Indian Rendezvous in Asia, The Mould of Silk Road

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Today, the revolutionary Chinese idea of “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” has provided the world with a platform for the idea of greater “connectivity” either through roads and railways or maritime routes. The whole world is eager to acquiring connectivity. India is an elephantine economy in South Asia, with huge territorial size (about 3,287,263 sq km) and population of 1.26 billion. It was assumed during the last five years that the Indian government is not pursuing an active role in the political web of the US’ New Silk Road (NSR) initiative. But, recent visits of Indian Premier, Narendra Modi, to Afghanistan, Qatar, Mexico, the United States and China, signing different agreements, are in pursuance of India’s new quest for greater connectivity based on idea of NSR.

The idea of US-led New Silk Road (NSR) is an upgraded notion of the Old Silk Road, the latter being designed to improve diplomatic and economic connections between the states of diverse regions. The proponents of NSR are trying to renovate the conventional Silk Road.

Currently, there are two visions of the Silk Road prevailing in world affairs: one is the Chinese OBOR and the other being the US’ NSR initiative. Unlike China, the US is lacking in commitment to NSR initiative on concrete steps and investment. China’s OBOR, on the other hand, is offering unprecedented vistas to diverse economies of the world through regional connectivity. For example, the investment of $46 billion in the form of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), $30 billion in Central Asian Republics (CARs), about $50 billion in Venezuela and that of $1.4 billion to construct “mini-city” on Colombo port city, are a chain of Maritime Silk Road projects.

Unlike traditional idea, the NSR relies on construction of pipelines (oil and gas) and trade liberalization. India remained main focus of the NSR initiative on presumption as a counterweight to China although, unlike Pakistan, it was not a part of China’s Old Silk Road.

At present, India is an important component of the NSR. Its economy has performed well and it is strengthening its trade and economic ties within the region and beyond. It is the sixth largest energy-consumer and it is expected that the world’s energy needs will rise by 50 percent by 2030 and almost half of that consumption will come from India and China. Most likely, before 2025, India will overtake Japan as the world’s third largest importer of oil — after the US and China.

The internal dynamics of India, the law and order situation, politics of scarcity, lack of good governance, rising fundamentalism, political infighting, separatist movements, mounting energy needs, Hindutva violence are the stumbling blocks in the way of India’s dream of hegemony  in South Asia.

However, given the growing energy hunger, India’s foreign policy makers are employing well-defined policies toward the neighbouring regions, which they call “extended neighbourhood,” like ‘Look North’ policy toward Central Asia and ‘Look East’ toward Far East Asia. Moreover, New Delhi, since 2003, has been involved in developing diplomatic relations with Tehran and Kabul, by making roads and railway networks.

In May 2016, Mr Modi signed an agreement of transport corridor with Iran and Afghanistan wherein India will be giving a credit of $500 million to develop a port in the southern Iranian city of Chabahar. New Delhi is also interested in building new roads and a railroad stretching northward from Chabahar to Afghanistan border. The Indian involvement in Chabahar Port seems significant especially after the recent thaw in US-Iran relations.

Besides, India achieved another milestone through Silk Road (Greater Connectivity) diplomacy when Mr Modi inaugurated the Salma Dam project in Afghanistan’s Herat province with an investment of over $275 million.

Indian interest in “Chabahar Port” and “Salma Dam” projects derives for three main factors:

1. firstly, the geostrategic location of Iran and Afghanistan toward their north, Central Asia which lies on junction of the Eurasian international transport corridor;

2. secondly, abounding  natural resources in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian hydrocarbon resources; and

3. thirdly, to counter the growing importance of Pakistan, which is geographically close to Central Asia and Middle East, having vital importance on Silk Road and the ‘game-changer” CPEC project.

Pakistan should enhance its soft image too by conducting “smart diplomacy” in the region for emphasizing other connectivity endeavours, especially Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline.

India is projecting its “soft power” image, especially in Central Asia, Middle East, Russia and China. Through people-to-people exchanges coupled with media efforts, it has developed a profile in the Central Asian region. It has also established Indian Cultural Centers in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in order to disseminate Indian culture among the local populaces.

India, after completing highway from North to South (towards Indian Ocean), is planning to have joint ventures with Russia and Iran in order to get access to their reserves of natural resources. In 2000, Russia, Iran and India signed an agreement in St. Petersburg envisioning a North-South Transport Corridor that stretches from Indian ports across the Arabian Sea to southern Iranian port of Bander Abbas, from where trade would take place.

Similarly, the Indian government has been actively investing in economic and diplomatic clout in Afghanistan for the last several years. It is the fifth largest donor to Afghanistan and happens to be the largest from South Asia.

New Delhi and Kabul are actively involved in multifaceted business ventures such as agribusiness, energy, textiles, logistics, banking, telecommunication, construction of roads and transport, etc. Indian government has helped the Afghan government in building their “Ring Road” and also constructing the Afghan Parliament building at a cost of $25 million.

Why Indians are active in Afghanistan? Firstly, they are eyeing Afghanistan for lucrative economic opportunities; secondly, investment in Kabul seems profitable; and thirdly, to radiate its influence under “Mahabharata ideology”. Now, it is doing so through establishing links with Afghanistan via Iran, bypassing Pakistan, which is, in fact, a smaller and cheaper trade route. Probably, India thinks that it is better to invest in a peaceful route, notwithstanding its length.

Modi’s June 2016 visit to the US is also of special import in this regard. In his meeting with the outgoing US president, he referred to Indian engagement in Afghanistan. Michael Kugelman, in his article “Modi’s Play in Iran and Afghanistan” (Foreign Affairs) opined that the meeting between Washington and New Delhi leaders will also be “about assurance to counterparts that remaining US sanctions on Iran will not cause problems for this deal (Chabahar). Obama should also underscore his awareness that the deal is fully economic in nature, with no military cooperation, and therefore doesn’t raise any red flags.”

Another excursion of New Delhi on 27th May 2016 to China is noteworthy. President Pranab Mukherjee’s four-day China visit is significant regarding business and cultural linkages and to boost people-to-people contact between the two states. He also offered support to China for the “Going Global” strategy and desired that China should be a significant part of Indian developmental missions like “Digital India” or “Skill India”.
There should be a logical outcome of roads and maritime connections to such trade routes which are linked with vulnerable areas of Afghanistan (those under Taliban influence) and need serious attention of regional states.

Secondly, it will cost a lot to India to trade with 60 million population (not a big market for India) of CARs through Afghanistan. Furthermore, as claimed by Munir Akram in his article “The New Great Game,” Central Asia does not have pipeline to Chabahar; they do have with China.

In comparison of CPEC with Chabahar, the former has greater strategic and economic implications, but the latter would have greater geopolitical implications for South Asia. This is because Indian investment is meagre as compared to China’s colossal $46 billion in Pakistan.

The term “The Great Game” is quite helpful in understanding the whole paradigm. All over again, the two main powers, China and the United States, are with regional players for protecting their interests in South Asia. Imperative steps need to be taken by Pakistan i.e. completion of the CPEC at the earliest, subsequently, to become an important player of the Great Game in region.

Pakistan’s intentions of getting gas from Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline project is still under discussion among member states. Due to conflicting interests, the lack of trust between Kabul, New Delhi and Islamabad is a main hurdle. Although economic rationality of the project is beyond question, it is clouded by national politics of different actors on “ifs and buts”.

Pakistan’s efforts to get electricity from Central Asia-South Asia (CASA-1000) face similar economic and political impediments. Both projects have given rise to a political tug of war between diverse regions that are involved in the TAPI. For reinforcing Islamic bond and connectivity with Iran, Pakistan should immediately emphasize on Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline as Iran also needs Pakistan for “land connectivity” with rest of the South Asia.

A passive role by Pakistan cannot be acceptable. For a proactive role in the completion of Silk Roads project, a coherent and cohesive planning by Pakistani leadership is the most pressing need of the time. Flow of trade, goods and capital could gestate a ‘new world’ for Pakistan, and give it a leading role in the region.

Quoting a saying of Confucius seems apt here. He says, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Pakistan should not waste the opportunity to learn how to take imperative steps to emerge as an important player in the “New Great Game.”

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