The story of an intense competition to shape the future of Asia. Pakistan and Iran have cordial and fraternal bilateral relations besides being the neighbours. Both countries have embarked on ambitious plans to establish economic, trade and transport contacts with Afghanistan, Central Asian states and beyond, to create leverage in the region.

Construction of Gwadar Port was necessitated due to the fact that Karachi Port was heavily-loaded with serious congestion from commercial, fishing, civil and military shipping. It may be recalled that in 1971, the Indian Navy targeted the Karachi Port leading to a massive harm to the economy of Pakistan. It was felt that any future blockade by India would further devastate Karachi Port and will falter the country’s economy. In order to relieve too much reliance on the Karachi Port, the Port Qasim was established. Now, with the establishment of Gwadar Port in Balochistan, the reliance on Karachi Port will be further reduced.

Port of Bandar Abbas in Iran is of high strategic importance as it is situated on the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian Gulf. This is problematic for Iran because of the high traffic and, supposedly, penetrations of the US Navy. To be more secure, the Iranians established Port of Chabahar for more congenial trade with other nations. They foresee Chabahar Port as an instrument in their policy to evade international isolation. Iranian officials desire to have Bandar Abbas Port remain solely as the port for Russian and European trade.

Chabahar Port is situated on the Makran Coast of the Sistan and Balochistan of Iran and is officially declared as a free trade and industrial zone by the Iranian government. The port has been developed by India as it’s the closest and best access point to the Indian Ocean. It is located at the securest and closest route to Central Asia and Afghanistan market. It’s proximity to the largest energy resources in the world makes it the apple of India’s eyes. Its major sectors are fisheries and other commercial industries. The port is well-connected to other cities of the country as well with a wide network of roads as well as air links.

Iran, India and Russia would establish a multi-model transport link connecting Mumbai with Saint Petersburg, providing Europe and the former Soviet Union Republics of Central Asia access to Asia and vice versa. Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to give Indian goods leading for Central Asia and Afghanistan, preferential treatment and tariff reduction at Chabahar Port.

The berths in Port of Chabahar include general cargo and bulk. Berth capacities range from 2,000 to 2,500 tonnes. Chabahar Shahid Beheshti Jetty is 600 metres long and can berth four vessels of up to 25,000 gross tonnage and 11-metre draught at once. The other Shahid Kalantary Jetty has a length of 1100 metres, four metallic ready-made jetties. Adequate reserves of water and electricity efficient telecommunication network, warehouses and cold storage facilities are already available.

Gwadar Port is located on the Gulf of Oman, close to the entrance of Persian Gulf. It is a deep warm water seaport, about 460-kilometre west of Karachi and approximately 75-kilometer east of Pakistan border with Iran. The port is close to the important Strait of Hormuz, through which more than 13 million bpd of oil passes daily. It is strategically between the oil-rich Middle East, the economically shortest route to the oil-rich Central Asian States through landlocked Afghanistan, and heavily populated South Asia. It is at the mouth of the Gulf through which 40 per cent of world’s oil passes daily. Much of it has been financed by China. At present, the project is estimated to be $1 billion or even more. In 2007, the Government of Pakistan handed over the operations of port to PSA, Singapore for 25 years and gave it the status of a Tax Free Port for 40 years. The port became somewhat functional in 2008 with the docking of first ship that brought 52,000 tonnes of wheat from Canada.

Gwadar Port has the capacity to handle large crude containers of with the deadweight up to 500,000 tonnes. It will have three container terminals, a bulk cargo terminal, a grain terminal and an oil terminal. It would promote economic development in the country and would provide vast employment opportunities to the Baloch people. The establishment of Free-Trade and Economic Zones and Export Processing Zones (EPZs) would, surely, attract foreign investment that will be an impetus to the development of Balochistan in particular and of the whole Pakistan in general. Besides opening the large avenues for the people of Mekran engaged in fishing and agriculture, the port will also facilitate easier transportation of date for export. Gwadar Port has all the capacity to generate massive revenues for Balochistan. It is poised to be a trade hub, once road and rail links are established to other parts of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan is working fervently on plan to develop Gwadar to cater foreign trade of the Central Asian Republics and the Xingjian and the Sichuan provinces and the Tibetan region of China. The construction of a rail and road network between Gwadar and Xingjian also seems imminent given the growing Sino-Pak economic ties.

Gwadar Port will have to face stiff competition from Chabahar. It is still not as operational as Chabahar. The supporting structures at Gwadar Port are still not existent. Even after the lapse of many years, there is no mentionable economic activity at this port. Several projects such as 950-km railway and 900-km motorway to link with railway and highway of the country have so far remained only in files. The 200-km branch road to link coastal road to the Indus Highway at Ratto-Dero is still not developed. There are no internal roads and services of water, gas, power and communication for the new township and the industrial zone. There are no warehouse and cold storage facilities there.

India’s financing and engineering assistance is not limited to Chabahar Port; it is actively developing a highway as well that leads from the Chabahar Port to Afghanistan. Chabahar Port is well-suited for linking southern ports of Afghanistan and a few Central Asian States. For Pakistan, in the present circumstances, the Southern Afghanistan is not ready to be a reliable transport corridor for gaining access to Central Asian states. Gwadar Port can be operated efficiently if the menaces like kidnapping and attacks on foreigners are curbed and the government of Pakistan also makes favourable concessions to Baloch people living in Gwadar and its surrounding areas.

If peace and tranquillity prevails in the region and India does not patronise the miscreants in Balochistan, only then the Gwadar Port trading activities will be accelerated keeping in view the cutthroat competition between Chabahar and Gwadar ports. Further, Indian involvement in terrorist acts in Swat and tribal areas as well as its rising economic and political influence in Afghanistan, would exacerbate the tension in the region and would harm the normal activities of the Gwadar Port.

With the full operation of Gwadar Port, there are bright prospects for Balochistan to be n par with the rest of Pakistan. The real value of Gwadar Port could be witnessed when Chinese trade grows with Gulf States, Middle East and European countries. Any transport or defence problems in the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal will promote the significance of Central Asia as a strategic trade corridor. China, Iran and India are desperate in having closer ties with Afghanistan and Central Asian states. Iran’s main considerations are not only boosting trade but securing its borders and avoiding American Navy in this region.

Pakistan is striving for peace in the region and does not want that militants spoil its economy. It aspires to establish best relations with Afghanistan and Central Asian states.  In the wake of such developments, both Chabahar and Gwadar can equally benefit from Central Asian business.

By: Mohammed Arifeen

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