Ties with Central Asia: Poised to gain wider influence
With Chinese clout growing and Russia flexing muscles to regain control over Central Asia, India is struggling to make some headway and spread its sphere of influence in the region.
Delhi has bet on Iran and Afghanistan to reach the Central Asian states via land route as Pakistan and China have control over many land links that provide access to the resource-rich region.
India is scouting for access routes through countries that have been facing trouble since long. Iran has been under international sanctions for the past several years and only in July this year it struck a nuclear deal with global powers.
Now India hopes it will be able to reach Central Asia through the Iranian port of Chabahar and build a north-south corridor that will run to Afghanistan and eventually stretch to Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the security situation has been uncertain for decades.
A cold war has also started between China and India for gaining influence over the Central Asian region. China has won the right to build and operate Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, which provides access to Gulf states and Central Asian countries.
On the other hand, the port of Chabahar in southeast Iran, a rival to the Gwadar Port, will open a route to landlocked Afghanistan where India has close security and economic interests. So far, the global sanctions against Tehran and a poor law and order situation in Afghanistan have kept the progress very slow on this route.
A report in the Hindustan Times on July 6, while commenting on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Central Asia, said “some of these countries have not seen an Indian leader for 20 years. If the Iranian corridor comes through, India leaves a soft footprint and some new economic and military cooperation can be finalised.”
Waking up too late
However, India appears to be acting too late. Pakistan has already been working on the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project and has signed a sale-purchase agreement despite the restrictions on Tehran. India had pulled out of the project in return for civil nuclear technology from the US.
An Indian alliance with Iran may not work against Pakistan, which was in the Russian and Chinese camp that played a critical role in the nuclear deal between Iran and global powers. Iran will be working on multiple options rather than serving Indian interests, according to experts.
Pakistan has kicked off work on an alternative plan for the IP pipeline. It has planned to lay a liquefied natural gas pipeline from Gwadar with Chinese cooperation and later extend it to the Iranian border. This will help the two sides to develop and promote mutual economic interests.
Rocky ties with Afghanistan
However, Pakistan has not had a smooth ride in relations with Afghanistan for the past few years.
Though Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, after his installation about a year ago, had been very active to deepen bilateral ties and also visited Islamabad, later, as Pakistani officials believe, the Indian lobby came into action and fuelled tensions between Islamabad and Kabul.
Afghanistan wants to include India in its planned transit trade agreement with Pakistan and Tajikistan. Trade through Pakistani ports is open for Afghanistan, but India wants transit trade via the land route. But Pakistan has refused to welcome India because of rising tensions with the neighbour.
According to officials, Pakistan’s government could not allow India to become part of the transit trade unless the latter improves the uncertain diplomatic ties. In this backdrop, the land route to Afghanistan via Pakistan and then to Central Asia remains a dream for India.
Central Asia welcomes CPEC
Delhi has also explicitly expressed its unhappiness over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is bringing an investment of $46 billion in infrastructure, road and energy projects.
All Central Asian nations have welcomed the corridor – a route that will give China access to Gulf countries and Central Asia. Even landlocked Tajikistan desires to import oil from Kuwait via Pakistan, where it will process the crude. Under the corridor, China is planning to lay oil and gas pipelines from Iran in a long-term strategy to meet its energy needs.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has visited some Central Asian states and sought support for signing a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (ECU). With this accord, Pakistan aims to enhance trade with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The exporters will have to pay the duty only one time at the border of the three countries and they will be able to ship products to member countries of the customs union.
In this scenario, Pakistan looks to be in a stronger position as Russia is also eager to promote and develop bilateral ties.