The recent India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement to develop a trade route from Chabahar to Central Asia has been portrayed by Indian commentators as having changed the historical ‘Great Game’ for control of the connection between South and Central Asia through Afghanistan. It has been claimed that the agreement will end India’s ‘isolation’ from Central Asia and Pakistan’s ‘stranglehold’ over Afghanistan and create a ‘new security paradigm’ and a ‘geopolitical shift’.
But the Great Game has already changed. It is being played on a wider canvas with different players and rules. The power contest in Asia is now mainly between China and America, and, to a lesser extent, between America and Russia — with India, Pakistan, Iran and others in subsidiary roles. In this context, the strategic and economic implications of the tripartite agreement are likely to be limited.
Chabahar port has been on the drawing board for many years. Its main purpose was and will remain to expand Iran’s oil and other trade including with India.
Implementation of the trade route to Central Asia will remain challenging until peace can be restored in Afghanistan. With the collapse of the inter-Afghan negotiations, Afghanistan is likely to witness a further escalation of conflict and chaos. Transit to Central Asia via Iran, or Pakistan, is not viable at present.
Even once the route is operational, its economic significance will remain modest. India’s oil needs can be met by Iran (and Saudi Arabia). The Central Asians do not have pipelines to Chabahar; they do to China. New gas pipelines are being constructed to Europe. Their mineral resources are also flowing north, east and west; not south.
With a population of only around 50 million, Central Asia will not become a huge market for manufactured goods. It will be twice as expensive for India to send goods to Central Asia through Chabahar than it would be overland across Pakistan. Indian goods are thus unlikely to be competitive against Chinese products shipped overland.
The strategic advantages for India are also questionable. Its influence in Afghanistan will be more dependent on Iran. Pakistan’s cooperation will continue to be essential to restoring peace in Afghanistan. Indian shipping lanes to Chabahar will be vulnerable to disruption. India’s limited influence in Central Asia will not dent that of Russia and China.
The new Great Game will increasingly revolve around China’s One Belt, One Road vision of land and sea connections between Asia, Europe and beyond. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the first component of this ambitious project.
In comparison to the Chabahar route, the strategic and economic implications of CPEC are enormous. It will transform China from a one- to a two-ocean power; enable a part of its $4000 billion annual trade to circumvent the Malacca straits and other potential choke points in the Indian Ocean and shorten China’s supply lines to the Gulf, West Asia and Africa. For these reasons, if no other, China has a vital stake in Pakistan’s strategic stability and socioeconomic development. The Chinese commitment of $46bn for CPEC projects is but the first instalment of the massive capital which China is prepared to deploy in Pakistan.
Instead of being distracted by the moves of its adversaries, Pakistan must remain focused on the implementation of CPEC. This strategic enterprise should not be allowed to be stalled or delayed by external pressure or internal politics, inefficiency or corruption. It would be wise to create a separate and independent CPEC Authority which can be a ‘one-stop-shop’ entrusted with achieving CPEC’s enormous potential for Pakistan’s development. CPEC projects must go beyond infrastructure development to encompass manufacture, consumer goods, housing, health, textiles, finance and other sectors. To this end, the interaction between Pakistani and Chinese private- and public-sector companies must be actively expanded and intensified. Some of the externally imposed limitations on CPEC investment projects, such as restrictions on ‘sovereign guarantees’ for debt finance, need to be removed expeditiously.
CPEC faces threats from Pakistan and China’s adversaries. These will have to be met forcefully.
India’s opposition has been announced openly. New Delhi will continue to utilise Afghanistan as a base to destabilise Pakistan and undermine CPEC. The recent spate of attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan is no accident. Pakistan will have to further enhance security for them and consider direct action to remove the Afghan-based threat from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Iran has assured that Chabahar is not designed to compete with Gwadar or CPEC. Pakistan and Iran can cooperate for mutual benefit: to end terrorism in Balochistan, expand trade, and construct the Iranian gas pipeline and a Gwadar-Chabahar economic corridor. However, Tehran often wants to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. Some recent events have sent disturbing signals which Pakistan cannot ignore.
To balance the growing Indo-Iranian relationship, Pakistan must maintain and reinforce its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It would be in Pakistan’s interest to help in giving substance and form to the ‘Islamic coalition’ hastily formed by Riyadh. It should also convince the GCC states of the benefits of CPEC as a path to their closer connection with China.
America is and will remain a major player in the new Asian Great Game. To bolster its strategic contest with China, the US is moving towards a military alliance with India. The Obama administration is also cooperating tactically with Iran in the fight against the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and, less clearly, in Syria. It wants Iran to help in stabilising Afghanistan. But the US-Iran relationship could again become hostile if new sanctions are imposed by the US Congress or differences arise over Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah or Israel.
For Islamabad, the major threat now is possible hostile US action to destabilise Pakistan and disrupt CPEC. Wisely, China has invited US participation in CPEC. The US has declared, perhaps diplomatically, that it is not opposed to CPEC. But the signals from Washington, as it hosts India’s Modi, are ominous. The new Great Game is about to get tougher and rougher.