Expanding India's maritime trade

For a long time, India looked at China with awe as the latter signed MoUs with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and developed world-class modern seaports in these countries. Developing these ports needed heavy investment, expertise and experience, which the Chinese companies were able to bring together in completing these port projects internationally. India feared being encircled by the Chinese presence at all important ports in India's immediate neighbourhood. India's political sway in these countries could not withstand the lure of Chinese promise to develop their ports to the international standards. As if taking a cue from the Chinese initiatives, India too went out looking for similar projects worldwide.

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Giving business precedence over politics in its international relations has been a defining agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy. His much-talked foreign trips during the first two years of his government may not have yielded many tangible results yet, but the inauguration of $1 billion extension project of the Chabahar Port in Iran on Sunday is a success for the business-driven Indian foreign policy as well. The MoU for the Indian contribution to the project was signed only in May last year during PM Narendra Modi's Iran visit. India has developed two berths out of eight in the totally revamped Chabahar Port. During the PM's visit, India also signed pacts involving Afghanistan so that India can send and receive goods from Afghanistan through the Chabahar Port. Strategically, this is very important given the fact that Pakistan has consistently denied India permission to access Afghanistan through the country. Indian efforts to reach out to war-ravaged Afghanistan for all the opportunity that is there were frustrated for all these years due to Pakistan's refusal to cooperate with India on this issue.
It is in this light that the swift Indian involvement in the extension project of the Chabahar Port was a welcome step. It has ended India's dependence on Pakistan to access land-locked Afghanistan. As Iran is slowing coming out of the shadow of the UN sanctions, it is willing to strengthen its position in the region and the Chabahar port is one of the major projects aimed at connecting the region better with international markets. Having signed MoUs with a number of neighbouring countries, which will facilitate better road and rail links with the Chabahar Port, Iran will use it as the main transit route for the transportation of international cargo to this region. By chipping in to help in some of these projects, India has embarked on a long-term business partnership with Iran and the countries in Central Asia and Europe through the Chabahar Port.
China has developed the Gwadar Port in Pakistan which is only 400 km by road and 100 km by sea from the Chabahar Port. China's One Belt One Road Initiative too plans to link the same region with vigorous infrastructure development. The Chabahar Port is an ambitious project and when it becomes fully operational, it will compete with the biggest ports in the world in terms of the quantity of cargo it handles. It brings unprecedented capacity and swiftness to the region's international business, and India stands to benefit from this development.
India's relations with Iran have always been special. Traditionally, India procured a major part of its petrochemical oil import from Iran, and India's maritime relations with the country could date back even farther. For decades, the Shipping Corporation of India has been transporting crude oil from Iran. In the recent decades, there has been a let up in Indian engagements because of the UN sanctions against Iran for pursuing an independent nuclear programme. Because of India's age-old trade relations, Indian foreign policy towards Iran has been cordial and sympathetic. Despite crippling UN sanctions and the US charging down Iran, asking it to stop its nuclear programme, India has steadfastly stayed away from joining the international chorus against Iran. In its pursuit to procure oil reserves abroad, Indian private and public sector oil companies have been involved in exploring and developing oil fields in Iran. If India is able to procure some assets, it will definitely aid to overall Indian efforts to engage with Iran and the Central Asia on a more meaningful note.
Indian Prime Minister's outreach to the world may not have come a full circle, but his relentless efforts to seek out the opportunities and go for it vigorously has started delivering results. India has similar projects or plans in various stages for the neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Afghanistan, where increased Chinese interest has been a cause of worry for India. If the successful cooperation with Iran on the Chabahar Port is any indication, India is well on track. Soon, it might be able to have its own reasons to be happy than crib against increasing Chinese influence.