By Aamir Latif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) - The recent signing of a multibillion-dollar deal between Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul to develop Iran’s southern Chabahar Port should not be seen as a threat to the China-Pakistan Gwadar Port project, analysts say.
Late last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a three-way transit agreement to extend the trade route to several landlocked Central Asian countries.
The move was seen by some observers as a tit-for-tat response to the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which aims to provide Beijing with rapid access to markets in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa via Pakistan’s Gwadar Port.
The expansion of Chabahar will provide India with a direct transit route to war-stricken Afghanistan and the landlocked Central Asian republics.
New Delhi has already earmarked $100 million for the construction of a 220-kilometer-long road in Afghanistan’s northern Nimroz province, which, according to the agreement, will eventually be extended to Chabahar.
India has also allocated $100 million for the laying of a railway line linking Afghanistan to Central Asia.
- No competition
Analysts believe Islamabad has little to worry about from the three-nation agreement -- despite the involvement of arch-rival India -- as the Chabahar Port and the China-funded Gwadar Port are unlikely to directly compete with each other.
"It is a totally wrong impression that Chabahar will be a competitor to Gwadar Port," Kaiser Bengali, a Karachi-based economist and a former economic advisor to the state government of Baluchistan, told Anadolu Agency.
"This impression has emerged simply due to India’s participation in the project, which is wrong," he said.
Endorsing the Iranian position that the two ports were not set to rival one another -- and would in fact complement each other -- Bengali said the expansion of Chabahar would actually serve to expand trade through Gwadar.
"Gwadar Port enjoys one key advantage. Namely, it’s a deep-sea port, while Chabahar isn’t. That means large vessels can’t enter Chabahar and instead must rely on Gwadar," Bengali said, noting that large vessels would have to unload cargo at Gwadar, which would later be transshipped to Chabahar.
The road distance between Gwadar and Chabahar, he pointed out, was only 100 kilometers, which could make the three-nation venture a mutually beneficial one.
Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based defense and security analyst, agreed with Bengali’s assertions.
"The Chabahar and Gwadar ports will complement each other. In fact, Chabahar is set to benefit Pakistan without the latter spending a single penny," Sehgal told Anadolu Agency.
Sehgal, who is also editor of the highly-respected Defense Journal of Pakistan, said the development of Chabahar Port would likely take some of the burden off Pakistan in terms of the Afghan transit trade.
"Currently, all Afghan trade is through Pakistan, which greatly affects our domestic priorities," he said.
Sehgal believes the development of Chabahar Port may bite into the Port of Dubai’s business, but doubts it will vie with Gwadar.
- Beyond China
According to Bengali, Pakistan’s fears of the CPEC project are largely unfounded.
"Pakistan is seeing things through a Chinese lens, which isn’t a good idea," he said. "The CPEC is no doubt a positive project, but it shouldn’t be dictated solely by Beijing."
"If China isn’t interested in joining the three-nation Chabahar agreement, Islamabad shouldn’t blindly follow suit," he added. "We have our own needs and priorities."
Bengali was referring to recent claims by Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Honerdoost that Islamabad and Beijing had been invited to participate in the deal but had not shown any interest.
Bengali went on to say that a direct route from Gwadar via Baluchistan’s Noukundi district could serve to link Chabahar and Gwadar to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, but that no such plan was on the cards due to diplomatic tension between Islamabad and Kabul.
"This should have been included in the CPEC project," he asserted. "The problem is Pakistan isn’t ready to think beyond China."