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The new Great Game

MUNIR AKRAM U PD ATED J UN

12, 2016 02:38P M

THE recent India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement to develop a trade route from Chabahar to Central
Asia has been portrayed by Indian commentators as having changed the historical Great Game
for control of the connection between South and Central Asia through Afghanistan. It has been
claimed that the agreement will end Indias isolation from Central Asia and Pakistans
stranglehold over Afghanistan and create a new security paradigm and a geopolitical shift.
But the Great Game has already changed. It is being played on a wider canvas with different
players and rules. The power contest in Asia is now mainly between China and America, and, to
a lesser extent, between America and Russia with India, Pakistan, Iran and others in
subsidiary roles. In this context, the strategic and economic implications of the tripartite
agreement are likely to be limited.
Chabahar port has been on the drawing board for many years. Its main purpose was and will
remain to expand Irans oil and other trade including with India.
Implementation of the trade route to Central Asia will remain challenging until peace can be
restored in Afghanistan. With the collapse of the inter-Afghan negotiations, Afghanistan is likely
to witness a further escalation of conflict and chaos. Transit to Central Asia via Iran, or Pakistan,
is not viable at present.
Even once the route is operational, its economic significance will remain modest. Indias oil
needs can be met by Iran (and Saudi Arabia). The Central Asians do not have pipelines to
Chabahar; they do to China. New gas pipelines are being constructed to Europe. Their mineral
resources are also flowing north, east and west; not south.

America is and will remain a major player in the new Asian Great Game.

With a population of only around 50 million, Central Asia will not become a huge market for
manufactured goods. It will be twice as expensive for India to send goods to Central Asia
through Chabahar than it would be overland across Pakistan. Indian goods are thus unlikely to be
competitive against Chinese products shipped overland.
The strategic advantages for India are also questionable. Its influence in Afghanistan will be
more dependent on Iran. Pakistans cooperation will continue to be essential to restoring peace in

Afghanistan. Indian shipping lanes to Chabahar will be vulnerable to disruption. Indias limited
influence in Central Asia will not dent that of Russia and China.
The new Great Game will increasingly revolve around Chinas One Belt, One Road vision of
land and sea connections between Asia, Europe and beyond. The China-Pakistan Economic
Corridor (CPEC) is the first component of this ambitious project.
In comparison to the Chabahar route, the strategic and economic implications of CPEC are
enormous. It will transform China from a one- to a two-ocean power; enable a part of its $4000
billion annual trade to circumvent the Malacca straits and other potential choke points in the
Indian Ocean and shorten Chinas supply lines to the Gulf, West Asia and Africa. For these
reasons, if no other, China has a vital stake in Pakistans strategic stability and socioeconomic
development. The Chinese commitment of $46bn for CPEC projects is but the first instalment of
the massive capital which China is prepared to deploy in Pakistan.
Instead of being distracted by the moves of its adversaries, Pakistan must remain focused on the
implementation of CPEC. This strategic enterprise should not be allowed to be stalled or delayed
by external pressure or internal politics, inefficiency or corruption. It would be wise to create a
separate and independent CPEC Authority which can be a one-stop-shop entrusted with
achieving CPECs enormous potential for Pakistans development. CPEC projects must go
beyond infrastructure development to encompass manufacture, consumer goods, housing, health,
textiles, finance and other sectors. To this end, the interaction between Pakistani and Chinese
private- and public-sector companies must be actively expanded and intensified. Some of the
externally imposed limitations on CPEC investment projects, such as restrictions on sovereign
guarantees for debt finance, need to be removed expeditiously.
CPEC faces threats from Pakistan and Chinas adversaries. These will have to be met forcefully.
Indias opposition has been announced openly. New Delhi will continue to utilise Afghanistan as
a base to destabilise Pakistan and undermine CPEC. The recent spate of attacks on Chinese
workers in Pakistan is no accident. Pakistan will have to further enhance security for them and
consider direct action to remove the Afghan-based threat from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Iran has assured that Chabahar is not designed to compete with Gwadar or CPEC. Pakistan and
Iran can cooperate for mutual benefit: to end terrorism in Balochistan, expand trade, and
construct the Iranian gas pipeline and a Gwadar-Chabahar economic corridor. However, Tehran
often wants to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. Some recent events have sent
disturbing signals which Pakistan cannot ignore.
To balance the growing Indo-Iranian relationship, Pakistan must maintain and reinforce its
relationship with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It would be in Pakistans interest to help in giving

substance and form to the Islamic coalition hastily formed by Riyadh. It should also convince
the GCC states of the benefits of CPEC as a path to their closer connection with China.
America is and will remain a major player in the new Asian Great Game. To bolster its strategic
contest with China, the US is moving towards a military alliance with India. The Obama
administration is also cooperating tactically with Iran in the fight against the militant Islamic
State group in Iraq and, less clearly, in Syria. It wants Iran to help in stabilising Afghanistan. But
the US-Iran relationship could again become hostile if new sanctions are imposed by the US
Congress or differences arise over Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah or Israel.
For Islamabad, the major threat now is possible hostile US action to destabilise Pakistan and
disrupt CPEC. Wisely, China has invited US participation in CPEC. The US has declared,
perhaps diplomatically, that it is not opposed to CPEC. But the signals from Washington, as it
hosts Indias Modi, are ominous. The new Great Game is about to get tougher and rougher.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2016