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Renaissance and Reticence in India’s North-South Connectivity Platform

Mr. Philip Reid was Visiting Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 30, 2018

    A Tale of Three Cities

    The seasonal transition has seen a renewed sense of impetus within the diplomatic milieu of India’s Eurasian connectivity agenda. The greatly anticipated trilateral meeting of the Coordination Council of the Chabahar Agreement finally took place on October 23rd in Tehran and committed to convene a follow-on meeting before the end of the year.1 This encouraging development supervenes the first tripartite meeting of the Deputy Foreign Ministers of India, Iran and Afghanistan in Kabul on September 11th and a timely conference on the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that inaugurated this year’s annual International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA) World Congress on September 25th. That the conference was held in New Delhi ahead of visits by Vladimir Putin and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was also symbolic and both occasions were availed of to reinforce mutual acknowledgement of historical linkages: economic, political and, in the case of Uzbekistan, cultural; as well as the prevailing spirit of connectivity that is shaping contemporary regional relations in Central and South Asia. This seasonal effusion of dialogue has, however, not been substantiated by material progress along the multiple courses of the INSTC, and the renaissance of India’s medieval commercial axis with Central Asia remains constrained by the shadow of post-Soviet reticence.

    The abstraction of a ‘North-South Corridor’ is often collocated, at least in the context of Indian regional strategy, with New Delhi’s $500 million commitment to the Chabahar port development in the Sistan-Baluchistan region of Iran, located outside the Strait of Hormuz on the Makran Coast and widely understood as a counter-weight to China’s conspicuous development of Gwadar in neighbouring Pakistan. Indeed, the route from Chabahar to Sarakhs on the Turkmen border, the most appropriate crossing for onwards transit to Uzbekistan, was presented by the Iranian delegation on September 25 as one of several integral to the INSTC vision.2 Indian commentators too discuss hinterland connections emanating from Chabahar and those from Bandar Abbas, the de facto Persian Gulf hub for the INSTC, in synchronic terms.3 Bureaucratic equivocation however, has, so far choked the release of funds that would otherwise serve as not least a symbolic physical milestone for Eurasian connectivity in the Indian mould, but also as an immediate and necessary catalyst for the realization of a largely assumptive trade corridor. The Chabahar-Zahedan rail link continues to remain suspended in the early stages of fruition, awaiting Indian fulfilment of its track-laying obligations. Perhaps more significantly however, funds have yet to be released for the procurement of rail-mounted gantry cranes for the Shahed Beheshti terminal at Chabahar, and an immediate opportunity to reassure commercial stakeholders by meeting a latent transhipment demand in, for example, Iranian cement, is being forfeited at the Indian-operated facility, which has seen little throughput since a showcase delivery of wheat and pulses to Afghanistan in 2017.

    Not in My Backyard

    When confronted on this issue, political actors in New Delhi exhibit a reflexive deference to a sanctions-related alibi and the impasse is generating frustration among stakeholders on both sides of the Arabian Sea. Indeed, Massoud Roshagi, Iran's Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affaires, chided earlier this year that: "It is expected that India takes immediate necessary measures in this regard if its cooperation and engagement in Chabahar port is of a strategic nature".4 Whilst continuing uncertainty surrounding the annulment of JCPOA sanctions relief, an issue directly addressed by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale in Kabul, had, until mid-November, offered a degree of explanatory power, a second, more oblique perspective also finds credence when acknowledging India’s historic hesitation in implementing an assertive foreign policy in the strategic backyard of its erstwhile Cold War ally, Moscow. It has been observed in past commentaries that it was this hesitation by New Delhi, immediately following the break-up of the Soviet Union, 5 that resulted in India’s persuasive historical stake in Central Asia, one with a clear precedent, being marginalized by the more assertive track one proactivity of first the European Union and the United States, and, more recently, China. Indeed, perhaps testifying to Moscow’s pervasive influence at both ends of the North-South axis, the Central Asian Republics’ calls for substantive ties with India - Islam Karimov’s first visit outside the Commonwealth of Independent States was to New Delhi, have gone largely unheeded since independence. It was only a concern that Pakistan might exploit this diplomatic vacuum to solicit support for its nuclear aspirations and on the Kashmir issue, which finally prompted New Delhi into recognizing this disjuncture, after more than a decade of hesitation.6

    Whilst the round of successive convocations in Kabul, New Delhi and Tehran may give disillusioned observers some cause for optimism, the contrast between trilateral signalling and the sobering ground reality on September 25 at the most high-profile business forum on North-South connectivity to date, initiated at the behest of Moscow and dominated by Russian transport executives, reveals a seldom acknowledged divergence between the strategic ambition underpinning India’s commitment to Chabahar and the broader INSTC narrative. Whilst the emphasis on the commercial bottom-line provides a frame of reference for the INSTC’s official aspirations and, at least partially, explains the apparent acceptance of the Bandar Abbas-Astara corridor as the primus inter pares of North-South connectivity in Southern Eurasia, it also belies the conflicting geopolitical rationales that underpin, on the one hand, the prodigious scope of ‘Mumbai-Moscow’, and, on the other, the spirit of the Ashgabat Agreement to which India acceded in 2016.

    This multi-modal transport agreement, to which Russia is not a signatory, symbolizes more direct ambitions for linking Central Asia with India’s near seas. It is this latter component that is best given expression by shared Indo-Uzbek objectives in Afghanistan and the proposed Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad transport corridor – somewhat embryonic but nevertheless an existential problem for the Russian position in Central Asia, already diluted by the construction of heterodox transcontinental infrastructures, the Sino-Turkmen Pipeline for example. That Mr Mirziyoyev’s visit also, on this occasion, portended neither Uzbekistan’s accession to the INSTC nor a formal acknowledgement of its inexorable interest in the success of Chabahar, is also revealing. Whilst the semantic embroidery of bilateral and trilateral declarations appears to ensure all parties a seat at the table, commercial representatives from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan were noticeably absent from the INSTC conference.

    From Beneath the Veil of Sanctions

    It has long been tacitly acknowledged in circles close to the project, that Indian operations at Chabahar are less vulnerable to targeted sanctions than other areas of cooperation with the Iranian regime. This is largely on account of their geographical and institutional aloofness from Tehran, as well as the immense potential the port offers in respect of shared international priorities on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, an amenable phrase but one nevertheless stipulated in the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012. These expectations have now been validated by the US State Department’s granting of an exception with respect to both the development of Chabahar and the Zahedan rail link. This follows an extension of the JCPOA sanctions waiver on Indian oil purchases from Iran and both have rightly been interpreted as positive markers for a buoyant episode in Indo-American relations. As the year-end now approaches therefore, the use of sanctions-related extenuation to mask what may ultimately be revealed as vestiges of New Delhi’s strategic trepidation will become less credible as transactional clarity on Trump-era foreign policy within the US-Iran-India triangle is more forthcoming. In a connectivity landscape where other regional actors have demonstrated a willingness to contemplate losses approaching tens of billions of dollars in order to shape the contours of transcontinental trade corridors in their own interest, New Delhi’s apparent qualm in the context of significantly more modest capital outlays appears partially ingenuous and partially a clear manifestation of its most dependable bilateral relationship.

    India is a nation more favourably situated than most to benefit from the maritime economy and the globalization of Central Asian trade and it was with this in mind that a thitherto inviable commercial proposition received political patronage almost two decades ago. The distraction of Chabahar’s questionable economic rationale and the embellishment of a centuries-old fascination with Suez alternatives, whilst entirely logical from a Muscovite perspective, must cede priority to New Delhi’s immediate interests in its own strategic backyard and a pragmatic consensus on the very real atrophy that will result from the perpetuation of Indian ambivalence along its now heavily-marketed Central Asian axis. This is necessary in order to overcome the bureaucratic apathy that is delaying the fulfilment of India’s obligations under the 2016 Trilateral Agreement and outright leadership on the Makran Coast. Furthermore, now that one source of ambiguity has been surmounted ad interim, New Delhi must exploit the current momentum and place greater urgency on leveraging its robust bilateral relationships with Central Asian states, particularly Uzbekistan, to solicit a symbolic stakeholder in Chabahar. This would confirm, unequivocally, the port’s Central Asian orientation and eliminate a contradiction absent from other regional connectivity initiatives.

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