Balochistan is one of the world’s driest, hottest and most desolate regions, remembered by Alexander the Great’s historians as the cruellest land they ever encountered and which almost destroyed them as they trekked back home from India. Half the Greek army perished during the march across Balochistan’s searing deserts and left Alexander so exhausted that he never made it back to Macedonia. For more than 2,000 years after Alexander, Balochistan was left largely to itself and the Persians who considered it part of their empire were generally feeble in applying their writ over the region.
The Portuguese seafarers of the 16th century were the first to appreciate the strategic importance of the region and established a number of small forts along the coast and islands in the region. One small fort was established at a nondescript coastal village called Chabahar but their attempts to establish a similar post 72 km to the east at another fishing port called Gwadar failed repeatedly due to resistance from fierce Baloch tribes. In 1871, the destinies of the two insignificant ports were temporarily cleaved when a British administrator, Maj. Gen. Sir Frederic Goldsmid of the Madras Army decided it was dashed inconvenient to operate in a region with an undemarcated border. He therefore persuaded Calcutta to let him broker a deal to settle the boundary between Balochistan and Persia.
Maj. Gen. Goldsmid, who was appointed chief commissioner of the joint Perso-Baluch Boundary Commission in 1871, divided Balochistan into two parts without taking into consideration history or geography and ignoring the opposition of Baloch chiefs. His decision was to please the Persians in order to keep them away from Tsarist Russia. Chabahar thus went to the Persians while Gwadar was retained by the Baloch king, the Khan of Kalat.
Some four centuries later, the two ports Gwadar and Chabahar are once again the focus of regional geopolitics, this time involving India, China, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This time the two ports are in competition and no longer the insignificant fishing villages of the past. Pakistan, which annexed the independent state of Balochistan after 1947 and which forcibly retains it to this day, has made Gwadar the centre of its strategic vision. In collaboration with its senior partner, the People’s Republic of China, Gwadar is being developed as an economic-cum-military gateway to the Gulf.
Beijing, by financing and building a $46 billion economic corridor from its restive Xinjiang province to Gwadar, seeks to tighten its grip over Islamabad and Pakistan’s economic pulse while at the same time strengthening its overland blockade of India. Gwadar, once completed, will not only help the transit of container traffic all the way from mainland China but also shelter Chinese nuclear submarines and other naval vessels. The West will find a formidable challenge to its hegemony in Gulf waters, while India is expected to be suitably intimidated. At least that was the thinking.
However, an alternative scenario might well emerge. This was clear when Prime Minister Narendra Modi together with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani sat together on Monday to sign a trilateral agreement to develop Chabahar port and turn it into a major transit point for a corridor linking Afghanistan on one side and Central Asia and Russia on another.
For starters, India will invest half a billion dollars to build more berths at Chabahar port and develop related infrastructure.
The eventual aim is to build a railway line into Afghanistan and another line to the Caspian Sea, which will form part of an ambitious North-South Corridor connecting the factories of Mumbai and Gujarat to markets in Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe. As a first step, the plan is to upgrade the 650-odd km road from Chabahar to the Iranian city of Zahedan. From here another 200-km highway, which is presently being improved, connects to the Afghan border town of Zaranj, from where the Indian government has already built a 218-km highway to Delaram on the Afghanistan Ring Road or Garland Highway.
Once complete, this will allow easy transit of goods from Mumbai to the heart of Afghanistan. The trilateral agreement signed on Monday, the handshakes and references to age-old “dosti” (friendship) should be cause of deep unease in Islamabad which has consistently sought to prevent New Delhi’s outreach to Afghanistan and beyond. Together with its “all-weather” friend, Beijing, Islamabad has effectively blocked all overland Indian trade and transit to the rest of Asia. India has been forced to use costly and impractical routes to reach the heart of Asia and Asiatic Russia.
Now things will change. Chabahar is not just a matter of developing a port. President Ghani’s statement at the meet may well be prophetic: “Hundred years from now historians will remember this day as the start of regional cooperation. We wanted to prove that geography is not our destiny. With our will we can change geography.” For Iran too it is a strategic come together. For, as President Rouhani pointed out: “The two countries discussed about political issues as well and how they can cooperate on intelligence-sharing and how they can get closer to each other in the fight against terrorism and extremism and how they can contribute to peace and stability in the whole region.”
Mr Modi also specifically commented on the strategic dimension of the deal. “We have also agreed to enhance interaction between our defence and security institutions on regional and maritime security,” he said. Policymakers in many world capitals would have taken note of Monday’s Tehran meet. Tehran’s E’temad newspaper remarked that the signing of the trilateral agreements “will ring danger bells in Islamabad, China and Riyadh”.
Another Iranian newspaper noted that China is “trying to control the pulse of regional trade by making extensive investments in the Pakistani port of Gwadar”, and commented that India is “now positioned against its strong competitor by investing in the port”. India has been a bit of a tortoise in the Asian geopolitical game. But the Chabahar deal suggests that it is very much in the game and tomorrow’s chessboard could well be the cruel deserts of Balochistan.