China-Pakistan corridor the start of a new regional ‘great game’

The ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, touted by both countries as a “game changer”, is an agreement that seems destined to put other regional partnerships — including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) — in cold storage, triggering tensions and consequent militarization. Increasingly, it appears likely to lead to a new “great game” in the region. The goal? Domination of the region’s maritime and territorial trade routes.

While the economic part of the CPEC, along with the port of Gwadar, are now operational, and the latter will be key in facilitating trade with China, it is also expected to become a hub where both economic and strategic interests (read Iran’s desire to become part of the CPEC and an Iran-India agreement on the development of Chabahar port) collide.

China’s announcement, which received wide coverage in the Indian media, to deploy its naval force in Gwadar to protect the port has come at a time when tension between Pakistan and India is sky-high and India has been pursuing a policy of “isolating” Pakistan regionally and globally. Postponement of the SAARC summit that was due to be held in Pakistan is but one example of this policy in operation.

While Pakistan sees in the decision an opportunity to boost strategic relations with Beijing and checkmate India’s superior naval capability, India, according to its former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, sees the deployment as giving China unhindered access to the key Arabian sea trade routes and the oil rich Persian Gulf region.

What rankles India most is that the Chinese-funded port, and the corridor to Kashgar in Xinjiang province, have blocked its own ambitions to revive its traditional routes to the Central Asian region, a route that it is now trying to revive via Afghanistan.

Gwadar, due to its peculiar geographical location, has historically attracted a lot of countries in the region. China’s growing naval presence indicates its own interest is only likely to increase in the near future.

In November, Gwadar received a visit from Russia’s Federal Security Services chief Alexander Bogdanov. That visit was tactically scheduled just a few weeks before the planned trilateral strategic dialogue between Russia, China and Pakistan — ostensibly regarding the Afghan situation — in Moscow in December. Given the low-profile relationship between Pakistan and Russia, such a move would not have been made without first coordinating with China.

At a meeting in Moscow with his Chinese counterpart, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that the China-Russia military cooperation is “at an all-time high and it will contribute to peace and stability on the Eurasian continent and beyond.”

While Russian interest in the port and the corridor is yet to become official policy, it is quite evident that Pakistan is trying to woo Russia into involvement as part of its response to India’s attempted “isolation” of it.

For its part, India, sensing the emergence of a larger trade coalition in the region, has already started building its own trade route via Iran’s Chabahar port to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

In May this year, India signed a tripartite agreement with Afghanistan and Iran to link the Chabahar port with Afghanistan via the Zaranj-Delaram highway, also constructed by India. The agreement will provide land-to-sea connectivity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics through Iran, effectively bypassing Pakistan.

Gwadar port and Chabahar  — located barely 72 km away from each other — are no mere commercial hubs but rather geopolitical launchpads in a wider strategic power play. As such, while Gwadar allows China to monitor US and Indian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea and Pakistan to dominate the energy routes to which it is a gateway, Chabahar — though its completion is still far from over — is India’s portal to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and beyond.

The difference between this “great game” and those of the past is that this time regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran are actually involved and not mere buffer zones between competing empires, even as they might still be seen to be playing second fiddle to bigger states, namely China and India.

Either way, what cannot be gainsaid is that for Pakistan — beset by religious terrorism, a separatist movement in Balochistan, and volatile relations with neighbors both to the east and west — the CPEC, and the consequent militarization of Gwadar, offer a golden opportunity to carve a better position against its traditional rival.

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