Two separate events in quick succession, first the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 28-29 July 2022 and later the commemoration of the ‘Chabahar Day’ on 31 July 2022 in India have brought the significance of the Chabahar Port in inter-regional connectivity back to the spotlight.
SCO Foreign Ministers meeting at Tashkent
Uzbekistan, the current Chair of SCO, hosted the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting at Tashkent prior to the SCO Summit, which will be held in September 2022. In the Tashkent meeting, nearly 15 documents, including on plan for the implementation of the Treaty on Long Term Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation; connectivity and people-to-people exchanges, were finalized for submission to the SCO Summit meeting for their final consent.[i]
Two broad focus areas emerged from the Tashkent meeting. First, there is a greater emphasis on improving connectivity between different regions of the SCO area as the importance of secured and robust connectivity has grown manyfold in recent years in the wake of sudden disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It becomes much more important for countries with no direct access to open oceans, such as the Central Asian Republics. Limited connectivity increases cost of products from the region and lessens competitiveness.[ii] According to the World Bank, the cost of shipping a container from any of the Central Asian countries to Shanghai is five times higher than from Poland or Turkiye.[iii]
Another focus area of the Tashkent SCO meeting was Afghanistan. Seemingly, SCO countries are of the view that apart from providing humanitarian assistance, regional countries need to help Afghanistan to stabilise, particularly following the disorderly departure of foreign forces from the country and preoccupation of Western powers with the conflict in Europe. Prior to the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting, Uzbekistan hosted an international conference on Afghanistan on 25 July 2022, attended by the United Nations, European Union, United States, Russia and countries from Europe, Central and South Asia, Middle and the Asia-Pacific region along with a delegation from Afghanistan. It was mentioned that preserving peace in Afghanistan is important for strengthening connectivity between Central and South Asia and ensuring international security.[iv]
External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar represented India in the Foreign Ministers meeting.[v] He underlined India’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and called for addressing the energy and food crisis that the world is facing. He also emphasised the use of the Chabahar Port as a trade route to Central Asia[vi] and the port’s potential for SCO’s economic future.[vii]
The ‘Chabahar Day’ was commemorated on 31 July 2022 in the western Indian coastal city of Mumbai, which is the starting point of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). The Ministry of Ports, Shipping & Waterways, and the Indian Ports Global Ltd. (IPGL), which has been formed to participate in the Chabahar development project, observed ‘Chabahar Day’ by hosting diplomats and officials from Central Asia and Iran. Afghanistan has been a major beneficiary of the operationalisation of the Chabahar Port as vast quantity of aid has been shipped to the country from India via this port. On the occasion, it was represented by its Consul General.
India has been developing the Shaheed Beheshti terminal at the Chabahar Port. The loading and unloading capacity of the terminal, which currently stands at 8.5 million tonnes, will be enhanced to 15 million tonnes on completion of Phase I of the project.[viii] In a short period, the Port has succeeded in drawing the attention of international shipping. The IPGL has taken over the operations of the Chabahar Port from December 2018. By December 2021, it had handled 160 vessels, 14,420 TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) and 3.2 million tonnes of bulk and general cargo. The Shaheed Beheshti terminal has handled shipments and trans-shipments from countries including Russia, Brazil, Thailand, Germany, Ukraine, Oman, Romania, Bangladesh, Australia, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and UAE.[ix]
In the ‘Chabahar Day’ programme in Mumbai, Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Shri Sarbananda Sonowal affirmed India’s commitment towards ‘unlocking the trade potential’ with the Central Asian region through the use of Chabahar Port. Currently, the Chabahar Port is not part of the INSTC framework, though a proposal has been made for its inclusion. The Minister added that the vision is to make Chabahar Port a transit hub under INSTC to reach out to CIS countries.[x]
Notably, INSTC began operation in June 2022 with the first shipment from Russia to India.[xi] Using the multimodal transport corridor, the containers from St. Petersburg reached Mumbai in July 2022. The cargo travelled from St. Petersburg by rail to Russia’s Caspian Sea port of Astrakhan, then by ship to the Iranian Caspian Sea port of Anzali, and from there by rail to the Bandar Abbas port in Iran and from there by ship to Mumbai.[xii] Use of Chabahar in INSTC will increase options for regional connectivity.
Fundamental changes are underway in the world following the COVID-19 pandemic and Russian action in Ukraine. Countries in Asia, particularly landlocked nations, are reimagining their transport network connectivity. In a short span, the Chabahar Port has demonstrated its potential to emerge as a hub not only for Central Asia and Eurasia but also for wider inter-regional connectivity.
Both India and Iran are proponents of South Asia-Eurasia connectivity through the INSTC. Greater emphasis on connectivity through Chabahar is expected in the SCO framework in near future with the inclusion of Iran as a full member and the next Chairmanship of India.
* Dr. Athar Zafar is a Senior Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer:The views are of the author.
[i] K.A. Dhananjay, “A fruitful SCO foreign ministers’ meet,” Gateway House, 4 August 2022, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/a-fruitful-sco-foreign-ministers-meet/#_ftn1, accessed 4 August 2022
[ii] The World Bank, “Improving Transport Connectivity in Central Asia Requires a Coherent Approach,” 2 April 2021, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2021/04/02/improving-transport-connectivity-in-central-asia-requires-a-coherent-approach, accessed 2 August 2022
[iv] President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, “To the Participants of the International Conference «Afghanistan: Security and Economic Development»,” 26 July 2022, https://president.uz/en/lists/view/5377?fbclid=IwAR3vh6TxzCYxFFWa7iihcIZsN79ZRf8WWaic9D9sbrgY4q8jyfskJU9wP4w, accessed 1 August 2022
[v] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “”Visit of External Affairs Minister to Tashkent for SCO Council of Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (July 28-29, 2022),” 29 July 2022, https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/35583/Visit_of_External_Affairs_Minister_to_Tashkent_for_SCO_Council_of_Foreign_Ministers_Meeting_July_2829_2022, accessed 1 August 2022
[vi] Riya Girdhar, “Jaishankar advocates for Chabahar port at SCO,” newsx, 30 July 2022, https://www.newsx.com/world-world/jaishankar-advocates-for-chabahar-port-at-sco/, accessed 3 August 2022
[vii] All India Radio, “EAM Dr. S Jaishankar calls for addressing energy and food crisis at SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Tashkent,” 30 July 2022, https://newsonair.gov.in/News?title=EAM-Jaishankar-participates-in-SCO-Foreign-Ministers-Meet-at-Tashkent%3b-stresses-on-zero-tolerance-for-terrorism&id=445147, accessed 1 August 2022
[viii] Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Mumbai, 31 July 2022, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetailm.aspx?PRID=1846762, accessed 1 August 2022
[ix] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Question No. 189 Status of Chabahar Project,”
10 December 2021, https://mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/34624/QUESTION+NO+189+STATUS+OF+CHABAHAR+PROJECT, accessed 3 August 2022
[x] Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Mumbai, 31 July 2022, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetailm.aspx?PRID=1846762, accessed 1 August 2022
[xi] Maritime Gateway, “INSTC Begins Operations,” 13 June 2022, https://www.maritimegateway.com/instc-begins-operations/#:~:text=June%2013%2C%202022%201%3A21%20am%20The%20International%20North-South,Iranian-Russian%20port%20Solyanka%20in%20the%20Astrakhan%20region%20said., accessed 2 August 2022
[xii] RailFreight.com “First Russia rail shipment to India reaches Mumbai with more to come,” 18 July 2022, https://www.railfreight.com/corridors/2022/07/18/first-russia-rail-shipment-to-india-reaches-mumbai-with-more-to-come/?gdpr=accept, accessed 12 August 2022