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The rapid development of three new ports in the Arabian Sea — at Gwadar, Pakistan, Chabahar, Iran and Duqm, Oman — is set to transform sea and land connectivity to India’s west. China, which is leading the development of Gwadar port, could also play a major role in the development of the other two. For Beijing, port development in the Arabian Sea is about connecting landlocked Xinjiang and West China to the sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean. The ports also form a part of China’s ambitious strategy of building a maritime silk road in the Indian Ocean.
The largest economy in the littoral, India, has watched with some concern over the last decade China’s role in the construction of the Gwadar port and struggled to concretise its own plans for collaborating with Iran in developing the Chabahar project. The third port at Duqm, which is advancing more rapidly than the other two, hardly figures in India’s strategic and economic discourse.
The plans for Gwadar took a big step forward a year ago when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang travelled to Pakistan and signed bilateral agreements for the expansion of the Gwadar port and construction of an ambitious transport corridor between Kashgar, Xinjiang and Balochistan. Earlier this month, in a meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Boao Forum, Premier Li said China was ready to start work on these projects by the end of this year. Sharif, in turn, assured Li that providing security to the Chinese personnel would be a top priority for his government. There have been frequent attacks on Chinese engineers and workers in the restive Balochistan province, home to the Gwadar port.
Last week, Sharif was in Gwadar, emphasising the importance of the port project and addressing the political concerns of the Balochistan province. Sharif underlined that Gwadar will be a transformative project not only for Balochistan and Pakistan but for the entire region.
A few days earlier, the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was across the border in the province of Sistan-Balochistan, home to the Chabahar project. Chabahar is barely 70 km from Gwadar and is critical for Iran’s plan to emerge as the gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
While many in India see Chabahar and Gwadar as rival projects, China is operating on a different principle — having multiple connections between West China and the Indian Ocean is better than having just one.
In recent months, there have been reports on China’s interest in investing in the development of the Chabahar project. Addressing a rally in Sistan-Balochistan, Rouhani announced that Tehran is in talks with Beijing to extend Chabahar’s rail network to western China through Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Well before Gwadar and Chabahar become ports of commercial consequence, the Duqm port under development in Oman could become a major trade and transit hub of the region. Oman is all set to transform a sleepy village on the Arabian coast into a new Dubai or Singapore. Besides a large sea continued…