Trans-Himalayas: new geo-strategy

By K.N. Pandita

Geo-strategy of the region lying to the west and north of the Himalayan watershed, beyond the Pamir, Hindukush and Alborz tablelands, is witnessing marked changes in recent times.

Two major powers, the US and China, are competing for a firm foothold in the vast region that has assumed unprecedented strategic as well as economic importance, the latter on account of its hydrocarbon reserves. China is vigorously driven by energy needs to keep her gigantic industrial complexes functional without interruption so as to preserve her global commercial supremacy.  Presence of hydrocarbon energy resources in the region is her strong temptation. 

Oil strategy has become prime factor in China’s policy towards the Muslim world, especially when the region has emerged as the epicenter of pro-active Islamic resurgence. Beijing-Islamabad nexus is tactically India-centric, though China has diversified the complexion of relationship to give it economic content also.

On the other hand the US is motivated less by hydrocarbon booty and more by strategic interests that bolster her position as world’s leading super power.

In all probability, protracted presence of the US in the region viz. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia has the potential of gradually eroding sharper national sensitivities under over-arching globalization concept and the regions economic disadvantages.

In order to maximize rationale for their respective strategic plans, connectivity factor has emerged as an essential pre-requisite for the two aspiring powers.

China is reviving the 3,000 year old Silk Road with far more extended reach to make it the jugular vein of vast Sino-Eurasian trading region. Apart from renovating and upgrading the historical route and bringing it to the level of modern super highway, China has the ambitious plan of connecting Beijing with London through trans Sino-Eurasian railway line on which 350 kms per hour high speed trains would run to cover the distance in just three days. From this main link, several arteries will shoot out in order to provide connectivity to the vast Steppes to the north, and the tablelands to the south of Badakhshan and Alborz ultimately touching on the shores of warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

In addition to this project, Beijing is also considering laying railway line alongside Karakorum Highway now connecting China with Pakistan. This ambitious plan is scheduled for completion in 5-10 years.

Political commentators in India know that the plan will have significant bearing on India’s security arrangement especially in Kashmir. India’s entire northern frontier from Siachin Glacier westwards to Keran-Tithwal range becomes vulnerable. And any future plan in Sino-Pak geo-political strategy of extending this railway line’s artery to Muzaffarabad, the capital town of PoK or to Kabul in Afghanistan will largely shrink India’s sphere of influence northward and westward besides imperiling the security of entire northern border.

Americans, too, have oil interests but for the time being not as much in Central Asian mainland. For some time in recent past, American oil cartels have been active in the Caspian Shelf and Azerbaijan.  The Americans have two priorities: one is to obstruct energy exit routs via Russian as well as Iranian territories, and the second is to provide alternative routes to Caspian oil and gas to European countries via Turkey eschewing traditional Russian route.

But apart from this, the US has other strategic discernment too in the region. Washington wants to see Russia’s wings trimmed, Iran stonewalled and China restrained. More importantly, in the background of war in Af-Pak region, US secret eye monitors events from the outpost of Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. US have palpable presence in Kyrgyzstan following recent Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic show down; she has revived cordiality with Uzbek president Islam Karimove and found warm response from Tajikistan, which has endemic concern about pan-Islamic revivalism either through her own radicals or the Taliban outfits that might become active in Northern Afghanistan.

But more recently a third player has jumped into the fray with as effective “connectivity formula” on the anvil as that of China.

Iran is geared to expanding her sphere of influence in the region especially to her north and north-east as counterfoil to American policy of isolating her in Asia. Teheran, in her more recent geo-strategy, has focused on the ancient Silk Road with the tacit aim of exhausting western ban on her trade and commerce worldwide. After all, the 3,000 years old and 6,000 kilometers long trade route between Asia and Europe cannot become irrelevant for Iran, a leading player in the geo-strategy of a sensitive region of the Asian hearatland.

Iran is not signed to western-backed initiatives like the European Union-supported Transport Corridor of Europe, Caucasus, and Asia (TRACECA).

In a major bid to expand regional influence Teheran is planning networks of roads, railways, tunnels and bridges in the vast region lying to her north. It is looking for fostering improved transport links with the neighbouring countries through bilateral agreements. Overland connectivity to Moscow is her priority. This will stretch from Persian Gulf to Iran’s northern province of Gilan on the Caspian Sea neighbouring the Caucasus, and then northwards through the heartland of Central Asia to Moscow.. Iran’s new connectivity plans are to reduce transit time between Europe and China from 2 months to 11 days. The plan also envisages upgrading of Caspian Sea ports of Bandar Anzali and Neka to facilitate commercial connectivity and transportation.

Iran has the ambitious plan of direct connectivity to sub-Himalayan region in which her eastern province of Khurasan gets linked by rail to Herat, the ancient Afghan outpost on western border. This would be a crucial overland rail link to the revived Silk Road running across the underbelly of the Central Asian the Great Steppes.

Apart from this, Iran has various crucial projects on Tajik-Afghan border.  There is the flagship tunnel project of linking Tajik capital Dushanbe with the Central Asian city of Khujand, only 2 hours run from Tashkent.

These major developments in trans-Himalayan regions, naturally, will have great impact on India’s domestic as well as foreign policy. Iran is trying hard to establish close links among Farsi-Tajik-Dari speaking peoples on the one hand and a purposeful network of road-rail link that will boost its political and commercial importance. In all probability, the chances of Russia finding access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean may become a reality.

The recent news that Pakistan is prepared to let its “Northern Areas” go in the control of China, is sufficiently alarming. This had been the fear ever since the Karakorum Highway assumed strategic importance. This writer has been raising these fears in earlier write-ups on the subject.

All this suggests that New Delhi has to radically revise its northern frontier policy and security arrangement.  Changing geo-strategic scenario in the region makes our Kashmir security very vulnerable and, therefore, necessitates New Delhi opening new chapter of relationship with Russia, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Even the US and UK, too, need to be involved in these strategic talks.
(The writer is he former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

Link: European Union-supported Transport Corridor of Europe, Caucasus, and Asia TRACECA, in english and russian.

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