On Dec 31, 2015- Jan 1, 2016, two ships of Pakistan Navy’s grandly labeled “25th Destroyer Flotilla” with lead ship PNS Shamsher (and a supply ship) exercised off Shanghai with two vessels of the Chinese East Sea Fleet. This was the first of its kind event, hailed by the Chinese press as increasing “interoperability” between these forces. Because Pakistan Navy is unlikely ever to become a major force, leave alone a presence in the Indian Ocean, its very rare forays east of Malacca amount to little. However, the fact that interoperability is on the minds of the naval brass of the two countries suggests that frequent joint naval exercises are meant to hone their ability to cooperate not in the waters nearer China but off Gwadar. This development is not unconnected with Pak Navy chief Admiral Mohammad Zakaullah emphasizing his service’s determination to protect this Baluch port and ensure the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) connecting the Pak coast with Xinjiang and Chinese-occupied Tibet, with CPEC as sort of a southerly extension of the Karakoram Highway to the warm waters of the northern Arabian Sea, is obtained, at least, seaward without a hitch. In the context of CPEC, moreover, increasing naval collaboration could well eventuate in the permanent deployment of Chinese PLA-Navy ships in Gwadar.
Hence, greater the imperative for the Modi govt to get going on building up Iranian Chahbahar port, some 70 miles up the coast, as base for possible Indian naval use outflanking PLAN-PN in Gwadar. But Delhi is showing no urgency about coming to terms with Tehran, and fortifying the Gulf-end of India’s maritime security architecture. True, Iranians have upped the ante now that they are released from Western sanctions. This was bound to happen — the reason why I was pleading in the past decade and more to clinch a deal for Chahbahar on favourable terms at a time when no other country was willing to do business with Iran, and build up diplomatic capital and goodwill. As elsewhere, the then Manmohan Singh regime was keener to please Washington than to advance the national interest.
So now we are stuck with having to cut a deal on much harsher terms but there’s no getting around it. But better this access than no access at all to Chahbahar — which will lead to this country’s Afghanistan-Central Asia policy options (with promise of an alternative north-south route, with such transit being denied through Pakistan) going up in smoke.