Pakistan Takes Wind out of India’s Sails by Turning North-South Transport Corridor Into One Belt–One Road

The North-South Transport Corridor is a joint initiative of nations who have built and continue to expand shipping and road links between South Asia, Northern Eurasia and Europe. The map below shows the basic route which beings with a shipping lane between India and Iran’s Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman, before travelling north through Iran to the Caucasus and into Russia, while also linking up with existing rail routes from Iran into Central Asia and west into Europe via Turkey.

While countries as diverse as Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan have embraced the North-South Corridor as a means of creating greater opportunities for economic enrichment through joint cooperative efforts, in India, the project has been sold as a rival to China’a One Belt–One Road. This has been the case even though the North-South Corridor is vastly more limited in its geographical expanse vis-a-vis the global Chinese project and perhaps even more crucially, the other partners in the North-South Transport Corridor do not share India’s zero-sum vision of the project.

In particular, India is keen to present the North-South Transport Corridor as a rival to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking China to the Indian ocean via a large road and rail network whose western terminus is Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

Today however, Pakistan, one of India’s two neighbouring ‘rivals’ has issued a statement saying that Islamabad looks forward to integrating its own transport links into the North-South Transport Corridor. According to Saeed Khan Mohmand, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan,

“I think that Pakistan may plan to join the North-South transport corridor. Of course, it should be negotiated… The proposal has come from Azerbaijan and sent to different ministries. Now they are currently working on it”.

While the statement from the Ambassador does not confirm any finite plans, it does demonstrate an attitude from Pakistan that looks to embrace mutually beneficial regional and trans-regional projects in a way that has thus far escaped Indian policy makers and official representatives who continue to view the prospect of rival trade systems as strategically superior to mutually cooperative ones. The notion of Pakistani cooperation in the North-South Transport Corridor further strengthens Pakistan’s undeniably growing partnership with Russia which has occurred simultaneously to India pivoting away from its Cold War ally and towards the US. That being said, while Russia harbours no official ill-will towards India, Russia has come to terms with the changing political dynamics of South Asia and is clearly pivoting its own strategic outlook accordingly.

Such a scenario for Pakistan linking up with the North-South Transport Corridor and Russia more widely, was proposed last year by geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko in a piece called ‘The Next People-To-People Phase Of The Russian-Pakistani Rapprochement’. In the piece, Korybko writes,

“The enhanced trade relations that were mentioned above [see full piece] can only occur if Russia and Pakistan are connected to one another through CPEC, no matter how indirectly due to the geographic distance between them and Moscow’s reluctance to officially endorse this trade route in order to preserve its strategic “balancing act” with India. The second part of this conditional implies that the private sector needs to drive these two countries’ CPEC connectivity since the Russian state isn’t going to do so because of delicate political reasons, which thus allows one to envision three possible solutions, all of which are inclusive of one another and could in theory exist concurrently.

The most probable of the three is that Russia could connect to CPEC via the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan, which his already a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and through which a lot of bilateral trade already traverses. Furthermore, the Eurasian Land Bridge between East Asia and Western Europe is expected to pass through this international corridor as well, so it’ll probably be easiest for Russia and Pakistan to trade across this route by linking up at CPEC’s Urumqi hub in China’s Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.

Considering that Xinjiang’s capital city is located closer to Russia’s southern Siberian border than to CPEC’s terminal Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, there’s also the chance that a more direct north-south trade route could be established between Russia and Pakistan via this avenue. After all, Russia’s “Pivot to Asia” (which is officially referred to as “rebalancing” in Moscow’s political parlance) isn’t just international but also internal, and it aspires to develop resource-rich Siberia just as much as it aims to chart new international partnerships. With this in mind, there’s no reason why southern Siberia couldn’t one day be connected to CPEC via the nearby Urumqi juncture.

Lastly, Russia’s already building a North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) through Azerbaijan and Iran in order to facilitate trade with India, so the opportunity exists for it to simply use this route’s overland transport infrastructure to reach Pakistan in the event that the Iranian terminal port of Chabahar is ultimately linked with nearby Gwadar. Even if that doesn’t happen, then there’s still nothing preventing private Russian businessman from using Chabahar or even the more developed port of Bandar Abbas as their base of operations for conducting maritime trade with Gwadar or Karachi. This would in effect make India’s “brainchild” the ironic basis for Russian-Pakistani economic relations”.

With both Russia and Pakistan expanding their relations with Azerbaijan, it was clearly important that this announcement from Pakistan was delivered by Islamabad’s ambassador to Baku. There exists the potential for Pakistani cooperation within the framework of both the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the North-South Transport Corridor, to bring Pakistan and Iran closer to one another, at a time when officials from both states have shown a sincere interest in revitalising an old friendship that had soured in recent decades, in spite of some cautious voices on both sides.

If Iran could become a southern gateway to the Caucasus while neighbouring Pakistan could become a parallel southern gateway to Central Asia, both countries could realistically see themselves as important routes in both the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean trade into Russia and north eastern Europe via various transport corridors coming from the west and the east.  Such a reality would also put to rest the Indian narrative that Iran’s Chabahar Port is necessarily a competitor to the deep water Gwadar Port. In reality, both ports could and should act in tandem within a commonly linked trade network. Linking the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the North-South Transport Corridor, could be the vital step in making this a reality.

All of the sudden, India’s dream of rivalling China and Pakistan has been dashed by the win-win spirit of cooperation which has the potential to make all parties satisfied, assuming India engages in a much needed realignment of its deeply negative zero-zum mentality.

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