Geopolitics

Central-South Asian Connectivity: New Security Panorama
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 15 Sep , 2016

Long before the partition of India, famous Urdu poet Iqbal praised the Himalayas in glowing words and called it “our sentry and our protector”.

Much water has gone down the river. The mighty Himalayas are no more the forbidding mountains; its crags and peaks are no more insurmountable; its blizzards are no more daunting, and its tranquil air is no more without the foul smell of gunpowder. Thanks to the highly advanced technology and engineering feats of contemporary times, and thanks to the rock-like will and grit of the Chinese plus their lust for border expansion.

…CPEC was a source of threat to our country’s security because, besides rail and gas pipeline, China was planning establishment of short and long range nuclear ballistic missiles firing ranges along this Highway.

When Karakorum Highway was under secret construction of China, only a couple of Pakistani top Generals, senior echelons of ISI and a few among political bigwigs of Pakistan knew what was brewing.

When India got the whiff of it, she exuded some feeble protest that soon evaporated in the thin air. The world woke up to the grandiose project of China only when huge military convoys, heavy war machinery, tanks and finally missile launchers began to rumble in the entrails of the icy Himalayas.

The KK Highway passes through the territory called Aksaichin after the Arab historians, and Pakistan’s erstwhile Northern Areas that actually belong to India being the territory of the Dogra Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir but illegally occupied partly by China and partly by Pakistan. Taking shelter behind the agreement by virtue of which Pakistan ceded a chunk of nearly 5000 square kilometers of Aksaichin to China, Beijing cared not a fig for India’s protests.

In his Independence Day speech delivered from the ramparts of Red Fort, Prime Minister Modi minced no words and said that KK Highway in its new avatar as 46 billion dollar CPEC was a source of threat to our country’s security because, besides rail and gas pipeline, China was planning establishment of short and long range nuclear ballistic missiles firing ranges along this Highway.

The second phase of China’s ambitiously strategic programme in the Himalayas began somewhere in 2013 with heavy footfall of PLA in Gilgit and Baltistan or the erstwhile Northern Areas of Pakistan. Pakistan and China gave the impression that PLA was assisting Pakistan in building infrastructure in the region. However, their military and strategic designs could not remain hidden for too long a time. Their real intentions are unfolding now.

…the international community will not fail to see how Pakistan is becoming an obstruction to normalization of trade relations in the region and frustrating possible confidence building measures.

Recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called for including India in transit trade with Afghanistan.  He was reflecting on the subject during a meeting with the UK’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Owen Jenkins in Kabul. He went a step further saying that if Pakistan did not agree to India’s entry into Trilateral Transit Trade Agreement (TTTA), then Afghanistan would reconsider what restrictions it would impose on Pakistan’s trade route to Central Asian States via Afghanistan.

It will be reminded that Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had, at the last Heart of Asia ministerial conference in Islamabad, expressed her country’s desire to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA).

Pakistan considers Ghani’s statement a hollow threat. However, the international community will not fail to see how Pakistan is becoming an obstruction to normalization of trade relations in the region and frustrating possible confidence building measures.

Pakistan ties to reduce Afghan importance to her trade with CAS by saying it has only a small trade with CAS, and Afghan denial of transit route to CAS would not mean any serious disadvantage to her economy. This is only a bluff. The fact is that Pakistan is desperately looking for depth westward and more importantly in Central Asian Republics after having encountered forbidding counter-obstructions from Afghan government.

Furthermore, after the demise of Uzbek President Islam Karimov last week, Pakistan and its jihadi structures believe the way is now open for religious extremists, local and regional, to revive jihadism in Central Asia. Islam Karimov, the strong bulwark against jihadism, had held them at bay ever since the implosion of the Soviet Union and emergence of independent Central Asian Republics in 1991.

India has been trying to break the transit route impasse created by Pakistan that denies her overland connectivity to Central Asian Republics and beyond to Eastern Europe.

Intending to stonewall India’s growing influence in Afghanistan’s development, Islamabad is charging Kabul of trying to give concessions to India to become stakeholder in the TTTA. Pakistan’s contention is that goods from Afghanistan are allowed to be transited to India via Wagah transit point but she disallows Indian goods transited to Afghanistan through same route.

For quite some time, India has been trying to break the transit route impasse created by Pakistan that denies her overland connectivity to Central Asian Republics and beyond to Eastern Europe. After CPEC was floated and Gwadar connected to the corridor, India awoke from deep slumber, albeit belatedly. She began to realize the strategic implications of this connectivity in the Sub-continent and its long term consequences.

Indian policy planners took up the thread of Indo-Iran collaboration in Chahbahar sea port project in the Persian Gulf after sleeping over it for nearly a decade. Finally, this summer, the Chahbahr trilateral agreement was signed between India, Iran and Afghanistan, which will give India the option of connectivity to Central Asia bypassing Pakistan. The project envisages road/rail link along Zaranj-Delaram axis to reach Kabul and then to Mazar-i-Sharif and onwards to Uzbekistan/Tajikistan after crossing the Amu at Tirmiz.

This makes the strategic map of the region explicit. New Delhi –Kabul-Teheran axis (circumventing Pakistan) is poised against Pak-China alignment in the broader context of Western Himalayan region.

But the game plan on the chessboard of Western Himalayan region across the Pamirs and Badakhshan is steadily becoming complex. Northern Afghanistan, particularly the Panjsheer Valley and the Wakhan corridor, both are poised to emerge as crucial regions in current Central and South Asian political landscape.

China has been eyeing Wakhan corridor as the possible route for reaching the rich and rare copper mines of Afghanistan…

China has been eyeing Wakhan corridor as the possible route for reaching the rich and rare copper mines of Afghanistan for the exploration and exploitation of which China has already conducted negotiations with Kabul.

The first indication of Sino-Pak reaction to Chahbahar alignment was casually voiced by Dawn newspaper of Pakistan in its issue of 11 September saying Pakistan is reportedly considering other routes as well for reaching Tajikistan, bypassing the war-ravaged Afghanistan.

There are plans for getting Chinese help in linking China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Corridor 5 & 6 of CAREC (Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation), which will establish connectivity between Pakistan and Central Asia.

Survey and feasibility of road link between Pakistan and Tajikistan was conducted some years ago by the Agha Khan Institute of Karachi. It will be reminded that there is sizable population of Ismaili faith in the Khorog region of Southern Tajikistan across the Badakhshan Mountain. Moreover, Tajikistan and Pakistan are actively considering development of Rowgun Hydroelectric Power generating plant in Tajikistan with capacity to supply power to Pakistan. China is in the loop for this project.

Obviously, contemplated road connectivity will mean huge tunneling of the mountains and with that establishment of strategic posts to bring landlocked Central Asia closer to the warm waters of Indian Ocean. This also highlights the strategic importance of Gwadar sea port as crucial link in the big and vast Beijing controlled trade circuit in the sub-continent.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both are emerging as crucial to India’s Central Asian policy. Though India has lost much ground in Tajikistan to the Chinese yet she has not lost the goodwill and the historicity of ties with ethnic Tajiks.

At one point of time in the post independence period of Tajikistan when the Afghan Taliban threat had begun casting its gloomy shadow over the southern part of Tajikistan around 1996, India had an opportunity of obtaining toehold in that country. However, India failed to handle the opportunity with astute diplomacy and missed the Aini airport concession.

However, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both are emerging as crucial to India’s Central Asian policy. Though India has lost much ground in Tajikistan to the Chinese yet she has not lost the goodwill and the historicity of ties with ethnic Tajiks. Efforts should be made to revive ties with new perspectives. India should also understand that growing cooperation with Iran will immensely reduce her dependence on Daultabad gas field of Turkmenistan. The Zaranj-Delaram-Kabul-Mazar-i-Sharif road link (may be rail link at a future time) might in all probability achieve importance as the main highway connecting India with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Strategic importance of Tajikistan to India and Iran in the wake of Sino-Pak trade and military ambitions in the Badakhshan-Pamir region becomes a pressing reality.

President Ashraf Ghani’s comments that Afghanistan was no more entirely reliant on Pakistan for its external trade as it has got other routes for exports and imports is pregnant with meaning . He was referring to the trade route India is helping to build linking Iran’s Chahbahar port with Afghanistan.

This comment becomes more explicit when read in the background of Afghanistan’s bilateral trade with Pakistan headed towards decline. According to some estimates, it has gone down by 50 per cent over the past few months because of border issues. Last month, the Chaman border crossing remained closed for almost 14 days, while in June the Torkham border crossing remained closed for a week.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

K.N. Pandita

Former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University

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One thought on “Central-South Asian Connectivity: New Security Panorama

  1. Very well written article. Simple language, precise length, yet conveying the intended meaning clearly and crisply. Looking forward to more from the author. Thanks very much sir for enriching with your depth of knowledge

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