A mere 70 km away from each other on the Arabian sea, Chabahar and Gwadar, two ambitious port projects for Iran and Pakistan respectively, have emerged as rays hope for their nations to develop into a regional commercial hub. Despite the geographical similarities that create a relatively similar set of natural advantages, the two ports do not necessarily share a similar outlook. The merits and demerits of these ports are better understood from a geopolitical and strategic perspective.
The most natural point of comparison is the relative efficiency of the ports as trade hubs and the extent to which new markets or routes can be unlocked. In this regard, the Gwadar Port suffers from a number of difficulties. In the first place, the surrounding region of Balochistan is inhospitable as it has a harsh climate, characterized by water shortages, extreme heat and deficient rainfall, posing challenges to economic activity. On top of this, the entire project is perceived locally as being beneficial only to China and to the Pakistani elite, while causing hardships and difficulties for the locals in Balochistan. To make matters even worse, Pakistan has been struggling with an entrenched insurgency in Balochistan, with no immediate solution in sight. As a consequence of the looming threat of violence on account of this insurgency, there have cropped up added safety risks associated with making this area a hub for transport. Studies conducted by the Henan Normal University in China have outlined security risks in Balochistan and emphasized the need to improve the image of the Chinese in the eyes of the locals, in order to prevent attacks on projects and Chinese management. Finally, Pakistan’s virtual blockade of Afghan trade has led Kabul to prioritize the Chabahar Port for its trade. Therefore, Chabahar presently handles a much higher volume of shipping traffic in comparison to Gwadar, and some of the potential markets have already moved on to Chababhar.
The Chabahar Port, from its very inception, has been conceptualized as a commercial hub inextricably intertwined with Iran’s economic development. Crucial to Chabahar’s potential success has been the exemption from sanctions granted by the Trump administration on account of its undeniable importance to the economic recovery and development of Afghanistan, which was a shared imperative between Tehran and Washington. By its very nature, the Chabahar project is inherently collaborative as it seeks to develop trade routes and cement itself as a regional commercial hub. This aim is made possible only by facilitating trade that was otherwise impossible and creating new trading partnerships. Already, Afghanistan’s trade with India is increasingly routed through Chabahar. In addition, many Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have formed working groups with India and Ira,, agreeing on the need for increased regional connectivity and trading initiatives centered on the Chabahar Port. It is notable that the aforementioned joint working group emphasized the foundation of these initiatives as being transparency, financial stability and sovereignty. This can only be seen as a subtle comment on the neighbouring Gwadar Port and its circumstances. The Gwadar Port, of course, is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has been funded by China. Unfortunately, the financial transparency here has been found wanting, as the US 2020 Fiscal Transparency Report released by the US State Department noted that Pakistan had not released details of its debt obligations, including debt to state-owned enterprises for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and that firms blacklisted by the World Bank had been provided contracts under CPEC. To make matters worse, the Gwadar Port is currently under Chinese management and even the Pakistani Government itself does not command much support in the Balochistan region, which is anyways rocked by insurgency. Strategic location is no doubt paramount for a commercial hub, but this is only a necessary, but by no means sufficient condition for success. By nature, such an enterprise can only be shaped over decades of careful and concerted effort. Thus stability, both financial and political, is a sine qua non in establishing the success of a trading hub.
On this count, it is clear that the Chabahar Port stands on firmer ground than the Gwadar Port – as a collaborative project with sound financial status, and being the incarnation of a simple plan for improved trading with a variety of mutual benefits across the region. The Gwadar Port, while having similar potential, must contend with financial problems, a lack of sovereign control and deeply unsuitable terrain both physically and politically