Wednesday, 29 June, 2022
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With India-US badly coordinated in Indian Ocean, China-Iran naval ties now a fresh concern

The prospect of a comprehensive military and trade partnership between Iran and China is a concern for India. Beijing plans to invest $400 billion in Iran.

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Iran’s recent decision to drop India from the Chabahar-Zahidan railway line project has been the subject of some consternation in Indian strategic circles. The development has generated disquiet in New Delhi, where some have questioned the timing of the move by Iran. As Indian observers see it, the railway line was part of a strategic endeavour: the development of Chabahar port and an associated rail-links to circumvent Pakistan and its traditional obstruction of India’s overland routes into Central Asia and Afghanistan. Amidst US sanctions, as Delhi searched for suppliers and funding, Tehran suddenly (and unilaterally) decided to go it alone. Oddly, this comes at a time when China has made itself available to assist in the project.

More worrying for Indian watchers is the prospect of a comprehensive military and trade partnership between Iran and China. Beijing, ostensibly, has undertaken to invest $400 billion in key sectors of Iran’s economy, in return for an assured supply of Iranian fuel for the next 25 years. The proposed investment is the biggest China has ever pledged to any country as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and envisages huge expenditure in building Iran’s oil and gas and infrastructure sector ($280 billion and $120 billion respectively). Beijing also plans to station over 5,000 Chinese security personnel to protect the investments in Iran.

Also read: Navy deploys large number of ships in Indian Ocean to send clear ‘message’ to China

The implications of a China-Iran strategic partnership are particularly stark in the maritime arena. According to a leaked 18 page draft agreement, parts of which were published by the New York Times last week, Chinese construction companies are set to initiate multiple infrastructure projects along Iran’s Gulf coastline, including free-trade zones in Abadan, a city on the eastern bank of the Shaṭṭ Al-ʿArab River, and on the island of Qeshm, where Tehran is planning a major hub for oil production and storage. China will also build infrastructure at Jask, a port city just outside of the Strait of Hormuz, only 150 miles away from Gwadar, where a Chinese company has already developed and operating a port. Observers say a rudimentary Chinese naval presence at Jask could lead to greater joint military training and exercises between Iran, China and Pakistan, enhancing China’s regional security profile.

To be sure, there is no cause for alarm yet. It is worth noting that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy (IRGCN), that is responsible for the waters of the Gulf, is opposed to any foreign naval presence at Iranian ports. The IRGCN controls the Imam Ali naval base in Chabahar, and also has a presence in Bandar-e-Jask and the island of Qeshm. An armed force of radicalized cadres loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Republican Guards’ Corps has a two point agenda: to protect the revolution and counter the United States. The IRGCN, that uses asymmetric tactics to harass the USN in the Straits of Hormuz, has been instrumental in keeping foreign military activity in Iranian ports to a minimum, and there have been no foreign bases on Iranian soil since 1979. As much as the Iran-China pact creates possibilities for greater Chinese influence in Gulf region, analysts say the IRGC leadership is unlikely to allow a substantial PLA presence in Iranian ports.

In the wider context of Western Indian Ocean region, however, the China-Iran agreement has greater significance. The PLA, which already possesses base in Djibouti, has been gradually expanding its military footprint on Africa’s Eastern seaboard, and in the Northern Indian Ocean. A comprehensive strategic pact with Iran, analysts posit, could allow China to establish military presence along the Iran-Pakistan coastline; the PLA could even assist in the creation of a surveillance network to monitor US and Indian naval activity in the region. With the benefit of Chinese support, and an oil terminal outside the Hormuz, Iran could also be emboldened into adopting a more aggressive stance inside the Persian Gulf.

Notwithstanding the abundant caution the PLAN has displayed in the Gulf region so far, there has been an uptick in Chinese naval engagements with Iran and other regional states. Last year, the PLAN held a trilateral exercise with Iran and Russia, signaled a desire for greater presence in the Northern Indian Ocean. If Iran builds a permanent base in the Indian Ocean, as announced by the head of the IRGCN last year, analysts say Chinese warships could well be frequent visitors at the facility. A proposed a tie-up between Gwadar and Chabahar, could exacerbate India’s predicament. For the Indian navy, already troubled by the China – Pakistan maritime nexus, the development of China-Iran naval ties isn’t good news.

Also read: Nothing fishy about India-US naval exercises. Message for China is to get ready to fight

Expectedly, many in New Delhi are blaming the United States for the dip in Indian fortunes in Chabahar. The crisis of faith in India-Iran relations, they aver, could well have been avoided had Washington not systematically alienated Tehran. As US sanctions have forced India to reduce its oil imports from Iran, Tehran has lost faith in New Delhi as a reliable partner. What is more, pressure from the Trump Administration has forced the Iranian government’s hand in ways that have hurt Indian interests.

This also highlights a contradiction in India’s maritime relationship with the US: it’s a relationship that works well in the Eastern Indian Ocean, where Indian and American interests neatly align, but is somewhat constrained in the Western Indian Ocean, where there is a divergence of perspectives. Importantly though, New Delhi’s strategic interests are “weighted west”: the oil flows are from west, the bulk of trade is west, as is the diaspora, and India major investments. Not only are India and the US badly coordinated in the Western Indian Ocean, observers say Washington’s Iran policy actively impinges on Indian interests.

Policymakers in Washington and New Delhi must, then, recognize the need for better coordination on Iran. Greater Chinese naval presence in the Northern Indian Ocean in coming years raises the prospects of greater instability and elevated tensions in the Gulf region. The USN and IN have every reason to work together in the Western Indian Ocean, synergizing operations to preserve peace, even as they strive to exert strategic influence in the littorals.

A former naval officer, Abhijit Singh @abhijit227 is a Senior Fellow and heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. Views are personal.

The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.

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  1. sino iranian economic and military cooperation due to heavy investment by china would be an advantage to Pakistan as it is partner in belt and road initiative . The nexus would provide Pak a strategic depth which otherwise it lacks. secondly , american interest in middle east are more than the oil needs, controlling middle east oil gives them a leverage in their foreign policy, however , Chinese presence because of their interest to safeguard their investment will also help Iran against US sanctions and bullying. this situation will prove definitely bad for US, once land route through Iran/Pakistan stabilises, the need for sea route would reduce to greater extent.

  2. 1. Iran-China deal has potential to upset strategic interests of many countries and not India alone. Further, Iran itself may not be too keen to firmly commit itself too much to Chinese if in due course, US sanctions are relaxed or Europe turns favorable to it again or it acquires nuclear capacity in near future and gets de facto recognition as such. 2. It is fine to paint a scenario where China wants to trouble India in Indian Ocean but it will also have immense cost for China and it may not be worthwhile. If it settles border dispute with India, most of the anti China postures of India will vanish though economic rivalry will remain. 3. Iran has always been unreliable country as far as international agreements go and hence, its about turn on Railway project is not surprising. 4. Iran may be trying to form an alliance against Gulf countries and seeking Chinese support for it. This will cost China. friendship in GCC countries and it may not be worthwhile in the long term.

    So as far as economic projects go, such a deal is fine but any military dimension particularly against India may be far fetched. Of course, India should now seriously consider offering one of the islands in Andaman and Nicobar on lease to USA and another one to say, France for naval facility. This will counter Chinese easily and reduce burden of Indian Navy as well. India should formally join QUAD as well and settle the issue once for all. It is time for India to make some fundamental changes in its thinking.

    • You made some good points!! I always find the comments section 100x more informative & informed than these jack of all journalists like @Abhijit Singh who as @the print often have an agenda and bias!!

      I do appreciate @the print though for publishing most comments unlike the heavy hand moderators (bots at Indian express), killers of free speech!!

  3. Trump can’t be trusted. He abandoned America’s ally Kurds in Syria to the mercy of Turks. He is leaving Afghanistan in a great hurry, leaving them to the mercy of Taliban. He doesn’t even accept stipulation of NATO treaty that an attack on one member of of NATO is attack on all the members. He is withdrawing American troops from Germany, and threatened to with draws the troops from South Korea and even from Yokinawa, Japan! Fortunately he would be gone after November election. The new president, Biden, may not be so opposed to China, as Trump is. He may ondo at least some things that Trump has done. For insytance, he may re-enter nuclear deal with Iran. That may change geopolitics in Persian Gulf a lot, and mat also benefit India.

  4. I don’t think US would care about Middle-east in coming days.
    After moving their troops out of Afghanistan their only interest in Middle east should be Israel.
    Even if Trump won’t get re-elected the policy is still America First and US would gradually reduce its influence except maybe when oil markets are precarious.
    Shale oil really is a game changer for them. They became energy secure with it
    Unless we provide tangible benefits like how Srilanka gave away their port to China or any other way, US-India cooperation would remain the same as what it is now.
    Their trade agreements with EU, Canada,Mexico and Latin America, Japan are enough and trade routes between above countries are also secure.

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