Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian Ocean and India's naval cooperation with the US draw the world's attention. But quietly, out of sight, a contest has been building in the Arabian Sea centred between two ports, one based in Pakistan and the other in Iran.
The first is located in Gwadar, and is backed by Beijing. It is intended to give China access to the Indian Ocean. The second, Chabahar, is backed by New Delhi and supposed to connect India to Afghanistan and counter the first. The two ports represent longstanding rivalries in the region and anticipation for intense geostrategic competition.
Gwadar, with its proximity to the sea lane between the Middle East and China, has strategic importance for China, especially for oil trade. If China wants to emancipate itself from transportation or military problems along Asia's southern coastline, direct access to the Indian Ocean may be the solution.
Direct access to the India Ocean would also give China a strategic post of observation and a key location for its navy. While Myanmar and Sri Lanka can offer substantial support, the country that can best help Beijing is Pakistan, because of its location and long-time friendship.
India, feeling encircled, reacted to this development. In his recent book on the Indian Ocean, journalist Robert Kaplan writes: "The Indians' answer to Sino-Pakistani cooperation at Gwadar was a giant new $8 billion [Dh29.4 billion] naval base at Karwar, south of Goa on India's Arabian coast, the first phase of which opened in 2005."
But Karwar was only one part of the response to Gwadar. The other one is Chabahar. In 2002, India helped Iran to develop the port of Chabahar, located 72 kilometres west of Gwadar, soon after China began work at Gwadar.
When President Richard Nixon visited Pakistan in 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sought US help to construct a new port at Gwadar, and reportedly offered the US Navy use of the facility. He was unsuccessful, and Pakistan then turned to China for help. Work started in 2002, and China has invested $200 million, dispatching 450 personnel for the first phase of the job completed in 2006 and resulting in a deep-sea port.
The Port of Singapore Authority was selected to manage Gwadar in 2007. But it did not invest much money, and Pakistan decided to transfer port management to another institution, not yet selected but which will probably be Chinese. On November 6, 2010 the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked the Gwadar Port Authority to seek cancellation of the concession agreement with the Port of Singapore Authority.
At the same time, Pakistan and China contemplated developing the Karakorum Highway to connect China's Xinjiang and Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. In 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between both countries to upgrade this road and connect Kashgar and Abbottabad. But the Karakorum Highway, the highest point of which passes at 4,693 metres, can open between May and December. It's also vulnerable to landslides, so large trucks may not use it easily.
Pakistan and China also discussed building a 3,000-kilometre rail line between Kashgar and Gwadar, during President Asif Ali Zardari's July 2010 visit with President Hu Jintao in Beijing. The cost would be enormous, up to $30 million per kilometre in the highest mountains.
But China persists. More than a gateway to the Indian Ocean, Gwadar, at least, will provide Beijing with, first, a listening post from where the Chinese may exert surveillance on hyper-strategic sea links as well as military activities of the Indian and American navies in the region, and second, dual-use civilian-military facilities providing a base for Chinese ships and submarines.
However, this Indo-Iranian project is bound to suffer from two problems: first, politically, Afghanistan is unstable and may not oblige Iran and India if the Taliban or any Pakistan-supported government is restored. Secondly, the work is far behind schedule. In July 2010, the Iranian deputy foreign minister Mohd Ali Fathollahi said the port was functional, but has a capacity of only 2.5 million tonnes per year, whereas the target was 12 million tonnes.
India responded by helping Iran with the port of Chabahar. Work on the Chabahar-Milak-Zaranj-Dilaram route from Iran to Afghanistan is in progress. Developing railroads and port infrastructure near the border of Afghanistan could strengthen Iranian influence in Afghanistan, especially among the Shia and non-Pashtun ethnic groups.
The connection between Gwadar and China remains distant, but could be the Suez Canal of the 21st century. At the minimum, this deep-sea port should provide Beijing with a strategic base soon.
The Chinese move prompted India to react - hence the development of Chabahar. But in developing this port, New Delhi must factor in US attempts at isolating Iran because of Tehran's nuclear policy. How far the Indo-Iranian rapprochement is compatible with the growing Indo-American alliance remains to be seen.
The US and India may agree on the need to counter growing Chinese influence in Gwadar, but may also disagree on the policy India wants to pursue by joining hands with Iran.
Iran itself may not want to take any risk at alienating China, a country which has supported Tehran, including its nuclear policy, until recently.
Christophe Jaffrelot is a senior research fellow with the Centre for International Studies and Research, Sciences Po/CNRS.
© 2011 Yale Centre for the Study of Globalization