New Strategic Alignments Presuppose New Trade Routes
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 27 Jun , 2022

Partition of India in 1947 and the emergence of an endemic hostile state to our west have impeded the full growth of our strategic, commercial and cultural relations with the West Asian neighbours. Nevertheless, the imperative of widening trade relations and realignment of security strategies necessitated India finding an alternative road – cum – sea link to Afghanistan, Central Asian countries and further north to the Russian Federation and finally the Eastern European countries.

Conscious of the need for viable connectivity India took an initiative in that direction. Some of the countries in the region envisioning stakes in new connectivity also considered sharing India’s initiative. Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asian States and the Soviet Federation are the likely partners in this big endeavour.

For a long time, Afghanistan went on struggling for an independent and self-reliant regime in Kabul. Its people had to go through fire and brimstone while realizing their dream and get rid of external interference.   Now that the Taliban have achieved the objective, by a strange quirk of destiny it has to face a wily opponent who embrace the extremist ideology that poses serious threat to the Taliban regime. It is called the ISIS-K and K stands for the provinces of Khorasan.

ISIS-K is the Afghanistan affiliate of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It emerged in 2015. The group’s aims and declared geography of operations were very broad. Advocating for mass-casualty attacks against civilians and states, “the group intended to topple the Pakistani government, punish the Iranian government for being a “vanguard” of Shias, and “purify” Afghanistan — both by dislodging the Afghan Taliban as the main jihadi movement in Afghanistan and punishing minority groups, like the Hazaras”, wrote Asfandyar Mir of the Wilson Centre in the Insight and Analysis of 8 October 2021.

The main cause remains their sectarian difference. ISIS-K subscribes to the Jihadi-Salafism ideology, and plays up the ‘purity’ of its anti-idolatry credentials. The Taliban, on the other hand, subscribe to an alternative Sunni Islamic sectarian school, the Hanafi madhhab, which ISIS-K regards as deficient. The two groups also differ over the role of nationalism. ISIS-K fiercely rejects it, which runs counter to the Afghan Taliban’s aims of ruling over Afghanistan.

Political stability of Afghanistan being largely tenuous, the broad parameter for overland route connecting India with the East European region had to be given a close and serious thought. The outcome was the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) aiming at increasing trade between India and Russia. This trade route is 7200 Km long and the transport of freight is through a multi-mode network of roads transport, ships, and railways. This route connects India and Russia through Iran and Azerbaijan.

The earlier trade route connecting India and Russia was through the Suez Canal. It is a long route. Hence the major objective of the INSTC corridor was to reduce the time taken, costs incurred, and increase connectivity between major cities like Mumbai, Moscow, Astrakhan (located in Russia), Baku (Azerbaijan), Tehran, Bandar Abbas and Bandar  Anzali (all located in Iran).Following are the main considerations that led to the endorsement of the project by the relevant countries named above.

    • The corridor is aimed at reducing the carriage cost between India and Russia by about 30% and bringing down the transit time from 40 days by more than half.
    • It could be considered as a very important corridor for the development of freight traffic in the region.
    • This corridor is capable of boosting India’s economy. Indian exports are expected to increase substantially during the next calendar year. 
    • This corridor is expected to increase market access to the member nations who can also benefit through various backward and forward linkages. 

The trial of transporting Russian goods from Astrakhan to a southern Iranian port to its destination at Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port Authority (JNPA) under the INSTC Corridor, marks the baby steps toward India joining an emerging Russia-Iran-India trade and security axis.

On Jun 8, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was in New Delhi on an official visit to discuss various issues of common interests. This was also the time when the unfortunate incident happened in India in which two Ruling  Party members had to be expelled from the Party for alleged indiscreet remarks that had offended a large number of Islamic states including Iran.  We expected that the incident would throw cold water on the agenda for which the Iranian delegation had arrived in India. But giving an enviable proof of his political maturity and the sincerity of intentions, the Iran Foreign Minister clarified his position by saying that the official statement of the GoI that it respected all religions, was good enough to reassure everybody that India was a secular democratic state and had to be respected thereby.

As the trial for smooth transportation of Russian timber was set in motion and Iran’s FM had pacified the tense situation, simultaneously a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took place the same day.

Part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to connect Russian,  Iranian and Asian markets,  can be seen in the broader context of shifting alliances and pragmatic normalizations – forced mainly by the economic vagaries of a Covid economy and anti-Russia sanctions.

This is the background for India evincing keen interest in developing Chahbahar sea port in the Persian Gulf. The Indo-Iranian Chahbahar agreement came under a cloud owing to the sanctions imposed by the Trump government on Iran in 2020.  The project seemed to be running into the doldrums. Iran threatened to invite China to take control of Chahbahar development. Iran even withdrew its consent to Indian Railways working on rail connectivity to Afghanistan and then to Central Asia.

However with the change of regime in the US, the conciliatory role of the European countries towards Iran and resumption of Iran nuclear talks all contributed to a re-think over Indo-Iran relations and then the revision of Iran’s Chahbahar policy.

India declined to endorse the UN anti-Russia resolution on Ukraine. Ever since, the US–Indo relations have become partly sour. Though India declined to sign for her own reasons, it was not an act of vendetta against Ukraine which has usually served a proxy of the US and the Western bloc to do some arms twisting of India at the United Nations. India’s denial of toeing the American line is essentially a signal to the US and the EU countries to change their mindset. That is what the Indian foreign minister bluntly told his British counterpart that the world had change and India was not the India which the colonialists generally projected to the world. There was loud talk at one time of the US imposing sanctions on India for not signing the anti-Russia resolution and for signing oil deal with Moscow. It proved a damp squib.

India is dealing with the Afghan Taliban regime with pragmatism. The Taliban have asked India to reopen its embassy in Kabul and also promised to provide protection to the Indian staff and citizens. Iran has shown renewed interest in Indo-Iranian project of Chahbahar and the related rail connectivity. India has established very cordial relations with Tajikistan, the so-called underbelly of the erstwhile Soviet Union but of immense strategic importance in the region. The only Central Asian Republic which declared it would resist any move northward by the Afghan Taliban during their crucial fight with the Americans in Afghanistan.  The five Central Asian Republics are on board. As such great hopes are pinned to strong overland commercial and security interests for all stakeholders in the region.

Some commentators talk of India-Iran-Moscow axis. Others include China in the axis. The reality is that India does not frame her foreign policy of forming blocs and groups and axis’s etc. The entire narrative is about the awakening among the developing countries and its fallout. The Western world shall have to take note of it and modify their policy towards the Third World accordingly.

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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

KN Pandita

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

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