Connecting Asia: South Asia as a Strategic Bridge

13 Feb, 2014    ·   4306

D Suba Chandran explains why it is in India and the region's interest to make South Asia a link between West Asia, Central Asia and East Asia.

So much is happening around South Asia today; if the region is smart in understanding the nature of these changes and makes use of its potential and geographic location, it could become a strategic bridge between four huge land masses – West Asia, Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia. Besides the above four, there is a huge opportunity for the region in the Indian Ocean as well. In fact the Indian Ocean could be seen as a maritime bridge between the Pacific, Atlantic and the Red Seas.

While there is so much of a negative focus on what is happening in Afghanistan and Iran, there are also substantial positive developments in that region. Two primary developments have been related new initiatives such as CASA-1000 and the TUTAP. CASA-1000 is a unique project attempting to link Central Asia and South Asia through an electricity grid, with Afghanistan as the center of this project. TUTAP is another project, though in the initial stages of design – involves Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, linking them with sale and purchase of power depending on demand and supply.

According to recent news reports, CASA 1000 would involve transmission of 1300 megawatts (MW) of electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The World Bank is involved in this project and the above countries are seriously placing the necessary infrastructure on this. Along with the Abu Dhabi Investment Fund and Kuwait Fund for Development, the World Bank has agreed to finance the construction of electricity lines. The US is extremely support of this idea; only few days before, there was a meeting in Washington discussing the prices.
Parallel to this process, there has also been positive developments with the much discussed and much delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

An earlier commentary in this column discussed the recent developments relating to the TAPI and concluded that 2013-14 very well could be the tipping point in realising this huge project. Unfortunately, there are no such positive developments on the other pipeline project in this region involving Iran, Pakistan and India. India provided the first jolt by delinking from the IPI pipeline, primarily due to pressure from the US.

The Americans until recently did not want any major project that engages Iran; they used the “strategic partnership” and the “nuclear deal” with India as a means to pressurize New Delhi to keep away from the IPI pipeline project. The Congress government used “security” issues as an excuse to yield to the American pressure. Without India’s participation, neither Islamabad nor Teheran could mobilize sufficient international support to fund the pipelines, especially within Pakistan.

However, during the recent months, there have been substantial changes in Iran-US relations. The new President of Iran has made the right noises about domestic reforms and international relations that have made an impact in rest of the World, especially in US. Despite the Jewish pressure in the Congress to scuttle the positive developments between US and Iran, the White House seems to be keen to go ahead with normalizing relations with Teheran.

If the above happens, as could be seen from the nuclear deal with Iran that is under progress, there would be a positive engagement with Teheran. This would essentially also mean the revival of IPI pipeline, for US cannot attempt a nuclear deal with Iran but object to a gas pipeline. So, for South Asia, despite the stories about gloom and doom involving the Taliban and the TTP, there are positive stories on the Western front.

On the eastern front as well, there has been equally good news for South Asia. Myanmar, which was seen as a part of rogue nations until recently, suddenly has become the darling of international community. Investments in Myanmar are pouring from Japan to the US; leaders from the global community are queuing up to visit Myanmar. Within Myanmar, the government, supported by the military has initiated a set of political reforms, which is today seen by many critics as an irreversible march. Myanmar could then very well become the geographic link between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Besides those positive developments within Myanmar, New Delhi is pursuing the BCIM project, linking Kolkata with Kunming involving Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar. The BCIM project is not only likely to link Kolkata and Kunming, but also bring India and Bangladesh closer and open multiple other connectivity projects, thereby linking the rest of India with its Northeast. With exploration under progress in Myanmar and Bangladesh about the prospects of gas, an eastern corridor of gas pipelines involving India’s Northeast, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the rest of South Asia would become a possibility, or a logical extension of other connectivity projects. To conclude, there are positive stories on South Asia’s eastern borders as well.

South of South Asia, the Indian Ocean, has already become a zone of interest; there is a competition to influence the countries in this part and multilateral efforts to protect the sea lanes of communication linking Africa, Europe and West Asia with Southeast East Asia, Australia and East Asia. India, China and the US have been extremely active in this region on the above issues.

Not only the above three countries, but also the rest of international community is extremely anxious to safeguard the security of sea lanes. From Europe to East Asia, this section is of vital importance. It is precisely because of the above, the piracy in Gulf region and the security of Malacca straits have become a part of global commons. So, there is good news on the South of South Asia as well.

If only the region understands the above positive developments on its borders and not get bogged down only by the negative issues, South Asia can achieve so much by being a bridge between these regions and become the bridge of Asia.

India has a primary responsibility in ensuring that South Asia becomes an Asian bridge, for it would be in its own interests. To achieve the above, New Delhi will have to make political investments in the neighbourhood; given the anti-Indian sentiments, it may not be an easy task. Until India makes such an investment, it may not be able to accrue the benefits of linking Asia. Also, New Delhi will have to make political investments in its own sub-regions – J&K, Northeast, West Bengal and South India in ensuring that they become a bridge between India and its neighbours. Like that of the neighbours, there is a substantial anti-Delhi sentiment in the above sub-regions, for various reasons.

While it is imperative for New Delhi to work with its neighbourhood and its own sub-regions, the reverse is also equally true. If we continue to stand divided, we will lose a strategic opportunity of being a bridge in Asia.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir.