India and the new great game

SUBIMAL BHATTACHARJEE SIDDHARTH SIVARAMAN | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 13, 2016

No shaking India must take regional matters in hand David Carillet/shutterstock.com

The Chabahar agreement redraws the power paradigms, particularly in the Indian Ocean Region

The signing of the Chabahar agreement has set in motion the new great game. The great game that started between the Russian and the British empires in 1812, is now witnessing the emergence of rising protagonists India and China, both young, economic and military powerhouses with ancient cultural ties to the region.

China has emerged as the Asian champion and with the help of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, is beginning to assert its dominance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). By announcing the massive $46 billion CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) project, due to be completed in three years, the Chinese have made their intentions clear of a permanent entry into the IOR. CPEC also makes sure that China’s entry in POK is pervasive and powerful.

The aggressive targets set for the completion of the CPEC project in a meagre three years is a cause of grave concern for the Indian establishment. Analysts in Pakistan have called the CPEC project a “game changer” and some have even called it a “fate changer” and see the project as a heaven sent road to prosperity. The CPEC project cuts the 12,000-km sea voyage from Tianjin to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Malacca and around India, to a 2,500-km road journey from Kashgar to Gwadar.

Solidifying relationships

The call from Afghan officials to link the CPEC project to the Afghanistan-Pakistan highway has also grown stronger. The CPEC project as it stands, seems to discard Afghanistan completely from the project. This could become a catastrophic mistake, as the Afghan leadership may look towards this act as a mark of disrespect. On the contrary, a link to Central Asia via Afghanistan will add a new dimension to the scope of the CPEC project.

Leaving out Afghanistan could work to India’s benefit in the long run; India could use this opportunity to solidify its relationship as an all-weather partner. While the Chinese encircle India, India may end up encircling Pakistan. 

Many in Pakistan consider the Chabahar agreement to be peanuts compared to CPEC, but they are aware that India has gained a toe-hold in the region. India will never allow China to dominate the IOR but instead would like to play the role of its guardian.

The Chabahar project which was proposed to be developed by India in 2004 suffering inordinate delays may have come to see the light of day at the nick of time.By announcing the much-delayed Chabahar agreement, India has seemingly outflanked the Chinese.

Chabahar port is less than 200 km from the port of Gwadar. India aims to connect the Chabahar port to the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan which it built at a heavy cost.

While it is likely that the mammoth CPEC project may affirm Pakistan’s position as a vassal state in the new great game, India, on the other hand, has Iran as an equal partner. This status will put the onus of its security in the hands of the Iranians to a large extent but India too will have to protect its investments and supply routes across the region.

Although India’s security role on the ground remains to be determined, India will most certainly have a formidable naval presence to keep an eye on the maritime supply routes on which India’s energy needs will be heavily dependent in the future. India has been steadily augmenting its maritime aircraft and submarine fleet as well as aircraft carrier groups. It has also put in place its own satellite navigation system, GAGAN (GPS aided geo augmented navigation), and operates the Farkhor airbase in Tajikistan.

Power play

India has also cleared the sale of the highly potent standoff Brahmos missile system to Vietnam, indicating that India is willing to take on China head on. 

The emerging power play between the rising Indian and the Chinese blue water navies will give a new meaning to the phrase ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the early decades of the 21{+s}{+t} century.

India has to regain at least part of its glory as a maritme power when the Cholas conquered distant lands in the far east over a thousand years ago.

The Obama administration has not opposed the Indian investments in Chabahar: clearly the US is aware that India will assert its foreign policy to suit its economic and geopolitical ambitions. Perhaps the US is beginning to see India as a credible deterrent to aggressive Chinese expansion in the IOR.

Pakistan’s role is perhaps the most important in this new game. Its role as the most important US ally in the war on terror lasting well over a decade, give it a leverage that no other nation can hope to achieve soon with respect to Afghanistan.

Will the story repeat itself this time with China?

It is hoped that Pakistan will focus on economic benefits rather than use this as an opportunity for one-upmanship against India. After all, Pakistan still retains its stranglehold on the deep factional divisions within Afghanistan and is likely to use them to disrupt Indian ambitions in the region.

The new Taliban chief Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada and the all-powerful Haqqani network are heavily influenced and controlled by the Pakistani leadership. The supply of weapons, ammunition to the many factional groups is controlled by the ISI (Inter Service Intelligence), an important arm of the Pakistani army.

Recent statements emanating from the Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif only reaffirms Pakistan’s proclivity to needle India. He said the army was aware of the hostility being perpetrated against the multi-billion dollar CPEC project in an apparent reference to India, and that Pakistan was ready to pay any price for the success of the project. The Pakistani army is not known to support peace initiatives or even think about the great economic potential for the two countries to move in tandem on promoting economic growth.  

The Afghan balance

How will the two deals impact Afghanistan which has to give right of way for the success of both projects?

Afghanistan will have to do a balancing act and should demand its share in the CPEC project. Afghanistan cannot continue to remain a murky battle ground perpetually, it must make sure the approach is dictated only by the long-term goal of peace and prosperity of the Afghan people. Iran, after decades of sanctions, is eager to join the comity of nations as a full partner. It, too, must utilise this opportunity to promote its economic development long mired in sanctions and controversies.

These two projects will benefit the entire global community by fostering trade and easier movement of people at greatly reduced cost. Therefore the world must view them in this context, rather than objects of power play in a troubled region. 

It must be recognised that after the loss of so many lives here, the world owes to them an opportunity for development and peace

Bhattacharjee was country head at General Dynamics, and is a strategic cyber security and defence consultant; Sivaraman is consultant, Aerospace, defence and strategic affairs

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Published on June 13, 2016
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