CARs And The New Great Game – Can India Play?

The New Great Game is about three things; the translation of influence through the control on energy, construction of infrastructure and lastly infusion of ideology.

In Short

In 1991, the Former Soviet Union (FSU) imploded leading to the creation of 15 new republics. It was in the making for a couple of years, and the inevitability was a forgone conclusion. I was then handling a desk at Army Headquarters which oversaw activities of our principal adversary, and I prided myself in asking friends to name me the 15 republics; hardly anyone could go past four or five. Yet, our immediate analyses told us a few things which I recount for your benefit.

The most significant of the new states were first perceived to be Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan besides Russia, the reason being that they were the rump nuclear states that inherited the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. The US proclivity to focus on the inherent dangers of WMDs had obviously influenced us. This apart, we were involved with deeper analysis to assess what should excite us, as much as the rest of the world. Our gaze fell on the Central Asian Region and the five republics that make up the region. It was quite a mouthful to remember the names in one shot. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, had their respective capitals at Ashkhabad, Dushanbe, Tashkent, Bishkek and Almaty (now Astana). The information, of course, was ideal for quiz tests to flummox unwary candidates.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi being received by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Mr. Karim Massimov on his arrival at Astana International Airport, Kazakhstan on July 07, 2015.
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi being received by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Mr. Karim Massimov on his arrival at Astana International Airport, Kazakhstan on July 07, 2015.

During the Soviet era we tended to look at the FSU as a single entity and the people to people relationship between India and this region was extreme. This was one of the regions which had a fair obsession with Indian soft power; Raj Kapoor was a household name as were many iconic Bollywood songs. The socialist influence plus communist strictures had effectively prevented the onset of any radical beliefs in the populace. Secular and tolerant in outlook the region was a natural partner for the Indian people.

From a geostrategic angle, there were many issues that enhanced its significance. The primary aspect that seemed to spring out was the fact that it was this very area which saw the playing out of the Great Game between the various great powers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Great Game was all about securing ‘spheres of influence’ in this crucial region to prevent the Russian empire having the means to make access towards the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire, India.

The region was seen to provide east-west access to and from Western China a region considered comparatively backward and a potential source of internal turbulence within China. The availability of large energy reserves, both gas and oil, made it the next big strategic energy belt after West Asia. Bordering Afghanistan there are ethnic tribal linkages; Tajik and Uzbek in particular which give these nations strategic importance. Landlocked as they are and flush with energy, including tremendous water resources for hydropower, the crucial aspect of accessibility to the waters of the Indian Ocean or energy deficient neighbors in the near abroad region was contingent upon infrastructure. That included pipelines, roads and railways, all put together like a corridor. Roads and railways provide the necessary infrastructure for trade in goods and exploitation of potential in tourism.

Our study also revealed that this would be a natural playing field for radical elements to extend their influence. Islamic Radicalism which views a potential empire from the Maghreb to South East Asia would be deeply interested in extending its influence as far North as possible into the Central Asian Republics and thereby threaten Russia’s vulnerabilities in Dagestan and Chechnya, both with majority restive Islamic populations.

What excited us the most was the potential for economic cooperation through market access and soft power in a region considered our natural ally. We were aware that such cooperation would be contingent upon access, the control of which in our case was and remains in the hands of none too friendly Pakistan. In 1992 predictions looked at the feasibility of economics becoming the connector to resolve differences as the flavor of the post-Cold War world was all about economics. Even then a few of us were chary about Pakistan’s attitude and willingness to allow India and the CARs mutual access and the potential of bypassing this through the Iran option was as much in mind.

In 2015, over 24 years later, nothing much has changed in terms of India’s ability to exploit the emergence of the friendly CARs. The strategic importance of the region has increased manifold. In the interim there have been events that have upset the equilibrium of the region and created conditions for the exploitation by other powers, denying India its due. It is important to deduce just how this has happened. Interestingly the intense competition for influence and exploitation has and is being viewed as the New Great Game. The Great Game was simply about influence and denial of the southward push of the Russian Empire and was based on imponderables.

The New Great Game is about three things; the translation of influence through the control on energy, construction of infrastructure and lastly infusion of ideology. It is all about intense competition in all three fields. The US occupation of Afghanistan after 9/11 was apparently for stabilization of the region but could not achieve the terminal objective leading to greater chances for instability.

China has been successful in extending its influence due to easier access, availability of investment funds and the ability to rapidly construct infrastructure leading it to declare the entire activity as the creation of the New Silk Route; a maze of infrastructure to connect Western China to the Middle East, East and West Europe through the CARs. The multiplicity of infrastructure will increase with the proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) which will have linkages to CARs through Afghanistan. China owns major stakes in Afghanistan’s mineral belt which when exploited will lead to the exploitation of all these routes for the conveyance of minerals either through the overland routes or by sea from the southern port of Gwadar.

India’s interests have been severely hampered due to the access being blocked by the ongoing turbulence in Afghanistan for almost 15 years. However, even if the situation was to hypothetically improve, the reluctance of Pakistan to provide access to India for overland connectivity to Afghanistan and the CARs is well known. India cannot interminably await Pakistan’s cooperation or improvement in the situation in Afghanistan. It needs access by different means and that essentially involves the utilization of the facilities within Iran; the port of Chah Bahar thus gains tremendous significance. However, this could have happened much earlier but for the strain in Iran’s relations with the international community over the vexing nuclear issue.

Getting our act together for early entry into an agreement with Iran even as the nuclear deal is still under discussion has been good thinking on the part of the Indian Government. Recent visits by important ministers, bureaucrats, think tanks and corporates to Tehran have been indicative of India’s interests. Chah Bahar will provide access to Western Afghanistan, the CARs through the North-South Corridor and an opportunity to hitch on to China’s New Silk Route. This would be a win-win situation for all stakeholders. The North-South Corridor is an ambitious project connecting Russia, Iran, and Central Asia.

While we have spoken of infrastructure and energy it is the third factor which has the most serious effect on the strategic dynamics of the CARs and the near neighborhood with potential to seriously upset the progressive economics related activities of the region. This is the entry of Radical Islam into the region with non-state linkages. A known area with secular credentials which if it remains intact will ensure stability and development. The younger generation is restive and like much of its counterparts elsewhere in the world, is vulnerable to radical influence. This is exemplified by a large number of volunteers having joined the Islamic State (IS). It is also the conduit for movement of radically influenced Muslims from and to China’s restive Xinjiang region.

In a recent visit to Russia I realized the degree to which Russia is concerned about the growth of Islamic radicalism in the area. There is tremendous understanding about this in Moscow’s intellectual circles but like everywhere else ideas on tackling this are few. The latest threat revolves around the advent of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and possibly the first signs of it moving towards the CARs. The lucrative narcotics trade of the Af-Pak region has largely attracted the Islamic State as its coffers do not have an endless supply of finances.

Af-Pak is thus the potential launch pad towards the CARs bringing instability to the region. The Taliban is attempting to stall the Islamic State realizing the possibility of it losing influence and reducing its chances of regaining hold over Afghanistan. The country which should be losing sleep over this should be China as the march of the Islamic State is surely a major threat to its New Silk Route, its economic interests in Afghanistan and the expansion of radicalism into Xinjiang.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the CARs along with the visit to Ufa (Russia) for the BRICS and SCO meetings has come none too soon. It reinforces India’s interests in the region and creates the feasibility of taking the next steps in doable economic cooperation. Consultations with Russia, China and Iran will bring forth ideas on taking the commonality of interests to a logical conclusion and safeguarding the region from the scourge of the Islamic State.



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