The sprawling Central Asian region bordering with China, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia and inseparably tied to the Caucasian region and Turkey is landlocked and dependent on the seaports of China, Russia, Iran and Turkey and potentially Pakistan. The Chinese and the Russian seaports are at too great a distance to be profitable for trade and commerce for these landlocked Republics. The Russian deep seaport of Vladivostok is at a distance of over 9500 kilometers. The land route passes all the way through the Russian territories giving Russia considerable leverage over the trade of these states. Though relatively short, the route to the Black Sea ports of Turkey also passes through the unstable and conflict ridden Caucasian states. At the present, the Iranian seaports are the only advantageous option for these Republics. Parallel to the Turkish Black Seaports, the Bandar Abbas Seaport of Iran, though located at a distance of almost 5000 kilometers, has been facilitating the foreign trade of the Central Asian Republics.
This equally applies to the existing and potential oil and gas pipe lines to connect with South and South East Asia and Europe or the world market. The Central Asian Republics remained under the subjugation of the erstwhile Soviet Union for over 70 years. All the oil and gas pipelines travelled from Central Asia to the European continent through the Russian controlled territories. Russia is desperately trying to keep these states within the orbit of its influence. It has sponsored International South-West Transport Corridor along with Iran and some 20 Eurasian countries and India with routes and railways from Iran to the Russian Caspian port of Astra Khan. The second option with the Central Asian Republics is to lay oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Black Seaports of Turkey. The first pipeline from Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) to Tbilisi (capital of Georgia) to Turkey was made operational in 2006. The third option for the outflow of the Central Asian oil and gas is to lay pipes along the routes to Afghanistan/ Iran and Pakistan to connect with South and South East Asia and the world market. Currently, the USA-led Western world, Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are contending to have their share of the pie in this economic new Great Game.
The Asian Development Bank reported in 2006 that after this economic connectivity was operational, the trade between Central Asian states and Afghanistan would increase to $12 billion with the creation of some 7,50,000 jobs. The GDP of Xinjiang would increase by 4%. The Eurasian Bridge being constructed by China beyond its Xinjiang region to open direct trade links with Europe by overland transportation via Central Asia would considerably reduce the transit and freight of containers. The overland transportation of containers from the East coast of China transiting through Xinjiang and Central Asia to Rotterdam (Netherland) would reduce the transit time to 11 days from the present 20-40 days taken by the seaborne commercial consignments. Similarly, the freight per ton by land would considerably come down from the existing sea freight.
Strategically, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan enjoy vitally important positions than the other contenders in this chess game. Pakistan is well placed to benefit enormously from the hydrocarbon resources of the Central Asian region and the overland trade between this greater region and Europe due to its geo-strategic location and connectivity with Xinjiang through CPEC. Islamabad lies at a distance of 800 kilometers from Tashkent and 1040 kilometers from Alma Ata, while the distance between Karachi and the Tajik capital of Dushanbe is 2700 kilometers. The town of Chaman lies at a distance of 1290 kilometers from Tashkent. The short transit period, short distance and reduced freight are important factors in promoting trade and overland transportation of commercial goods. Pakistan has all these advantages as compared to Turkey, Iran and India. For their own economic reasons, China and the Western world would support South-West transport and pipeline corridors. The geo-strategically located deep seaport of Gwadar will have a paramount position to attract the bulk of the cargo transiting through Xinjiang to Europe.
This elaboration of the economic Great Game being played out in the Central Asian region contextualizes the enormous significance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a game changer for both the countries – Pakistan and China. It would link Pakistan with the Chinese western Muslim region of Xinjiang and bring it in direct contact with the Central Asian States and Europe for overland trade, and simultaneously enable China to achieve its long term economic objectives to regain and sustain its earlier GDP growth, and mainstream its long neglected region of Xinjiang. The social and economic neglect of the region and the repressive policy of the Chinese central authority had since caused unrest in the Uigur Muslim population reviving their old aspirations for the East Turkestan Sultanate which had once flourished in the region giving Kashghar a significant place in the Islamic history and civilizational heritage.
China has some long term objectives to achieve in its troubled region of Xinjiang and beyond through the CPEC. China has been determined to follow well-defined foreign policy objectives in the Asian region through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Broadly, these could be to ensure political stability and security at home and in the region; to avoid entangling in the ongoing rivalry between Russia and the Western world in Central Asia and East Europe; to create an alternative transport corridor to Europe through Central Asia; to curb ethno-religious extremism, terrorism and secessionist tendencies in its Muslim population, increasing incentives to Central Asian Republics and the Asian states that could assist in countering the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or its secessionist tendencies. China is well apprehensive that the US will exploit the Xinjiang unrest and fuel insurgency there. In the past, the Soviet Union when at loggerhead with the Moist China had fueled trouble in that region.
The South East Asian and the Western Pacific nations have been looking at the OBOR Initiative with trepidations. They are trying to understand the real intents of China in undertaking this huge and long term initiative costing more than a trillion dollars. They endeavour to make out whether the initiative aims at the innocuous economic connectivity benefitting all the countries of the region or carries hidden objectives of strategic and hegemonic dominance threatening the independence of the neighbouring countries. They have been sharing their anxiety with their old ally, the USA. The Western analysts have lately awakened to the potential of the OBRI in causing far reaching strategic imbalances in almost half of the world particularly in the volatile regions of South Asia, the Middle East, and Eurasia posing a direct challenge to the USA dominance.
Although the People’s Republic of China has since been stressing the importance of OBRI as an economic initiative to regain its earlier GDP growth and open new vistas for the Chinese companies, the Western analysts decline to believe in what the Chinese leadership say and see more to it than what meets their eyes. The ambitious project was launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping at the heels of the USA President Barak Obama’s pronouncement of his famous policy of ‘pivot to Asia’ back in 2011 to counter the rise of China in the South East Asia and the Pacific region. Therefore, the strategic objective of this project to deflate the USA initiative could not be ruled out, they argue. If we go by these arguments, the OBRI would potentially herald a new standoff between the USA and China not only in the South East Asia and the Western Pacific but also in South Asia, the Middle East, Eurasia and Europe. This is where the American leadership would mount a pressure on Pakistan to scuttle the CPEC. The initiative has already set off a rivalry between India and Pakistan with the former resenting the passage of CPEC through Jammu and Kashmir and Northern regions under the control of Pakistan terming them as disputed areas and heightening the tension in the Jammu and Kashmir Valley by dispensing with the special status of the Muslim state. This could escalate tension between the two countries resulting in a new round of arms race. The significant question is could India accept with a pinch of salt such an all-pervasive Chinese presence in the region particularly now when it has already gone under the USA strategic tutelage to counter China.
The coming decades portend new foreign and security policy challenges for the country. The opportunities which will potentially come to our way in terms of trade and economic connectivity are also enormous. We have to our review our bilateral relations with Iran and Afghanistan. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is in the interests of Pakistan and we should second the Chinese efforts to enlist the membership of Afghanistan and Iran in CPEC. We also have to neutralize the hostilities to the CPEC from within the region and beyond. I wonder why the Gwadar Seaport has not so far attracted the Central Asian Republics. We should sign transit trade agreement with these countries if not already done. The security of the routes has been the main factor to restrain these states from using the Gwadar facility. Their fears on this count have to be allayed. Here lies the test of our diplomacy which should be proactive and aggressive. However, the overriding need is to rehabilitate our economy and to get out of the vicious cycle of debts and economic mismanagement.