INDIA’S POTENTIAL ROLE AND STRATEGY IN THE WIDER EURASIAN SPACE: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR BETTER CONNECTIVITY

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INTRODUCTION

Historically, India has had long standing economic, cultural and civilizational links with Eurasia, Central Asia and all of Europe. A 5000-year-old civilisation, often called the Indus Valley Civilisation had robust cultural and trade linkages with Mesopotamia, China and Europe. A highly advanced people who were famous for their well-planned brick cities, dockyards, granaries, standardised system of weights and sewerage traded with the world their seals, sculptures, pottery and jewellery. With the decline of this civilization, unfortunately, India’s connectivity with Europe and Central Asia sadly dwindled despite the advent of better technology and the age of exploration.

 

Culturally, India has been the beacon of peace and inclusivity with three of the five major religions of the world emerging out of the Indian subcontinent. India’s soft power, through its many religions, festivals, languages, films and yoga has been appreciated world over. With regards to the economy, India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. With over 20 kilometers of roads being built everyday, India is a food secure nation with a grain surplus in wheat and paddy. Already world renowned for its successes in information technology, manufacturing and start ups in India have been on a phenomenal rise since the Honourable Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi introduced the Make In India initiative; providing incentives and tax breaks to companies manufacturing in India. Alongside this, the ease of doing business in India has improved drastically with India jumping up thirty places in the Ease of Doing Business Index to number 77. Moreover, recently, large-scale investments in green energy are on the rise as India fulfils its commitments towards global climate change.

Powerful on all five pillars of security, prosperity, identity, charity and divinity, India is a cultural civilisation that has transformed into a modern democratic nationhood.

 

 

 

THE NEED FOR BETTER CONNECTIVITY WITH EUROPE & THE WIDER EURASIAN SPACE

The International North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) is an important step towards better connectivity between Europe, Central Asia, India and (further future connectivity) South East Asia. A 7200 km long corridor connecting Mumbai to St. Petersburg comes up as an alternative to the Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea in Asia that will provide easier access for India to Central Asia and Europe. A joint communiqué of the EU Parliament on Europe-Asia connectivity recently further endorses this. Moreover, the NSTC has far greater significance for India as it rescues India from a flux of problems that it currently faces in regards to connectivity with Central Asia and Europe.

 

Presently, India has two available options to access this growing market by ways of overland transport. The first route runs through China, through the Himalayas. The problem with any planned international corridor through this route is that of the mighty Himalayas. The elevation is too high and the costs associated with any proposed infrastructure would be inefficient. Besides, there are also concerns about maintaining the pristineness of the Himalayan environment. The second route goes by way of Pakistan. Unfortunately for the world, Pakistan has put a roadblock on India since 1965. Tensions with Pakistan have only escalated with time and despite India according Pakistan the status of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) in 1996 for trade under the WTO regime, the same has not been reciprocated by Pakistan though in present context the status stands revoked.

 

India is therefore, in a way ‘landlocked’ with regards to access to Central Asia and Europe through the land route and it is imperative for India to have easy accessibility to the Eurasian space for India and Europe, though working on different frameworks, share similar ideological values. These are the values of democracy, pluralism, a free market, rules based regulatory regime where the media is independent and citizens have the right to dissent freely. In view of the above, NSTC assumes great significance and India needs to find more than one route to access the Eurasian market. Equally, it is also important for Central Asia and Europe to find another route into India and onwards to Bangladesh, Myanmar and South East Asia. For both blocs are large, growing economies with great scope of mutually beneficial cooperation.

 

Alternate routes for western connectivity for India have Iraq and Iran at the centre of things. Iraq, similar to the problem of the Himalayas has a large mountainous terrain that blocks further access by ways of land. Iran on the other hand has two ports, namely Chabahar Port and Bandar Abbas Port that provide suitable access for India into Central Asia and onwards into Europe. The Chabahar Port is being jointly developed by Iran and India based on mutual cooperation. For example, Iran although having an excess of crude lacks refining capacities whereas India has an ever-growing capacity in refining. As of this moment, the first ship from Mumbai carrying government cargo has successfully offloaded at Chabahar and coordination meetings are on between Iran, Afghanistan and India to better operationalise Chabahar. With regards to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, plans are afloat to link Gujarat’s Mundra port with Bandar Abbas and link it to the Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan railway network and then onwards to Eastern Russia. The idea is to export our products to Central Asia and import raw materials from them. Moreover, it will give the Central Asian countries access to the ocean and a market for their products not just in India but through to Bangladesh with the well developed railway network between India and Bangladesh.

 

CHALLENGES AND RECOMMENDATIONS

With regards to the free trade agreement with Iran (interim) and Vietnam that the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has signed, certain challenges pose threat to the successful implementation of the NSTC and the EAEU. Exact areas of cooperation need to be identified and particularly with regards to Iran there are major security bottlenecks that need to addressed. A stable Iran is vital to the overall security of the region. It is imperative to engage the youth in Iran and get rid of theocratic orders. Moreover, impending sanctions on Iran further complicate the situation and a prolonged climate of uncertainty does not fair well for the global economic environment.

 

Another issue relates to the horizontal spread of the Taliban. Although on the decline, the Taliban has managed to grow horizontally and penetrate strongholds where earlier it had limited or no presence. At the 12th Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit, October 18-19, 2018, the Honourable Vice President of India Venkaiah Naidu stressed on the need for an early conclusion of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism for “peace is a pre-requisite for progress and no peace can be achieved with terrorism still being prevalent”. It is also imperative that any international transport corridor that will be developed meets universally recognised norms like respect for sovereignty & territorial integrity and tendering happens in a transparent, cooperative manner.

 

India has traditionally only successfully engaged with countries on a bilateral level. With regards to the EU this assumes even more importance primarily due to the degree of incomprehension on the extent of EU’s control over life within the EU. For India, it is now important to work with the EU and EAEU and the EU needs to now evolve itself as a net ‘settler’ of foreign policy of its member states. As far as Eurasian connectivity is concerned, probably an alternative to the NSTC must also be explored because even though the NSTC is a mutually beneficial and important link, it is at the end of the day a multi-modal transport corridor that includes sea freight, rail freight and road freight. This brings up the cost of transportation significantly, not to mention the inefficiency that arises from such a multi modal mode of transport. In this regard, the idea of a ‘Eurasian Rail Link’ can be looked at. Often multilateral forums are able to achieve more with everyone at the same table where there are more than two stakeholders. Such a

Eurasian Rail Link would connect India to Central Asia and the wider Eurasian space through a rail network passing through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India onwards into Bangladesh, Myanmar and South East Asia. There would still be some challenges to such a project, like border control and the absence of a common sized railway gauge but it would be more cost effective for freight as well as passenger traffic.

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Author: Praket Arya