There was this hope, however diffident, that Pakistan would take full advantage of India’s current willingness to re-establish relations with Islamabad and pend our age-old Kashmir policy until we had adequately strengthened our economic sinews so as to make it impossible for New Delhi to refuse our offer, when we do make it at a time of our choosing, of lasting peace in return for conceding Kashmir to its people.

No doubt, India was offering conditional friendship after claiming success in blocking infiltration of the so-called ‘terrorists’ from across the Line of Control (LoC). Soon after the shooting stopped as the opposing local commanders decided to return to the 2003 ceasefire position New Delhi readily welcomed our delegation for the resumption of talks on the long-pending water issues.

Indeed, it was an opening offered by India we could have taken advantage of and redesigned our Kashmir policy anchoring it to geo-economics. But the way Prime Minister Imran Khan went about reassuring the nation, while answering telephonic questions the other day from the public, that he would not establish normal trade and economic relations with India until New Delhi revoked its decision to merge IOK into the Union, it appeared as if he was not prepared to change our over 70-year old Kashmir policy, no matter what the inducement other than India agreeing to UN sponsored plebiscite. So, for all intents and purposes, for the time being, our Eastern border would remain closed for trade and economic connectivity.

The borders on our North-West too do not look all that reassuring for establishing normal trade and economic relations with Afghanistan and beyond connecting with Central Asia. With only a little over three weeks to go for the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan as per the February 2020 Doha agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the US (under Trump administration) things still seem too uncertain.

The US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan informed him that the United States was yet to decide whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by May 1. He has expressed concern that “the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” following a US withdrawal. Significantly, his proposals called for national elections after the establishment of a “transitional peace government of Afghanistan.” The Taliban have opposed elections, dismissing them as Western interference.

Meanwhile, the outline presented by Zalmay Khalilzad called for the Taliban to remove “their military structures and officers from neighbouring countries.” Pakistan is accused of providing a sanctuary for Taliban commanders and fighters crossing back and forth into Afghanistan. It is also accused of permitting the militants to maintain a political consultative council in Balochistan.

The Biden administration has said that the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to reduce violence and to cut ties with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Washington also seems to have grown impatient with Mr. Ghani, who has refused to consider an interim government that would almost certainly end his second five-year term as president. Many analysts say Afghan security forces, already hollowed out by high casualty and desertion rates, would be hard pressed to hold off the Taliban without the presence of American troops — even if Washington and coalition allies continued to provide financial aid and military hardware.

In case the assessment of these analysts turns out to be correct Pakistan should be one very much worried nation. A victorious Taliban who have time and again made it very clear that they do not recognize the Durand Line, once firmly in the saddle in Kabul would perhaps not take long to reveal their idea about the actual borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Just imagine, what would stop a group of well-armed veterans of 40-year-long war and that too having fought and won against the Army of the sole superpower and its allies if it were to decide to go by the 1952 claim of the then Afghan government and ask Pakistan to give up its Pashtun territory as well as Balochistan province and turn its purported ‘Quetta Shura’ (Consultative Council) into ‘Pakistan Shura’ drawing its political strength from the widespread extremism that has over the last 50 years entrenched itself in Pakistan? So, in the final analysis, a Taliban dominated Afghanistan instead of offering Pakistan expanded trade and economic relations could saddle us with an existential war.

Things do not seem to be ideal even on our Northern borders as on the face of it, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project appears to have lost its luster for Pakistanis. No one any more talks of it being a game changer. In fact, there is a discernable foot-dragging on most of the projects mentioned in the CPEC list. Perhaps our ongoing IMF programme has got something to do with this foot-dragging. On the other hand, the US sanctions against Iran have made it impossible for Pakistan to establish normal trade and economic relations with our Western neighbor as well.

However, the recent agreement between China and Iran under which the former has promised to invest $400 billion over the next 25 years in the latter is expected to help revive the CPEC in a round-about way. According to experts it would be in Islamabad’s interests to enhance its regional connectivity into Iran via the CPEC.

According to Pepe Escobar (China-Iran pact paves way for alternative to Suez - published in Asia Times on April 2, 2021) the key overland corridor is Xinjiang-Kazakhstan – and then onward to Russia and beyond. Another route traverses Central Asia and Iran, all the way to Turkey, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

The most interesting short-term development is said to be how Iran’s oil and gas may be shipped to Xinjiang via the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan – using a to-be-built Trans-Caspian pipeline. That falls right into classic Belt and Road territory. Actually more than that, because Kazakhstan is a partner not only of Belt and Road but also the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union. From Beijing’s point of view, Iran is also absolutely essential for the development of a land corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea – and beyond, to Europe via the Danube.

Another fascinating chapter of Iran-China concerns Afghanistan. According to Tehran sources, part of the strategic agreement deals with Iran’s area of influence in Afghanistan and the evolution of still another connectivity corridor all the way to Xinjiang. And here we go back to the always intriguing Lapis Lazuli corridor – which was conceptualized in 2012, initially for increased connectivity linking Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

In late 2020, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan agreed to build the PAKAFUZ railway. PAKAFUZ will be a key step to expand CPEC to Central Asia, via Afghanistan.

So everything will be proceeding interconnected: a Trans-Caspian link; the expansion of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; Af-Pak connected to Central Asia; an extra Pakistan-Iran corridor (via Balochistan, including the finally possible conclusion of the IP gas pipeline) all the way to Azerbaijan and Turkey; China deeply involved in all these projects.

An extra piece of the puzzle concerns how the International North-South Transportation Corridor will mix with Belt and Road and the Eurasia Economic Union. Crucially, INSTC also happens to be an alternative to Suez. INSTC technically starts in Mumbai and goes all the way via the Indian Ocean to Iran, the Caspian Sea, and then to Moscow. As a measure of its appeal, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Oman, and Syria are all INSTC members.

Meanwhile, the already built Caspian port of Lagan is said to be a certified game-changer. Lagan directly connects with multiple Belt and Road nodes. There’s rail connectivity to the Trans-Siberian all the way to China. Across the Caspian, connectivity includes Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and Baku in Azerbaijan, which is the starting point of the BTK railway through to the Black Sea and then all the way from Turkey to Europe.

What we see in play here is Iran at the center of a maze progressively interconnected with Russia, China and Central Asia. When the Caspian Sea is finally linked to international waters, we will see an alternative trade/transport corridor that’s a de facto alternative to Suez.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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