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    Middle East
     Sep 12, 2012

Silk Road nears an historic opening
By Vijay Prashad

On the sidelines of the 16th Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran, Iran, two significant meetings took place. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with the Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad to review the relations between their countries.

The second meeting was a trilateral discussion between senior foreign ministry officials from Afghanistan, India and Iran. Productive discussions in both sessions furthered the attempt to create a new "Southern Silk Road" connecting Iran to Central and South Asia through rail-lines and roads, and of course two major ports in the Gulf of Oman.

Afghanistan, India and Iran have worked since 2003 to come to an agreement over the port of Chabahar in south-eastern Iran, and to


link this port to Afghanistan by Indian and Iranian built road and rail systems (see The Iran-Indian-Afghanistan Riddle," Asia Times Online, August 28, 2012). At their trilateral meeting, the foreign ministry officials agreed to set up a joint working group (JWG) "to take the discussions forward", as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs put it. According to shipping analysts, about 70% of the construction of Chabahar is complete, with most of the investment coming from Iran. The sanctions have hit Iran hard, and the Iranian government now hopes that India will be able to invest in the completion of the port. The JWG will meet in three months.

One of the underlying fears is that the Chabahar port will further alienate Pakistan from India and Afghanistan. The natural route to link Kabul to India is through the Bolan and Khyber passes, both in Pakistan, but mistrust between the Delhi and Islamabad has slowed the use of these transit points.

On his return from the NAM, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held up hope for a summit between President Zardari and himself to deepen the confidence between the two countries. On September 8, the foreign ministers of India (S M Krishna) and Pakistan (Hina Rabbani Khar) signed a joint statement that goes some way toward the creation of confidence between the two states, including a bid to increase "cross-border trade".

Nonetheless, former Indian and UN Ambassador Prakash Shah tells me that he fears that the JWG was set up to forestall an immediate commitment to Chabahar so as not to "annoy" Pakistan. Senior Iranian and Indian officials disagree, saying that they believe that the JWG was set up to placate US fears that Afghanistan and India have failed to join the US-led embargo of Iran. Better a slow process to ally Washington than anything precipitous, they suggest.

The meeting between Zardari and Ahmedinejad provides a window into a less pessimistic scenario. They reviewed the extensive ties between Iran and Pakistan, notably the proposed 2,700 kilometer gas pipeline from the South Pars field (in Iran's Assalouyeh Energy Zone in the south) through Balochistan and Sindh into Punjab. As well, the two leaders discussed the 1000 MW power transmission line that is to run from Taftan to Quetta, the upgrades for the rail line and road that link Taftan to Quetta, and pointedly, the 100 MW power supply project for Gwadar.

Zardari and Ahmedinejad briefly discussed a transportation link between Gwadar and Chabahar. That Iran is involved in the Gwadar power grid suggests that Tehran does not see Chabahar as competition to the Gwadar port (control of which, formerly with Singapore's PSA International, is reportedly to be handed over to the Chinese government, as reported by Syed Fazl-e-Haider in China set to run Gwadar port as Singapore quits, Asia Times Online, September 5, 2012).

Shortly after the NAM Summit, China's Minister of National Defense, Liang Guanglie, visited New Delhi. India and China will conduct naval exercises within the year, building on links that opened up in 2003 and have deepened through joint anti-piracy work. In an interview with The Hindu, General Liang tried to dispel the view that China has an aggressive posture toward India in Kashmir, Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. He also pointed out that "China has no plans for Indian Ocean military bases."

China has, however, been deeply involved in infrastructure projects, notably port building in the Indian Ocean. In June, the Sri Lankan port at Hambantota was opened when 1,000 Indian-made cars were off-loaded there. The US$1.5 billion port was constructed with very large Chinese investments.

China had invested hundreds of million of dollars for the construction of Pakistan's Gwadar port, and it is slated to invest heavily in the construction of deep-sea ports in Myanmar's Indian Ocean cities of Dawei and Kyaukpyu. Gwadar, Dawei and Kyaukpyu will allow China to circumvent its reliance upon the congested Straits of Malacca for the oil tankers that carry 60% of its oil (by 2015, it is estimated that the figure will rise to 75% if these ports do not take up the slack).

China has no seat at the table during the JWG neither at the summit between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, if China takes a positive tone toward these developments it might be able to use its influence in the region to create the policy space for these projects to go ahead. General Liang's statement that the India-China border dispute is "an issue left over from history" is indicative of the kind of approach the region should take toward its suspicions. This is at least the hope of India's Singh, who has long suggested that trade is a worthwhile salve over the wounds of history.

There is an underside to these developments that does not get mentioned much. At an investment summit for Afghanistan this June in Delhi, India's Foreign Minister S M Krishna asked the corporate leaders to "let the gray suits of company executives take the place of olive green or desert brown fatigues of soldiers."

The sentiment is a genuine one, and it indicates that the Indian government would prefer that the corporate sector take charge rather than the military sector. But the corporate sector's own ambitions do not comport with the needs of the majority the people in the region, nor with the requirements of peace. Corporations are in the game to make money. They have little other motivation. It would limit the Southern Silk Road if it were turned over to private enterprise, whose history shows us that it creates more distress than development.

The anthropologist Hafees Jamali warns that the benefits of Gwadar, for instance, have not accrued to the local Baloch population, notably the fisherfolk (see Dispatches from Pakistan, edited by Qalandar Bux Memon, Madiha Tahir and myself, to appear soon from Delhi's LeftWord Books). They initially protested when their lands were seized, then when their fishing rights were curtailed, and finally when their access to their Sufi shrines was diminished. Their civic protests were met with the full force of the Pakistani police and military, and this reaction turned them from citizens to Baloch nationalists.

The Southern Silk Road is an important development in the creation of regionalism, linking South Asia to Central Asia, West Asia to China. No longer will these regions need to go through US and European-dominated routes to conduct their trade. The hub (US-Europe) and spokes (rest) approach to world affairs is being rendered anachronistic by these developments.

As a result of the growth of regionalism, US primacy and its unipolar approach is being set aside. The deepening links with Iran are a testament to the lack of US domination in the region, and of its political failure to isolate Iran. The challenge for the Southern Silk Road will be in the character of its developments: whether these actually benefit the people or become sore spots that fuel insurgency and unrest. To turn the Road into another boondoggle for corporations would be more than a pity. It would be a waste of a historic opportunity.

Vijay Prashad's new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, is published by AK Press.

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