The historic 19th century ‘Great Game’ of Lord Curzon’s making may be in the process of revival, albeit in different setting with different actors and varying interests. From the vast deserts of Central Asia, the new Great Game seems to be shifting to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the premier commercial waterway of international trade. The actors are not the old imperial powers aspiring for empires but shrewd traders seeking large markets collaborating with each other for their merchandise and accompanying political clout.
China, USA, Russia, Bharat, Iran, Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the conspicuous actors of this new game. Actually, regional players in the Central and South Asia desire to forge new bilateral and multilateral relationship outside abandoning the model of the days of Great Game.
Their convergence on new relationship built along economic parameters is bolstered by modern technology and advanced entrepreneurship. The focus of this relationship is on connectivity, on building new gigantic trade routes, on expanding maritime trade and commerce and ultimately on creating healthy contours of inter-dependability for progress and prosperity. The new Great Game is likely to move along these lines.
A major development in this scenario was the building of the KarakorAm Highway that connects China’s eastern province of XinjianG with the Pakistani seaport of Gwadar on Makran coast. The next step in the process is Pakistan handing over the building of Gwadar sea port to China. With that the two Asian countries are to stake claim for a role in maritime trade and diplomacy along the important waterways of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The third phase of Sino-Pak connectivity is the prospect of China’s massive $46bn investment in energy and infrastructural development in the strategic northern region. This move may not rule out the likelihood of China obtaining permanent foothold in the strategic Gilgit bordering on the underbelly of the Central Asian Republics of erstwhile Soviet Union, besides obtaining proximity to Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor.
China’s forward move has evoked response from local stakeholders. Much before Chinese advancement in the region, Iran and Bharat had a long-standing agreement, signed in 2002, to develop the Iranian port of Chahbahar into a full deep sea port. West’s sanctions against Iran for her nuclear programme delayed expeditious work on the project. It is based on a trilateral agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and Bharat of developing Iranian port of Chabahar as a major trade and transit terminus promising opening for landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
They signed a trilateral agreement in 2003. Bharat was to build a road– Route 606—connecting Delaram, the border city of Afghanistan, with Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province in Afghanistan, already completed by Border Roads Organization of Bharat in 2009. Iran was to build a highway from Chabahar up to Delaram.
The strategic Iranian sea port along Sistan-Balochistan coastline, 72 kilometers to Gwadar, is poised to keep under her navy’s surveillance movement of gigantic oil tankers and warships in a volatile zone of the Indian Ocean.
It strategically foils Pakistan’s plan of refusing Bharat overland route to Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics and to Eastern and Western Europe and maintaining monopoly over it. Afghanistan becomes a natural beneficiary with two-way access to the Indian Ocean and to Central Asia. Economically it would imply a significant boost to its trade and investment in much-needed infrastructure to the war torn country.
The operationalising of the twin sea ports on the southern coastline of Pakistan and Iran as the harbinger of the new Great Game in the Indian Ocean. Iran, Pakistan, Bharat, China, Russia and the USA are direct or indirect stakeholders in the changing geostrategic scenario in this oceanic region.
These ports are geopolitical launch pads that can alter the strategic balance in the region. The Gwadar port — close to the Straits of Hormuz — allows China access to the Indian Ocean. China can monitor US and Indian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea while its proxy Pakistan can control the energy routes from there. On the other hand, Chabahar port is Bharat’s trump card; a gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe and allow Bharat monitor Pakistani and Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean region and Gulf.
The Hindustan Times of April 11 reported that Bharat is ready to invest $20 billion in the development of Iran’s Chabahar port and has requested it to allocate adequate land in the Chabahar Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Bharatiya companies were also interested in setting up petrochemical and fertiliser plants as joint ventures between Bharatiya and Iranian public and private sector companies.
In May 2014, Bharat and Iran had signed a MoU to jointly develop the port after sanctions against Iran were lifted. Owing to high congestion of Bandar Abbas port, Iran has been focusing on the expansion of Chabahar from 2.5 million tons to 12.5 million tons annually. Iran has had long term plans of integrating Chabahar with the North-South Transport Corridor, linking Afghanistan and Central Asia.
While eyeing a larger role in Wes¬tern Asia, New Delhi’s regional diplomatic status will see a huge surge with the development of Chabahar port. Iran, meanwhile, wants Bharat to help create a free trade zone near Chabahar, just 72 kms from Gwadar where the Chinese Company has agreed to establish a free economic zone.
Afghanistan has agreed to the tripartite transit trade agreement on using the port as an alternative route, which could jack up bilateral trade to $3 billion from $700-800 million. Bharat has pledged $100m for laying railway lines connecting Afghanistan with Central Asia.
Interesting thing about the signing of a MoU by three countries, Iran, Afghanistan and Bharat is that it came about despite warnings from Washington. Modi asserted that the signing of the MoU had nothing to do with the sanctions on Iran and as such Bharat was not violating sanctions. With the lifting of sanctions on Iran, Bharat will be fast tracking the work on the project. Recently, External Affairs Minister of Bharat has concluded two-day visit to Tehran and the way for finalisation of Chabahar project has been cleared. Additionally, Iran is preparing to allocate a gas sector for exploration and exploitation to meet Bharat’s energy requirements.
Sources believe that after a commercial accord is reached on implementing the pact, Bharatiya firms will “lease two existing berths at the port and operationalise them as container and multi-purpose cargo terminals”, providing Afghanistan with access to the sea and reducing its substantial reliance on Pakistan.
In final analysis, economic and political lines are drawn in the hitherto landlocked region of Afghanistan and Central Asia on the one hand and the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean on the other. It remains to be seen when warships will be escorting gigantic oil tankers in and out of the Gulf of Oman and on the Indian Ocean.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, India)