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India’s Strategic Connect with the World

Sreemati Ganguli is Fellow (Honorary) at the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, University Of Calcutta.
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  • October 23, 2017

    The Joint declaration on the Asia-Africa-Growth-Corridor (AAGC) or the ‘Freedom’ Corridor issued at the 52nd annual meeting of the African Development Bank in May 2017 and its subsequent reiteration in the India-Japan Joint Statement during the Japanese Prime Minister’s September 2017 visit to India marked a decisive step in the promotion of connectivity as one of the strategic dimensions of India’s foreign policy. The AAGC Vision Document states that the initiative will concentrate on development and cooperation; infrastructure and digital and institutional connectivity; skill development; and establishment of people-to-people contact between Africa, South Asia, East and South-East Asia, and Oceania.

    There has been a global trend towards fostering greater economic connectivity among states and regions. This is in consonance with changing global realities – when international interactions veer between antagonistic to cooperative in a scenario of a ‘multiplex world order’, a world of diversity and complexity, not homogeneity, and a world where, in place of unipolarity, the ‘rise of the rest’ is becoming a distinct possibility. In such a scenario, connectivity offers a nuanced economic-strategic approach for global interactions. This article attempts to analyse India’s involvement in global connectivity endeavours and the way in which it will potentially shape India’s strategic goals.  

    The Context

    The economic, political, cultural, and strategic importance of connectivity projects have been in the global reckoning since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the initiation of an array of projects under the identical name of ‘Silk Road’ to revive and re-present the ancient Silk Road in newer versions in Eurasia. The first such initiative was the European Union-sponsored trade and transport corridor Project TRACECA in 1993. It was followed by the West-sponsored Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan energy Project; the EU-sponsored integrated energy pipelines Project of ‘Southern Corridor’; the NATO-sponsored ‘Virtual Silk Highway’ Project to connect European scientific-educational networks with Eurasia through the internet; UNESCAP’s Trans-Asian Railway Network (or the Iron Silk Road) Project; the CAREC-ADB Project on trade and transport corridors in Afghanistan and Central Asia; the New Eurasian Land Transport Initiative by the International Road Transport Union;  the US- sponsored New Silk Road Initiative (NSRI) and the project to transform the NATO-sponsored NDN (Northern Distribution Network) system across Europe to reach non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan into permanent transport corridors across Eurasia. Interestingly, the One Belt One Road is the new version of China’s earlier Silk Road initiatives in Eurasia – an extension of the New Eurasian Continental Bridge Project and the ‘Look West’ Silk Road Development strategy to build energy pipelines connecting China with Central and West Asia.

    India was not a part of this revival of Silk Road connectivity programmes in Eurasia though it possesses unique geo-cultural leverages. A number of routes (like Tibet route, Ladakh Route, Gilgit route, Srinagar route, Burma route, etc.) of the ancient Silk Road went through India to reach Persia and Central Asia. In addition to trade in goods, Buddhist ideas were spread from India to Tibet, China, Afghanistan and Central Asia through these routes. In this regard, it is to be noted that in the year 2010, the Archaeological Survey of India applied to UNESCO for the inclusion of 12 Silk Road sites in India in the UN World Heritage List.

    But it is also important to note that in the year 2000 India initiated, along with Iran and Russia, the International North-South Corridor – the multi-modal transnational transport network that plans to connect Mumbai with Helsinki through Iran, Russia and Central Asia, and in the process reduce the current transportation time by 10 to 12 days. In addition to India, Iran and Russia, 11 other countries are members of this initiative: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Turkey, Oman and Syria. It was a significant first step for India to enter into the global strategic space of connectivity through an ambitious trade and transport corridor to connect Europe with India, bypassing the traditional route through the Suez Canal.

    Further, in the year 2002, India initiated another important connectivity corridor to the East in the form of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway project. Now slated to be extended to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam, this project is called the East-West Economic Corridor. This corridor, along with the India-Myanmar Kaladan multimodal transit transport project, seeks to transform the inter-regional connectivity scenario and aims to provide greater economic viability to the India-ASEAN strategic partnership.   

    Recent Focus

    The current trend in India’s foreign policy approach suggests a more coordinated effort to treat connectivity as a strategy in the regional, inter-regional and global arenas. India initiated the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement in 2015 in the South Asian region. And it has stretched the arena of South Asian connectivity into space by launching the first SAARC Satellite in 2017. This latter project will also benefit ASEAN countries as well given that a ground station is located in Vietnam. Further, the recently launched India-Afghanistan air corridor not only provides Afghanistan a direct connectivity route to tap the vast Indian consumer market but also at the same time boost India’s long-term efforts in facilitating Afghanistan’s comprehensive economic reconstruction process.

    The trilateral India-Iran-Afghanistan trade and transport corridor project centred round the Iranian port of Chabahar can also become a potential game-changer in the inter-regional strategic matrix of Central and South Asia. India is planning to build a rail route network to connect Chabahar with Zahedan and link it to the Zaranj-Delaram road network (also built by India) in Afghanistan. This will connect India directly to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while offering landlocked Afghanistan, and eventually Central Asia, an alternate route to the Indian Ocean. This project would acquire greater geo-economic and strategic significance if developed as another wing of the INSTC network. Notably, Japan is keen to invest in the Chabahar project, in partnership with India, which will provide a stronger foundation in terms of technology and investment. 

    It is worth noting that in the 1990s Zbigniew Brzezinski had suggested that the US concentrate on Eurasia since it was imperative to engage in the purposive manipulation of geostrategically dynamic states that have the potential to exert power or influence beyond their borders and thus alter the existing status quo to a degree that affects US interests adversely. Brzezinski identified five such states: France, Germany, Russia, China and India.1 This view gains significance in the contemporary context in a somewhat altered manner, as the recent US announcement suggests that India will be an important partner not only in the revival of the 2011 plan of the-then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the New Silk Road project involving Afghanistan and its neighbours but also for the Indo-Pacific Economic corridor linking South Asia with South-East Asia. A substantive financial allocation has been made in the 2017 US budget for these two programmes. This US acknowledgement that partnership with India has the potential to connect a wide regional space and facilitate inter-linked development in a comprehensive and positive manner signify India’s growing importance in providing an alternative option in the global strategic spectrum of connectivity.

    Apart from Japan and the US, India is also planning to work with Russia to connect South Asia with North-East Asia and the Pacific region through the ‘Chennai-Vladivostok’ maritime corridor, as was discussed during External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Vladivostok in September 2017. The planned corridor will reduce the time to transfer cargo to 24 days as against the usual 40 days through Europe. This project has the potential to provide India an opportunity to better cultivate the natural resource-rich Russian Far East while for Russia, India will be an alternate investor in that region. Greater and better connectivity will also provide a much-needed boost to Indo-Russian trade relations. At the same time, it will connect India with South-East and East Asian countries with an alternate maritime trade route and will promote India’s footsteps in the Pacific region. 

    Project Mausam, involving 39 countries in the Indian Ocean littoral, is being jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the Archaeological Survey of India. It aims to re-establish communications among countries of the Indian Ocean, revive ancient maritime routes where the trajectory of monsoon winds (mausam) helped create shared knowledge systems, technologies and traditions, and re-connect this shared past with the present realities of the Indian Ocean security matrix – a unique blend of geo-culture with geopolitics.

    Strategic Significance for India

    It is to be noted that the main vector of any connectivity project is the route. As Mahnaz Z. Ispahani has pointed out, the concept of a route is ‘both a geographical and a political idea, both an end and a means’ to create ‘access.’2 And Jean Gottman has commented that access in the geographical as well as political space is ‘organized at all times in history to serve political ends, and one of the major aims of politics is to regulate the conditions of access.’3 Thus, routes, access, economic mileage and geopolitical advantage are interlinked and interconnected in ascertaining the strategic significance of connectivity projects.

    It is true that for India investment potential and procedural bottlenecks hindering time-bound implementation of projects still remain the problem areas in such ventures as evident in the slow progress of the North-South Transport corridor and Trilateral Highway projects. Regional instability, intra-regional discord affecting the BBIN accord and the changing contours of global relations like the impending international economic sanctions on Iran or the deteriorating security situation around the Pacific because of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are the other formidable roadblocks confronting India’s connectivity projects.

    At the same time, India’s viability and stature as a power in the global connectivity space evolve from the fact that it does not trample on political sovereignty, economic freedom, human rights and environmental sustainability of the recipient countries. All these connectivity projects show India’s involvement as an investor in capacity-building efforts in the recipient countries across sectors of their particular needs and choices, not as an overarching and imposing economic power. India’s decision to join the International Roads Transport (TIR) Convention as the 71st signatory shows its serious intent to involve itself in the international transport architecture and connectivity network.

    From the Indian perspective, it is better not to analyse the connectivity trend completely from the narrow perspective of rivalry with any other country, although it is true that, through all these initiatives, India is attempting to position itself as a viable alternative to maintain the geopolitical balance in regions of its strategic interest. But a wider perspective indicates that Indian involvement in connectivity projects is part of the multidimensional strategy of an aspiring power spreading its wings to stay relevant in the global context through alternate ways by offering recipient countries geographical routes and providing access to more investment, better technologies, larger markets, and greater economic transformation. Apart from economic gains from such inter-regional and transcontinental ‘flows and networks of activity interactions’,4 the strategic advantages for India are in terms of engaging with new friends in Africa and in the  Indian Ocean rim area as well as revitalising new areas of cooperation with old friends such as Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and ASEAN states. But the most significant achievement for India is the convergence of its strategic vision with the visions of two global powers, the US and Japan, as evident in the Indo-Japan Vision 2025 Document that provides shared strategic goals in Asia, Africa and the Indo-Pacific as well as the recent policy statements by US decision-makers on India’s role in stabilising Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific region. These endeavours to further India’s strategic connect with the world will potentially shape the future of the global multipolar spectrum and India’s prominent role in such a framework.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p. 35.
    • 2. M. Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals: The Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989), p. 2.
    • 3. J. Gottman, the Significance of Territory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1973), p. 27.
    • 4. D. Held, et al, Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 17.