South Asia

From Gwadar to Chabahar, the Makran Coast Is Becoming an Arena for Rivalry Between Powers

No matter what role the ports play in the future – intensifying regional and global rivalries or stimulating development – the Makran coast finds itself at the brink of emerging from isolation.

A map depicting parts of the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia. Credit: Iran Review

A map depicting parts of the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia. Credit: Iran Review

The coasts of Makran or Makuran – as it is pronounced by the local people – is a region comprising about 1,500 km of shoreline along the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean, which is located in Iran’s Hormozgan, and Sistan and Baluchestan provinces as well as Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Throughout history and before Omani Arabs gained a more dominant position, this shoreline had been recorded in history as the Sea of Makran. The Makran coast starts from Alkouh region north of Iran’s Mina port and is considered an Iranian coast until it reaches the border between Iran and Pakistan in Gwater Bay in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Thereafter, that is, from Gwater Bay to Lasbela District, which is located north of Karachi port, it is considered as part of Pakistan’s shoreline. Apart from the strategic importance that the coast of Makran has for the two countries of Iran and Pakistan, this region has been in focus of world powers’ attention for a long period of time, so that, part of regional developments in the past two decades have been associated with efforts made by countries to have access to this coastline.

A history of rivalry

Two port cities – that is, Karachi, which is the capital city of Pakistan’s Sindh province, and Iran’s Bandar Abbas port city – are located on the two ends of the Makran coastline and are of special strategic importance. Within the Makran region there are two more Iranian and Pakistani ports, namely Chabahar and Gwadar ports, which are located in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan and Pakistan’s Balochistan provinces and have recently attracted attention of two regional rival powers, that is, India and China. Of course, before the defeat of the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan and prior to total disintegration of the Eastern power bloc, such rivalries were going on behind the scenes between two Eastern and Western blocs. It has been said that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan and leader of the Pakistan People Party, had gotten very close to signing an agreement in the later years of the 1970s according to which Pakistan was to allow the former Soviet Union to build a naval base in Gwadar port. In other words, some believe that the coup d’état staged by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan, and subsequent execution of Bhutto were not unrelated to the Gwadar project.

The United States’ reaction to that project was a plan to build a naval base in Iran’s Konarak region near the port city of Chabahar, which was aborted following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As some analysts have speculated, the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union was also not unrelated to the Makran coastal region, because after efforts by Russians failed and Americans dominated both sides of the Makran coast, the leaders of the Soviet Union focused on Afghanistan in order to open a new way toward Balochistan and Makran coasts. According to the project planned by Russians, leftist groups related to Russians within borders of the Iranian and Islamic civilisation from Hindu Kush Mountains to Makran coastal region, were expected to come up with a new power structure in the form of some sort of federalism or confederalism. According to this plan, two important ports of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan and Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan provinces were supposed to get connected through a network of railroads to Central Asia in order to facilitate military movements of the Soviet Union.

Following the collapse of the second and Eastern power bloc and the subsequent power void, especially in Afghanistan, no major change took place in the nature of rivalries over the Makran coasts and only actors involved in these rivalries became more diverse. It appears that the US and Russia have somehow reduced their attention to this region, but China and India are now engaged in a more serious rivalry over this region. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and Central Asia – which now includes five countries born out of the former Soviet Union – are still the pivot of the “big game.” There are, however, new signs which show that Russia and the US are paying renewed attention to the Makran coasts. At present, however, India and China have changed the nature of their rivalry from “military” to “economic and trade” rivalry and are accordingly planning their presence in two port cities of Gwadar and Chabahar.

Gwadar and Chabahar: ports to development 

China and Pakistan look upon the Gwadar port as an active and prosperous economic and trade hub similar to Hong Kong and Singapore and are planning to turn it into a free trade port. If done, this project will not only take Pakistan’s Balochistan province out of its current state of isolation and put it on track for development, but will also give an impetus to development of a bigger geographical region, which extends from China’s Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province to Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is almost the same region, which corresponds to the same Iranian and Islamic civilisation region that was eyed by the former Soviet Union. In addition, various road and rail projects, which have been agreed upon by Pakistan and China and some of them are currently underway – including the Makran highway – will connect Karachi to Gwadar and are telltale signs of the strong political will in Beijing and Islamabad to go ahead with this project.

In addition, China’s presence and investment in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which is an important part of China’s USD 46-billion deal with Pakistan, is expected to go far beyond simple economy and trade. China is building its first foreign naval base in Pakistan’s Gwadar port so that it would be able to play its role as an emerging power in future developments of South Asia, the Middle East, and Central Asia. According to China’s plan, the Makran highway is to connect Gwadar port through Karakoram region to Kashghar, the capital city of China’s Xinjiang province. In parallel to that highway, a railroad and a gas pipeline are to facilitate China’s access to energy resources in the Persian Gulf and enable it to conduct trade through Gwadar port. Also, railroad and road branches are finally supposed to connect Gwadar to Quetta, which is the capital city of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, while it will be also connected to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Wesh–Chaman international border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In contrast to this joint project by China and Pakistan, Iran and India are bent on implementing a similar project in Chabahar port, which is about 70 km away from Gwadar, in order to use rail and road to connect Chabahar to Sistan and Baluchestan’s capital city of Zahedan. From there, it will be connected to Iran’s national railroad network in the city of Birjand and will then continue to Central Asia. The same railroad will give out a branch in the city of Zabol to enter Afghanistan and make its way into Central Asia. Both projects in Gwadar and Chabahar ports are expected to finally fuel all-out human, economic, trade and cultural development across the entire South Asia and Central Asia while sweeping through Iran and Afghanistan as well. This region is known as the geographical domain of poverty, which is prone to growth of radical religious or ethnic currents which oppose any system of government. An example to the point is the emergence of the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group and its Islamic State, whose purported Greater Khorasan or eastern caliphate corresponds to the geographical region of the Iranian and Islamic civilisation and includes Central Asia and China’s Xinxiang while its extension covers Hindu Kush mountains all the way to the northern Muslim-dominated part of India and the entire Makran coastline.

Renewed rivalries?

It is through such an approach that India’s plan to invest in Chabahar and China’s plan to invest in Gwadar port, both along the Makran coast, must be taken into consideration and rivalries between the two countries for establishing stronger ties with South Asia and Central Asia with the main focus on Chabahar and Gwadar ports must be taken quite seriously. The fact that Narendra Modi was willing to be the first Indian prime minister to visit Chabahar in his recent trip to Iran cannot be understood without attention to these equations just in the same way that the Chinese president became the country’s first leader to pay a visit to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. So, it would be logical to say that the coast of Makran, which had been forgotten for a long period of time, is now in focus of attention of China and India as regional powers due to various reasons, and this interest may later spread to the new Russia and the US. It is even likely that in the forthcoming decades, the Makran coast would play a much more important role that it is playing today.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) meets Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei (C) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) in Tehran, Iran. May 2016. Credit: Iran Review

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei (C) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) in Tehran, Iran. May 2016. Credit: Iran Review

From this viewpoint, the Gwadar port along Pakistan’s Balochistan coastline, and Chabahar port along Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan shoreline, which are located at a short distance from each other along the Makran coast, can be used for two different purposes. This means that they can turn into two rival ports and further intensify rivalries between China and India, as emerging regional powers, and between Russia and the US at global level. On the contrary, they can turn into two free trade ports and stimulate economic development of this entire poor region in favour of all countries that are situated in the domain of the Iranian and Islamic culture and civilisation. It is not clear yet which one of these possibilities about future outlook of Gwadar and Chabahar will be realised, but what can be said with more certainty is that the Makran coast, both in Iran and Pakistan, is trying to gradually achieve a position, which will be quite different from its isolated and forgotten past.

Correct and timely understanding of this issue and making coordinated plans accordingly is a necessity, which cannot be neglected. Future national and even security interests call for the Makran coast to be looked upon from a totally new standpoint. As a first step, the name “Sea of Oman,” which lacks any historical origin and is a fake term just in the same way that the “Arabian Gulf” is a fake name for the “Persian Gulf,” should be replaced with “Makran.” In the next stages, Chabahar should be enabled to play its connecting role in order to stimulate trade and economy of southeastern Iranian provinces. It can also play the same role for Afghanistan and Central Asian countries in the future and instead of entering into rivalry with the Gwadar port, join hands with the Gwadar port in order for these two important and strategic ports along the Makran coast to be seen as partners complementing each other.

At any rate, China’s powerful presence in the Gwadar port and India’s willingness for powerful presence in Iran’s Chabahar port have provided both Iran and Pakistan with an exceptional opportunity to take advantage of this presence to boost their national and regional development and connect Central Asia, South Asia, the Arab Middle East and the coasts of Africa along the Indian Ocean in favour of all nations situated in these regions. The requisite to take correct and timely advantage of the existing conditions along the Makran coast is partnership, not rivalry. The Makran coast should be looked upon from the viewpoint of its all-out development capacities. Through such an approach, the Gwadar port can turn into future Singapore of the region while Iran’s Chabahar could at least match up to Dubai. If this experience could be implemented with no major obstacles, it would greatly boost convergence among countries in the region.

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi is an expert on the Indian subcontinent. 

This article was originally published in the Iran Review.