Securing Our Interests

The New Silk Route

06 Aug, 2014    ·   4615

D Suba Chandran says the new Silk Route, if implemented in the right sense, and be successful, would be an answer to most questions relating to the stability of Afghanistan.

Prof Mushtaq Kaw, a doyen of Central Asian studies in India and a well respected scholar, recently had published an essay on the above subject in one of the international journals. The essay critically examines the feasibility of the American project under the above title – whether it would help Afghanistan integrate with the region economically.

The Kaw thesis is centered on the premise that “to insulate multilayered problems confronting Afghanistan, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, unfolded a new Silk Route project for her integration with Central and South Asia for trans-border trade” and the “underlying objective of the new Silk Route project is multi-dimensional: to reinstate Afghanistan as a Central-South Asian land-bridge for intra-regional trade; reinforce her ailing economy and enable her to meet security and other expenses with extra taxes and transit to accrue from the intra-regional trade and inculcate among the Afghans a sense of regional competition for sustainable economic growth and thereby end insurgency and guarantee stability in the otherwise war-torn country.”

This is a well argued thesis. But, is the primary objective of the New Silk Route aimed only at stabilizing Afghanistan, and economically integrating with Central Asia and South Asia? Or is there a larger geo-strategic objective attached to the American plan?
Undoubtedly, if Afghanistan has to survive on its own, given the geographical location, it has to develop a network of routes with its neighbouring regions – West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and also with China. As the international community led by the US is winding down its presence in Afghanistan, it would be difficult for the international donors and the major countries to sustain their funding support. In fact, the international mood seems to have already shifted to what is happening in West Asia and in Eastern Europe. The conflict in Gaza, onslaught of the ISIL in Iraq and the crisis in Ukraine have already shifted the international focus further West of Afghanistan.

The New Silk Route, if implemented in the right sense, and be successful, would certainly be an answer to most of the questions relating to stability of Afghanistan. In fact, some of the recent support to few initiatives involving Afghanistan gives an impression that the US is serious about this project. For example the American support to the CASA 1000 project, which aims at creating an electricity grid between Central Asia and South Asia, linking Tajikistan and Kyrgystan with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The former set of countries produces electricity in surplus, which the latter could buy. Afghanistan will not only receive electricity, but also earn revenue as a transit country. Pakistan and Afghanistan have already undertaken enough measures to buy land for the purpose. The US has officially committed fifteen million dollars to this project to create a regional energy grid.

But how much of the above calculation has been the primary reason for the US in designing the New Silk Route project? If it has been the reason, why has there been a slow progress? It makes one to suspect, whether there are other political reasons for the US to push for such a strategy. Could the growing Chinese presence and ingress into Central Asia be the primary reason for the US plan?

China has already built pipelines linking Central Asia across the Xinjiang province. It has already signed agreements with the Central Asian States, especially with Turkmenistan to import gas. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has a larger focus on the Central Asian region, along with Russia. In fact, Prof Kaw also identifies elsewhere in his essay on the efforts to isolate China and Russia as an impediment to successfully implement the New Silk Route project.

Undoubtedly, bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, US and Taliban are likely to affect the success of this project as Prof Kaw has identified. However, there is a new threat today to this list identified above –internal political stability, following the elections for the President to succeed Hamid Karzai. The second round of elections and the follow up controversy of fraud has polarised the Afghan polity. The scars of what has happened after the second round of elections would take time to heal. Worse, there is fear that the impact developments in Iraq and the growth of a radical ideology would further impinge on internal social stability of Afghanistan.

Another important question that we need to address, especially from a regional perspective is what strategies we could pursue to achieve our own interests. China and the US have a clear endgame and strategies to achieve them. Can India and its sub-regions define their own interests and design appropriate strategies to pursue them?
Earlier in this column, a series of commentaries were written on the Silk Route from a contemporary perspective. Prof Kaw himself has written another essay elsewhere on restoring India’s linkages with Central Asia across Kashmir. We need more such discussions at the academic and civil society levels on how to revision the old routes; obviously, the era of trading in yak tail over horseback is over. The modern day trade cannot take place in small assignments, and depending on weather condition. While keeping in mind the historical connections and linkages, we need to rework, discuss and debate a new strategy, and then submit to the State.

Unfortunately, most of the modern day studies that talk about revival of the old routes do not focus on the statistics and the new political realities. Just because there was a “route” once upon a time, we may not be able to build a new “road” that is economically viable. The State system in the last century has politically realigned the erstwhile Silk Route regions. Besides the academic focus, we will have to undertake parallel policy research, culminating in specific recommendations that the State could pursue.

Regions like J&K, Sikkim, Himachal and Northeast have a unique position, for they were a part of the Silk Route once upon a time. Not only goods moved across, but also people and ideas. Some of these cities served as a center of ideas and education, for example Srinagar and Leh. These sub-regions also are repository of knowledge and scholarship; Prof Kaw and his institution are examples. The government – both at the State and Central levels have to support such initiatives and individuals to create Centers of Excellences. With new Central Universities in Jammu, Srinagar and Gangtok, there is an extra push to enlarge the academic environment; it has the potential to create more knowledge and additional scholarship. Visionary Vice Chancellors could transform the scenario; former and current Vice Chancellors in these Universities (along with Kashmir and Jammu Universities) have created institutions/Chairs/Centers with a larger idea. They have to be taken to a logical conclusion.

From Srinagar to Gangtok, the region and its institutions are better positioned – both in terms of knowledge and location, to make policy recommendations that could be implemented by the State. In an earlier commentary in this column, the importance of the regions in India’s foreign policy was discussed. Reviving the Silk Route will be an opportunity in this context.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir