Major General Dipankar Banerjee, Veteran
The first half of the twenty first century in Asia has the potential to be the “era of connectivity”. The “Great Game” captured the geo-political rivalry of the twentieth century in Central Asia. This century has the potential to network all of Asia and link it to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. From a state of competition and conflict, there is a possibility that the region could be transformed through commerce and cooperation.
The potential is huge but the challenges too are immense, for the region today includes among others, all of Siberia, Mongolia and Xinjiang, the five Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. It also overlaps with the conflict prone countries in West Asia, along sometimes open, and often conflicted, borders.
The noted English Geo-Strategist Halford Mackinder put forward in 1904 his theory in the “Geographic Pivot of History”, where ‘Eurasia’ was described as the “Heartland”. The possession of which would allow it global domination. Indeed, its vast verdant territory, pristine rivers, enormous natural and mineral resources and the absence of people, make it both enormously attractive and strategically challenging. In a situation of global warming, perhaps even before the turn of the century, this region has the potential to become the bread-basket of the world.
The present reality, however, is starkly different. Newly emerged nation-states, as well as old ones, are encountering massive challenges of ethno-religious conflicts, ideological differences, unstable state structures and potential international rivalries. These are compounded by uneven economic potential and weak governance with the possibility of some states in the region, such as Afghanistan, among others, even imploding.
It is in this backdrop that one needs to contextualize the potential of the Chabahar port projects and the trilateral agreements on Transport and Transit Corridors linking it to Afghanistan and beyond. Signed in the presence of Prime Minister Modi and Presidents Rouhani and Ghani of Iran and Afghanistan respectively in Tehran on the 23rd of May, it has the potential to first alter the adverse developments in Afghanistan and later on, in greater Eurasia.
The major impact of this Agreement will also be on long term connectivity in Asia. President Ghani captured this possibility and the potential of Afghanistan best when he described his country as the “Asian Roundabout”. A pivot of connectivity where transportation routes converge from all directions, it will not only open Afghanistan to the world, but will also link it to the larger One Belt One Road (OBOR) project initiated by China in 2013.
India understandably has serious reservations on OBOR, even though the most affected countries are in favor. New Delhi’s objections are not so much on building Asian infrastructure, as it is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but on the unilateral manner in which the project is being sold by Beijing to countries in Asia, disregarding territorial sensitivities and without prior consultations on complex implementation measures. The OBOR cannot be a single country initiative. It is much too vast, complex and by its very nature likely to be shifting and expanding.
China’s role in this project needs to be understood as well as put in perspective. As the major power in Asia today, and as the originator of the present initiative and one that is likely to put in the bulk of the resources in its implementation, Beijing should indeed have a major role. But, in its own interest and for the success of the project, it cannot be the sole controlling authority. On the other hand, by terming it an entirely Chinese affair, others would allow Beijing the space to fulfill that expectation and let it own much of that project. This will in turn move it away from cooperation to confrontation, harming the goals of regional connectivity.
The success of the East-West connectivity (or OBOR, if you wish) will depend a great deal on the North-South connectivity linking the two arms of the continental and sea routes. This is where India’s role atop the Indian Ocean becomes central to its success.
To counter the ‘Heartland’ idea, the American political scientist Nicholas Spykeman had proposed the “Rimland” theory early in the last Century. And according to him, the Pacific and Indian Ocean rims could contain the “Heartland” of Eurasia and, hence, were geo-strategically more important.
India is in a unique position to bridge the two arms of the OBOR, linking the continental routes to the seas in the south, without which its commercial potential may not be sufficiently fulfilled.
A Eurasian connectivity initiative, however it is called, cannot fully succeed without India’s active involvement and participation. The ancient Silk Route was not a continuous caravan carrying silk and porcelain from China to the west. The traffic was in both directions, carrying goods, ideas, culture and civilization. India was an integral part of that process.
The real challenge before India is to seize this opportunity. By the speedy and successful implementation of the southern Asian connectivity project from Chabahar, India, Iran and Afghanistan could set the the gold standards in joint large infrastructure projects in Asia that others may then emulate.
Major General Dipankar Banerjee, Veteran, has served in the Infantry Branch of the Indian Army for 36 years. For the last three decades, he has been associated at senior positions in the Think Tank community in India, in the region and in the world.