After successfully isolating Pakistan internationally on the issue of terrorism, India now has a huge opportunity to make Islamabad irrelevant in terms of promoting trade relations and infrastructure connectivity in the region. By developing a strategically important port in the Iranian city of Chabahar, India has demonstrated its capabilities and leadership to strengthen trade in the region without involving Pakistan. The Chabahar project, the first phase of which was recently inaugurated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the presence of representatives from 17 countries, is a significant milestone in international cooperation and opens a new strategic transit route between Iran, India, Afghanistan and other land-locked Central Asian nations. It also signifies the growing convergence of interests among India, Iran and Afghanistan, much to the chagrin of Pakistan, which has consistently denied transit access to New Delhi to send goods through land route. The ‘Made by India’ Chabahar port is seen as a strategic response to China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, barely 100 km away, and its aggressive pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is also key to accessing the Central Asian markets for Indian goods. From now on, India need not rely on Pakistan to get access to Iran and Afghanistan. Under a tripartite deal, India has committed $500 million for the project to be fully operational by the end of 2018. The three countries have pledged to work towards integrated development of connectivity infrastructure, including ports, road and rail networks, to open up greater opportunities for regional market access and integration of their economies.
India has legitimate concerns over the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of the BRI, because it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Beijing has brazenly disregarded sovereignty concerns expressed by New Delhi. It must be noted that the CPEC will dramatically alter the region’s demographic composition and reduce Gilgit-Baltistan to a tinderbox of ethnic and sectarian conflict with grave security consequences for the region. It is only by respecting the sovereignty of countries involved can any regional connectivity corridor fulfil its promise. The latest reports emanating from Pakistan suggest that China has suspended funding for some of the key road projects under the CPEC over corruption charges. Despite being an all-weather friend, China’s decision to stop funding has left Pakistani officials red-faced as the delay could adversely affect several road projects in the country. The development demonstrates that Islamabad is an unreliable and slippery customer even for its strategic allies. India now has an opportunity to use the Chabahar project as a launch pad to integrate it with the larger connectivity project — the International North South Transport Corridor — initiated in 2000 by Russia, India and Iran.