Sultan M Hali
INDIA has been opposing President Xi Jinping’s mega project the New Silk Road, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship venture, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Despite the fact that China invited India to participate in the BRI as well as the CPEC, India not only found flimsy excuses to stay out of the development projects but placed impediments in its path. Commander Kulbhoshan Jadhav, a serving Indian Navy Officer and senior RAW operative was apprehended from Balochistan. He confessed to having been tasked to sabotage CPEC and create chaos and mayhem to drive the Chinese away. Commander Jadhav admitted to misleading Baloch youth into insurgency and committing terror attacks.
Besides trying to derail BRI and CPEC, India decided to jump into the fray to create parallel projects to dilute the efficacy of the mega development initiatives. It started selling the notion of establishing its own New Silk Road – from the Gulf of Oman to the intersection of Central and South Asia – to compete with China’s BRI. To its sorrow and grief, the Indian step turned out to have been an effort to have stabbed itself in the back. In 2016, Tehran and New Delhi signed a deal to build a 628-km rail line from strategic Chabahar port to Zahedan, very close to the Afghan border, with a crucial extension to Zaranj, in Afghanistan, and beyond. The negotiations involved Iranian Railways and Indian Railway Constructions Ltd. But because of Indian foot-dragging, it fizzled out, forcing Tehran to fund the construction of the railway, supposed to be the key transportation corridor linked to substantial Indian investment in Chabahar, its port of entry from the Gulf of Oman for an alternative New Silk Road to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The next logical step would have been upgrading the rail/road infrastructure from Afghanistan to its neighbours Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The trilateral India-Iran-Afghanistan deal – signed in 2016 in Tehran by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sealed it. Unfortunately for India, it suffered cold feet from possible sanctions by the US in dealing with Iran. India did get a waiver from the Trump Administration as quid-pro-quo for New Delhi deciding to cut off all its oil imports from Iran and throwing Tehran under the bus. Touched to the quick, Iran gave the nod to the $400 billion, 25-year “Comprehensive Plan for Cooperation between Iran and China” to seal a strategic partnership between China and Iran.
New Delhi was trying to keep Beijing away but ended up with China exercising control over two strategic “pearls” in the Arabian Sea/Gulf of Oman only 80 km away from each other: Gwadar, in Pakistan, a strategic component of the $62 billion CPEC, and Chabahar. Chinese investment in an oil refinery near Chabahar, and in the port itself, an operational link between Gwadar and Chabahar will be created. That will be complemented by the Chinese operating the port of Bandar-e-Jask in the Gulf of Oman, 350 km to the west of Chabahar and very close to the hyper-strategic Strait of Hormuz. Resultantly, India had tried to cut off its nose to spite China but it has ended up shooting itself in the foot. Tehran and Beijing will be working on a de facto massive expansion of CPEC, with Gwadar linked to Chabahar and further onwards to Central Asia and the Caspian via Iranian railways, as well as connected to Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean (via Iraq and Syria), all the way to the EU.
The initiative expedites the Eurasian integration process – uniting China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Russia, which is linked to Iran via the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Neither Tehran nor Beijing will be downplaying the blueprint of the deal because both capitals are waiting for the results of the 2020 US presidential election, which may not favour Donald Trump for a second term. With the peace process in Afghanistan heading for fruition, CPEC has become a reality for Kabul. India was trying to lure Kabul and Central Asian States to Chabahar but the Afghan transit trade through Gwadar commenced only a few days ago, with bulk cargo arriving from the UAE. Gwadar is already establishing itself as a key transit hub to Afghanistan – way ahead of Chabahar. For Kabul, the strategic factor is essential. Afghanistan essentially depends on overland routes from Pakistan – some are fraught with danger – as well as Karachi and Port Qasim. Particularly for southern Afghanistan, the overland link from Gwadar, through Balochistan, is much shorter and safer.
Chabahar-Zahedan was not the only recent setback for India. India’s External Affairs Ministry has recently admitted that Iran will develop the massive Farzad B gas field in the Persian Gulf “on its own” and India might join “appropriately at a later stage”. The same “at a later stage” spin was applied by New Delhi for Chabahar-Zahedan. The exploration and production rights for Farzad B were already granted years ago for India’s state company ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL). But then, again, nothing happened – due to the proverbial specter of sanctions. Trying to isolate Pakistan and China has ended up as a disaster for India. Both countries are flourishing in trade, commerce and other economic activities while India continues to watch in dismay. Narendra Modi bet on the wrong horse Donald Trump and his worst nightmares are coming true due to his own shortsightedness.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.