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 port, Oman is developing an airport, a special economic zone, petroleum refineries, oil storage farms, dry docks and tourist resorts. Road and rail networks radiating out of Duqm will connect it to other ports in Oman and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
The greatest advantage of Duqm is that it is located outside the Persian Gulf where the current trading towns like Dubai are. As tensions mount in the Gulf, Duqm could provide a safe and secure entrepôt for business with the region. As a potential transshipment zone, it would be of great value to Africa, the Middle East, India and China.
For the US military, Duqm could significantly reduce the risks of its operations around the Persian Gulf. Currently, Bahrain is the headquarters of the US navy’s Fifth Fleet and Qatar hosts the local headquarters of the US Central Command.
In the last few years, the Chinese navy has regularly shown its flag in Oman’s port of Salalah. The new facilities being built at Duqm will make it an attractive destination for Chinese and other navies seeking repair and resupply facilities in the Indian Ocean. Above all, Duqm will help Oman reclaim its historic role as the maritime fulcrum of the Indian Ocean littoral.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’