Sino-Pakistani strategic axis provides China the opportunity to make maritime forays in India's neighbourhood through the Persian Gulf

by Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury

India is quietly trying to obtain maritime pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The first two months of 2018 have been significant, as New Delhi made concrete efforts to establish strategic maritime outreach through the mega India-ASEAN Summit as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to West Asia and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark visit to India.

Key moves in the western part of IOR — port access in Oman, increasing maritime links with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran, and operational control of the Chabahar Port — would not only smoothen and widen Delhi’s connectivity to West Asia and Eurasia but also push its strategic outreach. These steps will go a long way in affirming India’s position in IOR in the backdrop of China’s increasing forays in this region.

Yet, India’s narrative is not an overnight phenomenon. Its maritime links — both eastwards and westwards — are well-recorded in history. But what missed the headlines last weekend was India and Iran both expressing interest in enhancing maritime cooperation and hold a dialogue to look into measures for defence cooperation, including port calls by naval ships, and training and regular exchanges of defence delegations.

This is significant, given that the Sino-Pakistani strategic axis provides China the opportunity to make maritime forays through the Persian Gulf region and part of IOR that divides India and West Asia/the Gulf region.

Iran is a lynchpin for India’s connectivity in the region. It is not just gaining operational control of the Chabahar Port that will be a game-changer for India. Iran’s decision to convene an early coordination meeting for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), its joining the international roads transport convention, Transports Internationaux Routiers (TIR), last December, the accession of India to the Ashgabat Agreement — the transport agreement between Iran, Kazakhstan, Oman, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and now India — and the first round of talks with the Eurasian Economic Union, all are critical to India’s attempt to provide an alternative to China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (Obor), initiative, and to improve its commercial ties with the resource-rich region, including Russia.

Delhi has displayed a pragmatic approach by stepping up engagement with Iran in its own national interests, notwithstanding threat from US sanctions. The Ashgabat Agreement will hopefully facilitate the transportation of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf and would diversify India’s connectivity options with Central Asia.

Oman is a critical element in India’s maritime connectivity both in IOR and Eurasia. Muscat is among those countries well-disposed towards all regional powers. India achieved a diplomatic coup of sorts, when its navy got rights at Duqm Port in Oman, Delhi’s understated but oldest strategic partner in the Gulf. During Modi’s visit to Oman and the UAE, it was decided to widen defence partnership with both countries.

But it is not just outreach with the regional powers. Next month, India and France, during President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India, are going to enter a special partnership to strengthen each other’s strategic forays in the southern part of IOR through sharing facilities and building infrastructure in Mauritius, Madagascar, the Seychelles and Reunion. Their common objective is to provide stability, and safeguard freedom and rule of law in the region.

President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Mauritius and Madagascar also in March will further add impetus to the government’s strategic outreach. It would only be prudent for India now to conceive a Maritime Transportation Agreement with the western part of IOR on the lines conceived with Southeast Asia, in the backdrop of further Chinese inroads in the area.