzied campaign for >NSG membership and the failed bid come within this purview .

Recent visits of our Prime Minister to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Qatar have, undoubtedly, helped strengthen relations with these countries, especially in the area of economics and trade. Each one of these countries has also been desirous of partnering India in development-related activities, recognising India’s current importance in Asia and the region. However, the same cannot be said of strategic and security relations. Here, certain brakes require to be applied to diplomatic hyperbole. For instance, mere mention in joint statements of shared security and strategic concerns, common ideals and convergence of interests, enhanced defence ties, etc do not translate into a strategic relationship. In such matters there is need to tread with caution.

Caution against exuberance Most countries of West Asia have their own security and strategic construct. India is not visualised — nor does India see itself — as a “net provider of security” in the region and, consequently, India does not figure prominently in these countries’ security and strategic plans. There are again certain limits to intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation, as serious differences exist between many of these countries and India on what constitutes terrorism and who can be described as a terrorist. Saudi Arabia, for example, needs to be seen as a dilettante in security matters — >flirting with different nations, most noticeably the U.S ., and frequently leaning towards Pakistan. Hence, when the India-Saudi Arabia joint statement talks of the two countries’ responsibilities to promote peace, security and stability in the region, it conveys different meanings for the two countries. For Saudi Arabia, locked in a near existential conflict with Iran — with which it has ideological, doctrinal and hegemonistic issues — Iran is the main enemy. For India, Iran is a friend, and the threat of terrorism emanates from Pakistan, which remains intent on employing terror as a strategic instrumentality to destroy India. Hence, it is best to avoid an excess of exuberance in such matters.

Much of this applies in equal, if not greater, measure to the current euphoria regarding our relations with Iran. Dealing with an ancient civilisation like Iran tends to be complex and complicated. The affinity between Persian and Indian civilisations is a historical fact. That India is home to the second largest Shia population in the world is well known. The umbilical links between Qom (Iran) and centres of Shia orthodoxy in India may be less known, but do exist. Yet, Iran maintains a certain wariness in its relations with India. Many attribute this to India’s negative vote in the Atomic Energy Agency earlier on, and to India’s implicit adherence to U.S. sanctions against Iran more recently. Other reasons possibly exist, but clearly New Delhi needs to work far more strenuously to regain Tehran’s confidence. One high-profile visit by the Prime Minister, or the inking of the Chabahar port agreement, may not be enough.

A reference in the India-Iran joint statement to the importance of regional connectivity linked to the >development of Chabahar port is being mistakenly viewed by some people as a declaration of strategic intent. Chabahar port was solely intended to be an alternate trade and transit route to Afghanistan and conceived as such at the turn of the century. It aimed to circumvent Pakistan’s embargo on movement of goods from India to Afghanistan with no strategic overtones. The transit corridor involving Chabahar to Zaranj to Delaram (Afghanistan) was to be complemented by another International North-South Transit Corridor from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas into Central Asia. The delay in setting up Chabahar port has, however, reduced its economic value and utility, with China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative — to which both Pakistan and Iran subscribe — threatening to outflank it.

No comparison with Gwadar Another impression that the establishment of Chabahar port gives India a strategic advantage vis-à-vis China is equally misleading. Comparison with Gwadar port makes this obvious. China’s investment in Gwadar port dwarfs what India proposes to invest in Chabahar. Moreover, China’s relations with Iran are today on an upswing. Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first major world leader to visit Iran after the lifting of sanctions, signing more than a dozen deals, including the OBOR initiative. Iran has openly welcomed both China’s OBOR initiative and Maritime Silk Road initiative, and sees major economic benefits to itself once they are completed.

China’s trade with Iran is of the order of $52 billion, much higher than the $9 billion trade between India and Iran. China expects to raise this to nearly $600 billion over the next decade. Not to be ignored is the Pakistan factor, adding further grist to China’s efforts. This includes dangling the possibility of an Iran-Pakistan-China gas pipeline.

Challenge in Afghanistan Unfortunately, Afghanistan, for which Chabahar port was intended to be the lifeline, is in dire straits today and its future in jeopardy. India’s investment in Afghanistan has been substantial (for which it paid a heavy price in terms of both development assistance and the loss of human lives), including the Rs.1,700 crore Salma dam in the strategically vital Herat province (opened by the Prime Minister on June 4 this year); the new Afghan Parliament building; and the 218-km long Zaranj-Delaram Highway in western Afghanistan — but it faces the prospect of losing out on all that it has invested.

Currently, large swathes of Afghanistan are under Taliban control. Constant attacks on government and other targets have eroded the credibility of the National Unity Government. Afghanistan’s experiment of forming a government with Ashraf Ghani as President and Abdullah Abdullah as Chief Executive does not appear to be succeeding. Mr. Ghani, a one-time U.S. acolyte, has tended to alternate between aligning with Pakistan and opposing it. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, he displays little preference for India. Some Afghan leaders now seem to be leaning towards the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and give it a key role in a future security architecture.

Collapse of the National Unity Government will almost certainly lead to a surge in Taliban-directed activity. Countries that have propped up the National Unity Government might even offer an olive branch to the Taliban and involve Taliban members in a future Afghan government. This would then enable the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Haqqani network and the Islamic State (IS) to further enlarge their presence inside Afghanistan. A Talibanised Afghanistan could well become a staging post for launching attacks against India. The possibility of regional instability, which Pakistan could use to its advantage and to India’s detriment, cannot also be disregarded.

These developments constitute a strategic reversal for India. In the new order of things, India faces the danger of being relegated to a “bit player”, with little or no influence. India has been kept out of the newly created Quadrilateral Coordination Group which consists of the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss Afghanistan’s future. Left with few options and with the anticipated proliferation of Islamist extremist groups including the al-Qaeda and the IS, India’s focus would need to shift from development to finding ways and means to ensure that Afghanistan does not turn into a major crucible for myriad terrorist groups, specially the IS and the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

Consequently, the dividend that India expects from the development of Chabahar port may well prove to be highly evanescent. Hence, premature celebrations are best avoided. As India’s prospects recede, the economic advantages accruing to China from the OBOR — which incorporates Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran — would increase. This would further diminish whatever elbow room exists for India in that country and in the region.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.