The new silk road is being built faster than the world’s ability to grasp its consequences.
China has worked out a railway route to Afghanistan and, from August this year, begun operating two trains a month from Nantong (China) to Hairatan (Afghanistan) passing through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan along the way. This remarkable achievement suffers from a temporary hitch — the trains have to go back empty to China because Uzbek authorities are yet to give permission for Afghan goods to transit their territory.
Last week, Chinese trucks drove south-west across the Himalayas, passing through the Karakorum pass into Pakistani territory. They transited through Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan before unloading their cargo onto a Chinese ship at the Chinese-built, Chinese-operated Pakistani port of Gwadar. [Gwadar is finally in Chinese hands, after Washington released its pressure on the Pakistani government due to an inability to persist or out of a lack of interest.]
On the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, analysts in Singapore are concerned over what appears to be a commercially dubious proposal to build a new port in the Malaysian town of Melaka (Malacca) that sits at the northern side of the important Straits of Malacca. The Malaysians have pulled out the stops to enable the project to take shape quickly. In typical fashion a little-known local firm is partnering a Chinese company to build the port.
Since there’s enough capacity in existing Malaysian ports, and it is relatively easy to expand them, the Melaka Gateway project is of questionable business value. But a foothold that commands the Straits, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean makes a lot of geostrategic sense if someone is willing to foot the $10 billion bill. And China is.
It appears that Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is proceeding at a pace faster than the region’s policymakers can handle.
Building transport connectivity in Central Asia is likely to unleash economic potential in the landlocked region, and depending on where the roads and railways lead, to other regions too. This will come with the usual political economy of Chinese overseas economic expansion: newly enriched local entrepreneurs, strengthened local political strongmen and grumblings due to Chinese labourers imported en mass. This will also be accompanied by fears of a demographic invasion from China into the sparsely populated Central Asian states.
The Chinese railway through the Central Asian states to Afghanistan presents India with a tantalising opportunity, if it were possible for Indian cargo and passengers to use the route. Pakistan would be deeply concerned, of course. Indeed, Pakistani strategists would already be worried that for the first time, China can trade with Afghanistan without having to transit through Pakistan.
New Delhi should explore arrangements with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to connect to this railway. At the very least, Beijing’s intentions can be put to test.
Another port in the straits
The Chinese interest in Melaka comes at a time when the United States is likely to rebuff the painfully negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. Singapore, among other East Asian states will be unhappy with the turn of events. Another port along Malaysia’s west coast abutting the Malacca straits implies further competition to the island’s own ports. With the projected overcapacity, it gets worse.
While there is little New Delhi can do to ameliorate this, there is an emerging convergence of interests between India and Singapore. So too, we are likely to see, with other East Asian countries as they grapple with the undesirable prospect of having to jump onto the Chinese bandwagon given the increasing unreliability of the United States. This has been true for much of the past decade. Now, however, it has gotten all the more intense. The Modi government is clear that it seeks to engage East Asian states with greater boldness and purpose. Whether this will prove adequate or fast enough remains to be seen.