When the government of Iran decided to complete the railway link from Chabahar to Zahedan, it did not really drop India from its project, but instead signalled to New Delhi that it was realigning its foreign policy — post the Covid pandemic and India’s anti-CAA protests — to draw closer to China, which promises to invest $400 billion in the country.
Iran is not the only country with which India’s ties have diminished to a new normal. Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, goaded by China, are all similarly rethinking Indian pre-eminence in South Asia. Blame for this stasis rests not just on Tehran, but also on India’s ambivalence about the Chabahar Port project signed in 2016. Iran’s perception, too, about India as a secular country has metamorphosed after the Narendra Modi government brought in changes in the Constitution to reinterpret Kashmir’s status and the implemented the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), that in effect denies citizenship to Muslim refugees from neighbouring countries. The Iranian leadership had been scathing in its criticism on clampdown in Kashmir and the anti-CAA riots in Delhi.
New Delhi recognised this growing belligerence in the Iran government’s tone after the Delhi anti-CAA riots, and the constant demands that Tehran made of India to exercise strategic autonomy and fast-track the Chabahar project. India’s confusion about the efficacy of the project was exacerbated by the shifting ground realities in Afghanistan, which could catapult the Taliban to power after the US agreement. New Delhi is not sure that a Taliban government would respect such agreements with Iran and this expensive connectivity project.
However, Iran had waited for a while for India’s increased involvement in the train project, though there was only an MoU with IRCON and no contract had been given out for its construction. The pandemic and China’s assertive foreign policy in India’s neighbourhood made Tehran rethink its priorities.
“India left a basket in the queue and disappeared. The queue was bound to move on, leaving the basket behind,” explained an Iranian government official. Tehran, which had initially kept the Chabahar port away from Chinese and Russian investors, and invited India to fund and manage the port and build the railway line to Zahedan, seems to have read the straws in the wind better and decided to move on, and jettison its policy to reach out to the US by engaging with India.
After the military intrusion by the Chinese army into Indian territory during April-May at a time when the pandemic was raging — coupled with the apparent difficulties faced by the Indian army in ousting the intruders — Iran like many other countries in Asia realised that the balance of power was changing; China is challenging history, borders and conventional beliefs about itself. Iran also realised that the US had not come to India’s help.
China playing offence
China was the first country to get out of the pandemic, which gave it the copyright on how to tackle the virus. Putting this understanding and its considerable resources to good use, it helped Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal manage the virus. India, too, started quickly off the block to help virus racked countries by sending hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and face-masks, but chose to keep out Iran and Pakistan from its display of generosity. India did not send HCQ or any medical help to Iran, but China did.
Cognisant of the various factors that were isolating India from its neighbours, China — which had major issues with the abrogation of Article 370 and the new Union Territory of Ladakh that includedAksai Chin, a land it had occupied for long — chose to sneak into India’s area of influence, that is, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Help to these nations also came from Pakistan, which has been a beneficiary of China’s largesse and the platform for China to display its global and regional ambitions. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) begins from Gwadar Port in its Baluchistan Province, and is barely 70 km from the India-funded Chabahar port.
China, which is pumping $400 billion into Iran’s economy, could put to rest Islamabad’s fears of being surrounded by India through dominant positions in Iran and Afghanistan. Chinese investments in the project and expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could also provide an opportunity to Islamabad to rebuild its ties with Afghanistan, much to the chagrin of New Delhi. Pakistan is preparing for the new evolving reality in the neighbourhood, as it has allowed Afghanistan to transport its goods over land to the Wagah border with India. This move takes the sheen and purpose off the Chabahar port.
As if on cue from Beijing, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has ratcheted his anti-India campaign. Aware of the unease in the Bangladesh government over the spread of Covid and Dhaka’s opposition to the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Khan reached out to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently. Besides the usual pleasantries, they also talked about turbulence in the Indian side of Kashmir. Pakistani newspapers promptly hinted at transformed circumstances and did not fail to mention the earlier meeting between their Foreign Minister and the Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Islamabad.
Bangladesh’s relations have been frosty with Pakistan, but China with its deeper pockets and aggressive intent is becoming a major influencer. In the middle of the pandemic, Bangaldesh’s Health Minister received China’s health mission. After spending some time in the country, the mission reportedly offered to take care of the public health needs of the country and inoculate the populace whenever its vaccine becomes available. Though Hasina is standing firm with India, she is under pressure from her supporters to give more space to the Chinese.
It is, however, in Nepal, India’s closest ally and neighbour, that China’s full hand is on display. Nepal has laid claim to a territory that India has believed is its own. It put the area on its map and also got the incorporation of the land ratified by its parliament. Not just that, its creative Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, a communist, has begun to question India’s monopoly over the Hindu religion and its scriptures. He declared that Lord Rama was a Nepali and wants the claim to be researched. China’s hyperactive Ambassador has not only helped Sharma fend off opposition, but also given him the support to take on India.
Worryingly, Sri Lanka’s economic fragility due to the pandemic is compelling it to seek help from Beijing. The country needs $500 million and the government of Gotabaya Rajapakse, whose brother came to grief due to his close ties with China, knows that only Beijing has the money to help his island state. The Chinese, which got the port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease and also built the Colombo Port City, have become quite aggressive on getting what they want from Sri Lanka and other countries in the fast evolving world.
China has shed its reticence and, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, wants to be the “top dog” of Asia. India’s failing economy and military weaknesses could allow this disturbing development, if the US and the Quad do not come to its rescue.
The writer is Editor of Hardnews Magazine