SINGAPORE (Reuters) - India and China’s quest for clout and resources extends across the globe, but perhaps the best manifestation of this fierce competition, and possible sign of who will ultimately win, lies in a tale of two ports.
The port of Chabahar in the southwest corner of Iran, which India is hoping will win it access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, is barely 72km (44 mile) from Pakistan’s deep-water Gwadar port which China has built to secure its energy supplies.
The dueling ports on the doorstep of Gulf shipping lanes are another strand in the race between the Asian giants to project influence beyond their shores, and seek resources to feed their fast growing economies, that has seen them compete for contracts from Africa to Latin America to even Afghanistan.
“These civilian ports are about China and India trying to advance their interests and diversify their trade and access points,” says Rory Medcalf, a specialist on international security at Australia’s Lowy Institute.
“But these could well become elements in a wider competitive dynamic between China and India.”
In trying to develop the two strategic ports, India and China are up against unsettled regional conditions in both Iran and Pakistan and their own limited resources and influence, more so in the case of India than China.
For years, Indian officials say they have been urging the Iranians to expedite work on the Chabahar port facilities to handle specialised cargoes, warehouses and proper disembarkation arrangements so it can become a trading hub.
While the port is functional, it has a capacity of only 2.5 million tons per year, against the target of 12 million tons. Iran has declared Chabahar, located in its Sistan-Baluchestan province, a free trade zone.
At their last meeting in July, the Indian side told Iran a thriving port near one of the world’s fastest growing regions was in the interest of Tehran, the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and of course India. The Iranian side said they were committed to its development.
“But this is exactly what we said four years ago,” said an Indian government official. “There has been hardly any movement since then,” the official, said on condition of anonymity because he was involved with the discussions.
Indian officials now believe that Iranian reluctance to move faster on Chabahar may linked to its anxieties about the troubled Sistan-Baluchestan region where Shi‘ite Muslim Iran is trying to put down a Sunni Muslim insurgency.
“We think at the back of the mind there are some concerns that the external influences a thriving port will bring may percolate to the region,” the Indian official said.
India, meanwhile, has completed its end of the trilateral arrangement with Iran and Afghanistan. Indian engineers braved militant attacks to build a 200km-long road from Nimroz province in Afghanistan to the Chabahar port, offering landlocked Afghanistan an alternative supply route and reducing its dependence on trucking goods through Pakistan.
Indian officials say they’re willing to put in more money into Chabahar to get it going.
“We are ready to go the extra mile to get this going because this is in everyone’s interest, especially Afghanistan whose only access at the moment is Karachi and which is subject to the vicissitudes of Afghan-Pakistan relations,” the Indian government official said.
A key factor driving India to promote the port in Iran, despite pressure from the United States, is the growing anxiety over the all-weather Gwadar port that the Chinese have built on Pakistan’s Baluchistan coast.
Beijing financed more than 80 percent of the initial development cost of $248 million for the port on the Arabian Sea, as part of a plan to open up an energy and trade corridor from the Gulf, across Pakistan to western China.
So in theory China needn’t ship all its oil supplies from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean and then up to Shanghai. Instead the oil tankers would drop off at Gwadar, and from there the supplies would be trucked through Pakistan and into China through the Karakoram Highway that China is trying to expand.
It also gives China access to the Indian Ocean where India has long been the main player, after the United States.
More worryingly for New Delhi, the strategic location of Gwadar, 180 km from the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, offers Pakistan the chance “to take control over the world energy jugular and interdiction of Indian tankers,” according to former Indian navy admiral Sureesh Mehta.
“Gwadar has the potential to move much faster than Chabahar because the Chinese are involved. It will depend on how fast they can double the capacity of the Karakoram Highway,” the Indian government official said, pointing to the pace with which China completed a port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast last year which has added to India’s fear of encirclement.
With the Chinese completing the first phase of development in 2007, Gwadar port became operational shortly afterwards. But its progress, although faster than Chabahar, has been affected by worsening security in Baluchistan, a dispute with the port operator PSA of Singapore and the slow pace of road links.
The port handled about $700 million in cargo in 2009, less than half of its cargo capacity. Under the agreement, the Baluchistan government was to develop a free-zone for warehouses and export processing zone and establish road and rail links.
“Pakistan has not really worked on the infrastructure. It was built with a view to connecting the region. It is going to take off when the Afghan situation calms down - then countries will benefit from it with greater access,” said Sakib Sherani, a former advisor to Pakistan’s finance ministry.
“There are a few commercial ships that come here, but it has not been fully developed yet. I think they planned a second phase to deepen the port to make way for larger ships,” he said.
A growing Baluch insurgency has added to the port’s problems with several Chinese engineers attacked and kidnapped. Baluch nationalists see the port as another exploitation of the province’s rich mineral resources by Pakistan’s powerful Punjabi elite without any local benefit.
The provincial government of Baluchistan, struggling to contain the insurgency, has meanwhile approached the Supreme Court seeking the cancellation of the contract with Singapore state-owned PSA International Ltd to run the port on the grounds that it is a “one-sided” deal.
The Singapore company which was given management and operational control of the port in 2007 had neither brought in trade nor expanded the port, the local government said. PSA declined comment.
Local media say Pakistani officials are in favour of the Chinese running the port in addition to helping expand it, which will only further feed Indian anxieties.
“India will be watchful for any militarisation of Gwadar, though for now there are no signs of that,” Metcalf said.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway in Islamabad; Editing by Miral Fahmy