| SINGAPORE, March 25
SINGAPORE, March 25 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."
For a graphic showing the location of ports click
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
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)