Chessboard of Silk Road politics

By K.N. Pandita

The fabulous trade route of ancient times called Silk Road is fast emerging as the new chessboard of international politics. Two major players of contemporary history, China and the US, are heading towards cutthroat rivalry for grabbing the untapped mineral wealth and hydrocarbon booty of the vast Central Asian region straddling westward from Xinjiang-Kazakh/Kyrgyz border to the western shores of the Caspian Sea. 

Their respective perceptions of how best their political and economic interests can be served differ vastly in geographical terms. The ultimate destination for China’s Silk Road politics is Eurasia across Central Asian Steppes or the heartland of the Turkic region and the former Eastern Europe. China envisages rail, road and oil/gas pipe links through this heartland and numerous arteries feeding it from south and finally landing in the European Continent.

China has already made enormous investments in Kazakh and Uzbek oil, Turkmen gas and Kyrgyz and Tajik mineral wealth. She has stakes in Iranian energy resource as well for which she would like to make use of the Iran-Turkmenistan cooperation for oil and gas exploration and exploitation. This link once established and made functional would help China flood the Central Asian markets with its goods.

US strategy in the region is the New Silk Road Strategy enunciated by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her address to Istanbul Conference. She had explained it as”a web of economic and transit connections that will bind a region too long torn apart by conflict and division.”

To the US, the over-riding perception is the importance of Afghanistan as key actor in east-west interaction especially after the exit of the US-NATO forces from that region two years from now.

The US visualizes Southeast Asia-South Asia and Central Asia as the region that should play a crucial role in stabilizing peace in the Asian Continent. In this broad connectivity scheme, Afghanistan stands out as the bridge between Eurasia and the South and South East Asia. That is why Washington encourages the installing gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan.

The important gap in American projected scenario is the lack of overland connectivity between India and Afghanistan and onward to Central Asia.  But this dream cannot fructify with Iran on the other side of the fence. For any successful venture in bringing about collaboration between South East-South and Central Asia, Iran has a vital role. As early as 2008, India and Iran both realized that they needed entry into Central Asia via Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding several warnings from Washington, Pakistan’s continued opposition to India gaining foothold in Afghanistan, became catalyst to India’s’ search for an alternative road link to Central Asia via Afghanistan.  Thus there emerged understanding of sorts among three regional actors namely Iran, Afghanistan and India. In 2008 the Tripartite Working Group agreed to explore prospects of trade and transit potential of inter-regional cooperation. Development of Iranian port of Chahbahar on Iranian coast of Persian Gulf would provide connectivity to Kabul via Helmand valley.

Washington is not averse to India and Iran tying up for Chahbahar connectivity. She had bitter experience of Karachi-Khyber transit route. Moreover, Washington sees development of Gawadar sea port on Pakistan’s Makran coast by China as an affront to her supremacy in the Persian Gulf controlling the export line of Gulf oil. An alternative of overland connectivity of East and South Asia to Central and then to Eurasia via Afghanistan serves her interests and allays many fears attached to her exit in 2014.

Iran has already invested 340 million US dollars in the development of Chahbahar port and India’s contribution is over 100 million dollars. At the same time India has invested over 136 million dollars in the construction of Afghan Ring Road Highway (Helmand sector) that will be connecting Chahbahar with Kabul and thus provide Kabul access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. This is in line with the Russian concept of constructing North-South corridors. The Indian sub-continent will get connected with Central Asia.

Iran is eager to develop her eastern region and expand her trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia. She is also working on the project of connecting Mashhad with Herat, the western border town of Afghanistan.

For Afghanistan, access to the Arabian Sea is of vital economic benefits. She is importing one half of her oil requirements from Iran. The envisaged connectivity will reduce her dependence on Pakistan. Moreover, Afghanistan can open her trade relations with the outside world for the first time. Linking Chahbahar by railway with Hajigak in Afghanistan will open estimated 1-3 trillion dollars worth mineral deposits of Afghanistan (particularly her virgin copper ores) for exploration and exploitation thus changing the economy of landlocked Afghanistan.

India has large stakes in Chahbahar-Kabul connectivity. She is desperately seeking access to the energy-rich Central Asian region where the shadow of China has already spread out fairly wide. India’s annual trade with Central Asia is only to the tune of 500 million US dollars whereas China’s trade is around 29 billion dollars. India has to do good deal of home work to give boost to her trade with Central Asia.

By-passing Pakistan will reduce Pakistan’s leverage in Afghanistan under which she is manipulating exclusion of India from Afghan connections. At the end of the day, western powers will prefer to use Chahbahar-Kabul link for trade and commerce with the vast Central Asian region. Besides that, oil and gas rich Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will be able to reach the South East and South Asian markets for better business conditions.  New Delhi is planning 14 flight connections with five Central Asian States… Her focus for development will be in the areas of information technology, energy, banking and pharmaceuticals.

India’s cooperation with Iran is likely to neutralize the nuclear weapon-based tension between Tehran and Washington.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Teheran NAM Summit and exchange of views with Iranian counterparts has generated confidence that Iran-US stand off can be resolved amicably. India has already walked a mile in neutralizing US’ angst for expanding cooperation with Iran. India has reduced oil imports from Iran, voted against Iran in IAEA, signed civil nuclear cooperation treaty in 2008 and committed her support to US’ New Silk Road concept.

Therefore indirectly both Iran and India are lending outright support to US new strategy for the entire Asian Continent. If it succeeds India’s worry of overland connectivity with Central Asia via Pakistan is mitigated.

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