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Asia's Great Game of Ports


China is attempting to hijack India’s port development project in Chabahar, Iran. It’s a sign that the two largest economies in Asia are gearing up for a global battle over commercial harbors. India announced in May that it would fund a $100 million upgrade of the Iranian port, but yesterday the Indian Express reported that China offered Iran just under $80 million in an attempt to yank it out of India’s hands. The Indian government is considering setting up a multi-ministerial task force to make sure China can’t elbow its way in.

Already the Indian government is fretting about China’s so-called String of Pearls maritime network, which China insists is about commerce, not aggression. Just 50 miles from Chabahar is the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which was built mostly by Chinese companies and is now operated by a Chinese government-run firm. After the news about Chabahar emerged, India’s Foreign Ministry said it suspects that “China could finance the project to keep India out of Chabahar and protect its investment in Gwadar port.” Elsewhere, China is financing the development and operation of foreign ports like those in Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and Kyaukpyu in Burma—all of which have led to a certain amount of hand-wringing in Delhi.

But some Indian commentators dismiss the idea that China’s String of Pearls (an American-coined phrase) is menacing toward India. C. Raja Mohan has written that China is expanding and streamlining its global trade network. A study by the Economist concluded that “China’s port strategy is mainly motivated by commercial impulses.” Indeed, the Economist notes, Chinese companies have invested in ports all over the world, not just those around India, at a blistering pace in recent years: Antwerp, Belgium, Suez, Singapore, Nigeria, Togo, Djibouti, Tanzania, even Greece.

“Were China able to somehow turn ports into naval bases, it might struggle to keep control of a series of Gibraltars so far from home,” reports the Economist. “It is natural that a country of its clout has a global shipping and ports industry. But it could become a flashpoint for diplomatic tensions. That is the pessimistic view. The optimistic one is that the more it invests, the more incentive China has to rub along better with its trading partners.”

Locals from Sri Lanka to Tanzania are hoping that’s the case—that Chinese money helps develop their countries’ infrastructure and makes them all rich. India, though, isn’t pleased, especially about the possibility of being elbowed out of Chabahar. “China is quietly intruding into India’s geopolitical space in Iran,” complained the Indian Express. Iran might be tempted by China’s counteroffer, which, though lower than India’s, is backed by a global portfolio of successful port projects. India has nothing approaching that kind of track record, and its shipping fleets pale in comparison to China’s behemoths. If Delhi hopes to keep up with Beijing’s global trade network, it has much catching up to do.

[Image of Gwadar port in Pakistan courtesy Wikimedia]

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