While Pakistan is embroiled in an economic, political, social and constitutional crisis, the region is undergoing a major transformation. Pakistan is well positioned—strategically and logistically—to cash in on this and other positive developments in the region in a big way.
However, with the prevailing crisis in the country and with no effective ownership nor any meaningful diplomatic direction and strategy, Pakistan is likely to be sidelined, surrendering its rightful turf to the others.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated by China, have signed a historic agreement to restore diplomatic relations. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will certainly unleash the required energy to introduce new economic, social, political and security dynamics to the region, giving birth to new hopes and opportunities for the countries in the region and beyond.
Many Middle Eastern countries that have remained engaged with Iran at an arm’s length in order to be on the right side of Saudi Arabia would now scramble to carve out a space for themselves.
Saudi Arabia: a paradigm shift–I
Pakistan has been plagued by sectarian violence for decades with Sunni-Shia schism being exploited by proxy extremist groups to fuel conflict and create instability in the country. With normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia the funding of such groups will significantly decline. This will also help reduce cross-border crimes and incidents of terrorism.
So far Pakistan has not fully exploited the full potential of trade and energy ties with Iran lest it annoyed the Saudis and the Americans alike. These irritants are now going to go. The stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline may return to the right path.
China has had strategic relations with Iran for a long time. It has now managed to win over the Saudis too and in turn the other GCC states as well. With this strategic alignment, China has strengthened its hold on the world’s largest resources of energy.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may acquire a new dimension of opportunities with Iran and Saudi Arabia on board. However, some serious threats and challenges are likely to emerge, notably, for the CPEC flagship project, the Gwadar port.
The massive development of a port project in the Iranian city of Chabahar has been gaining increased attention as a potential trading hub – and an arena for geopolitical competition. India has served as the primary investor in the Chabahar port.
The port has a number of distinguishing features that make it attractive from both domestic and international perspectives. It is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Oceans.
Its geographic proximity to countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, as well as its status as a key transit center on the burgeoning International North-South Transport Corridor gives it the potential to develop into one of the most important commercial hubs in the region.
Chabahar is the only Iranian entity of its kind that is exempt from U.S. sanctions, which significantly simplifies trade procedures with other countries.
Oman, an emerging economic power in the Gulf, has its eyes on the Chabahar port. It has already expressed interest to pair the Chabahar port with the Oman’s Sohar port to develop economic and commercial ties between two ports to boost trade, friendship and tourism between the two nations.
The dream of connecting the Gulf states with Central Asia, through land route may become turn into a reality with a causeway connecting the said two ports.
India, on the other hand, has good relations with Iran, Oman, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and all other Gulf states. India will not let go the opportunity to be a part of the changing economic and political alignment shaping up in the region - spearheaded by China. The obstacle for India could be China, which would not like to upset its relationship with Pakistan. But for how long?
It is no secret that China is unhappy with lack of progress on the CPEC, particularly on Gwadar port. Delays in payments to Chinese contractors on power projects, repeated incidents of terrorist attacks on its teams deputed on CPEC projects and lack of meaningful ownership by Pakistan’s stakeholders are some of the other irritants behind China’s growing concerns. The prevailing political and economic turmoil in Pakistan adds to China’s concerns and disappointment.
Economic and strategic interests of a nation override all other considerations. China is no exception. China’s strategic priority at this point in time is to consolidate its footprint in the emerging alignment of China with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the Middle East.
India is already closely interacting with China in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).
Under the emerging scenario and slow-pedaling by Pakistan on the Gwadar port, the possibility of China considering the Chabahar port as an alternate to Gwadar and taking India on board cannot be ruled out if it serves the larger interests of China.
Pakistan has to carve out a place for itself in the emerging regional alignments and secure the sustainability of the CPEC, which has been widely termed a game changer for it. China will not do this for Pakistan. For this purpose, Pakistan has to set its house in order. The turf once lost to others can never be reclaimed or retrieved easily.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023