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How Chabahar is defining the geopolitics of Northern Indian Ocean

India and Iran now reset focus on strategically located Chabahar Port

Three recent developments underscore the enduring geopolitical significance of the port of Chabahar. First, was the Chinese role in normalizing the Iran-Saudi Arabia relations. Second development was the trilateral naval exercises between China, Russia and Iran in the Gulf of Oman. Finally, India decided to send wheat to Afghanistan via the Chabahar route. Each of these developments indicate the changing geopolitics of the Northern Indian Ocean.

China brokered an agreement that will normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional rivals who were engaged in intense politico-military-ideological competition. Days after the China-brokered deal, the naval forces of China, Russia and Iran have been engaged in maritime exercises in the Gulf of Oman. They carried out similar exercises in 2019 and in 2022. The signal is loud and clear: China is emerging as the next major player that will shape the geopolitics of West Asia and Northern Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, Russia has staged a comeback to West Asian geopolitics since 2015 and is stepping up military cooperation with Iran to an unprecedented level. Iranian drones have been used by Russia in Ukraine and Russia has agreed to supply Su-35, advanced fighter aircraft, to Iran. Russian naval presence in the Gulf of Oman for the trilateral naval exercises also points to the growing interest and steadily increasing presence of Moscow in the Indian Ocean geopolitics. The rise of China and Russia in the northern Indian Ocean is reshaping regional geopolitics and holds strategic implications for India. In this context, the role of Chabahar port has assumed importance.

The port of Chabahar is located outside the Persian Gulf and therefore, is relatively free from the turbulent geopolitics of the Gulf. However, the presence at Chabahar will be useful to monitor the strategic developments in the Persian Gulf as well as in the Gulf of Oman. Chabahar’s location along the Makran coast, near the port of Gwadar developed by China in Pakistan, is significant. Gwadar is long seen as the likely site of the second Chinese military base in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, India’s presence at Chabahar matters from the point of view of maritime as well as continental strategy. With the intensifying turbulence in Pakistan and the instability in Balochistan, the importance of Chabahar has gone up significantly.

In India’s calculations, Iran is a key strategic pivot to connect with Central Asia, Russia, and the wider Eurasia. As India seeks to operationalize the International North South Transport Corridor and engage with the Eurasian countries, a foothold at Chabahar will be beneficial. For India, the port of Chabahar and the inland connectivity options provide overland access to Afghanistan as well. It helps in neutralizing, albeit in a limited manner, the tyranny of geography along India’s western frontiers.

Few days before the China-brokered agreement was signed, India had held the first meeting of the Joint Working Group on Afghanistan with five Central Asian countries. Signaling the two major problems afflicting Afghanistan, representatives of two UN agencies, dealing with drugs and food, UNODC and UNWFP, were also in attendance. At the working group meeting, India announced that it will send 20,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan via the port of Chabahar. This will be the second time that India will send food assistance to Afghanistan through the Chabahar route. India had sent food and medicines to Afghanistan in 2021 when the US-supported government was in power. Apart from the strategic imperative of engaging with Afghanistan, without taking any firm stand about the nature of the regime, the role of Chabahar will remain central to India’s outreach to Afghanistan. In the context of reports about the likely fissures between various Taliban factions, overland access to Southern Afghanistan via Chabahar adds another critical dimension to India’s Afghanistan policy.

The logic of geography and strategy make Chabahar an important node for India. It is a critical project for India’s strategy towards the Indian Ocean, Eurasia, and Afghanistan. The growing Chinese naval presence and the expanding strategic relationship between Tehran and Beijing underscores the need for India to stay engaged and perhaps even augment its presence at Chabahar.

Also Read: Russia-led Eurasian region backs India’s connectivity plan using Chabahar port

(Sankalp Gurjar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Udupi, India. He is the author of The Superpowers’ Playground: Djibouti and Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific in the 21st Century.)