Babur, a native of what is now Uzbekistan, was a connoisseur of fresh fruit.
When he established himself in Agra he pined for the sweet melons of his native
Ferghana Valley. Eventually, he brought Ferghana melon seeds and planted them in
the royal gardens. But before that, he succeeded in having melons brought
overland from Akhsikent to Agra - a distance of 1,500 kilometres. And melons, of
course, are quick to rot.
Today this would be all but impossible, mainly because Akhsikent and Agra are
separated by three borders, all of them nearly impassable, as a result of
political conflicts, bureaucratic delays, and corruption. It was not always
thus. Long before 16th century, Indian traders had established offices in such
distant centres as Merv, now in Turkmenistan, and Baku in Azerbaijan. These and
other outposts across the region sold Indian goods locally but also generated
profits by forwarding them to markets in Europe. Caravans of 1,000 camels were
common, each one carrying the equivalent of a dozen or more modern container
loads. It is a tragedy that our modern and enlightened era has yet to forge this
level of connectivity.
If India was connected to Europe by land routes for two millennia, what choked
off this natural continental artery? Most blame the rise of European shipping
after Vasco da Gama. But greedy local emirs did at least as much damage, by
demanding high tariffs and failing to link them with security along the routes.
Then Russian colonial administrators tried to divert the lucrative east-west
trade northward to Moscow, cutting out Europe. Finally, in 1937 the USSR closed
its border with Afghanistan, which killed one of the world’s most ancient paths
From Seven Continents to Six
We all learned in school that there exist seven continents, among them ‘Europe’
and ‘Asia,’ which are purportedly separated by the Urals. But the Urals extend
southward less than a third of the way across Eurasia. Besides, as mountains go
the Urals are so insignificant that they can scarcely delineate anything. Today,
a single, inter-connected Eurasia is again emerging. The collapse of the USSR
led to the opening of its former eastern border with China. Seizing the
opportunity, China charged the Asian Development Bank to construct roads and
railroads across Kazakhstan to Europe. A question that looms today is whether
India will take the lead in reopening the equally important route that connects
India and Europe by land.
Over many decades, many events combined to prevent this India-Europe route from
assuming its natural importance as a great Eurasian land bridge. Besides the
closed Soviet borders, hostile relations between India and Pakistan over sixty
years, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and then civil war and Taliban rule
in that country all created an inter-related series of blockages.
The situation began to change only when US forces defeated the Taliban and
secured Afghanistan’s North. Though unintended, unplanned, and still only partly
recognised in Washington, this reopening of trade and commerce across
Afghanistan may be the single most important consequence of Operation Enduring
Why the Southern Corridor may Actually Happen
In truth, to speak only of a connection by land between India and Europe is
severely to understate the potential of what is fated to become a truly
continental corridor of commerce. As such, it will be the third route across
Eurasia. Tsarist Russia opened the first of these in the 1890s, by building the
trans-Siberian railroad. China followed in the 1980s with its effort, mentioned
above, to reopen the old “Silk Road” to Europe. Now it is India’s turn, which
means taking a leading role in conceiving and bringing into being a “Southern
Corridor” across the entire Eurasian land mass from Hamburg to Hanoi. Many are
asking, “Will India be up to the challenge?”
There are solid grounds for optimism. Several major Indian manufacturers have
already begun to plot out how they will use the “Southern Corridor” to move
certain goods to the West. The slow but steady improvements in India-Pakistani
relations reflect the growing realisation on both sides that the opportunity
cost of a sealed or partially closed border may outweigh the political benefits
that each side may derive from enmity. True, even if the India-Pakistan borders
were to be fully opened tomorrow, blockages at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
would remain. Islamabad’s failure to implement the Afghanistan-Pakistan
Transport and Trade Agreement of 2010 is indeed a serious stumbling block. Yet
both sides proclaim their support for this laudable pact. The manoeuvrings
surrounding its implementation are efforts to minimise its impact on existing
interests, not to cancel the agreement.
The good news is that in all these projects economic realities are in the
driver’s seat, not geopolitical schemes. Any country is free to opt out for any
reason. But they must realise that for every section of the route there is an
alternative, with the choice among them to be made on the basis of such market
realities as the speed of border crossings, quality of infrastructure, access to
support facilities, and security.
India’s Cautious Approach
For years, Indian policy on land transport to the West took a cautious, if not
pessimistic, approach. Assuming that both the India-Pakistan and
Pakistan–Afghanistan borders would remain problematic, it joined Iran and Russia
to build a new Iranian port at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. Goods are already
moving northward from this port, eventually reaching Russia.
Meanwhile, the possibility of a much more direct route westward through
Afghanistan has opened up. This has triggered a veritable avalanche of separate
initiatives to take advantage of this emerging reality. Highways across
Afghanistan are nearly completed and planning for an east-west railroad is
making good progress. Pakistan is rebuilding several of its arterial roads.
Significantly, Turkmenistan has built a new road and railroad from the Afghan
border to its new Caspian port of Turkmenbashi. This in turn connects with a new
port being constructed south of Baku in Azerbaijan, which then links by road and
a newly built railroad directly to southern and Central Europe and North Africa.
Alternatively, after crossing the Caucasus, Indian goods can be shipped from
Georgia’s new Black Sea port of Poti via the new Viking Railroad,which crosses
Ukraine and reaches the Baltic at Klaipeda in Lithuania.
India has by no means closed its eyes to these emerging possibilities. In 2008
it took the bold step of joining with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan to
sign a Framework Agreement to build a gas pipeline from Central Asia clear
across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. Sceptics claim that strife in
Afghanistan will prevent this bold project from ever being built. But they may
be wrong. New roads and railroads built parallel to the pipeline route will make
it easier to patrol,which in turn will make the road and railroad safer. And if
the Afghan government in Kabul channels some of the profits back to those
provinces through which these corridors transit, then local forces - including
the Taliban- will have a practical interest in keeping the pipeline and
transport routes open.
In the case of the TAPI pipeline, India had only to join a project that was
already underway. The next stages will require more concerted leadership. India
should join with the United States and Japan in proposing that the Asia
Development Bank focus its energies on bringing the Southern Corridor into
being. Also, it should immediately confer with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and
Georgia on developing and utilising their sections of the Southern Corridor. And
it should enter into dialogue with all the Corridor countries clear to Vietnam
to engage them as shippers along the new land route.
US as Partner
In these and related initiatives India will find an eager partner in the United
States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her July 2011 visit to
Chennai, spoke glowingly of a “New Silk Road” that would link India to the West
by land. She launched nearly two dozen concrete initiatives to bring it into
being. Many have criticised the seeming haste with which the US is drawing down
its forces in Afghanistan. Against that background, the opening up of transport
routes across Afghanistan indicates that a deeper commitment to that country and
the region has taken root in Washington. Indeed, Washington’s commitment to the
Southern Corridor may prove to be one of the most enduring legacies of the
American presence in Afghanistan. Others have questioned whether the Obama
administration’s “Pivot to Asia” is in fact merely a pivot to China. If this
narrow approach is to be avoided, the Southern Corridor through India becomes
all the more important.
A sceptic may be tempted to conclude that in spite of all the talk about
economics being in the driver’s seat, the Southern Corridor is in reality yet
another manifestation of zero-sum thinking and geopolitics. This would be wrong.
More than a century ago Afghanistan’s rulers decided to protect their
sovereignty by refusing to construct railroads across their territory. For two
millennia Afghans had used their status as a transit zone to amass riches. This
decision by King Habibullah Khan, while understandable, condemned the Afghan
people to lives of isolation, poverty, and misery, creating an ideal soil for
religious extremism. Today, the best way to jump-start and revive Afghanistan’s
economy is to reopen the great transit corridors. US policy has come to embrace
A Project beyond Zero-Sum Thinking
Indian scholars and strategic thinkers have argued convincingly that the link to
the West via Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus will benefit all
countries along the route. It will create a stable neighbour on Pakistan’s
western border. It will benefit the countries of Central Asia by reopening their
age-old economic ties with the Indus Valley and India. It will expand peaceful
interaction between India and its neighbours to the east. And it will under-gird
the sovereignty and viability of the Caucasus countries by turning their region
into a kind of land-based Suez, not only for their abundant gas and oil, but for
goods from Europe and Asia. China will find ample opportunities for investment
in the new Afghanistan, and both China and Russia can avail themselves of the
efficient new commercial routes to India and southeast Asia. Finally, both of
these major powers will have less to fear from radical Islamists, who have used
aneconomically backward and defenceless Afghanistan as their base of operations.
In short, opening the Southern Corridor is not against anyone and will benefit
all who choose to participate in it. Commercial acumen, not political games,
will determine how much each country derives from this great transit route. It
will be a wealth generator, but also a security generator. It is in India’s
interest to become a leading sponsor of this initiative, for it puts Pakistan
and India on the same side of the table, creates a common interest where there
is none today, and at the same time opens grand prospects for Indian businesses
in the future.
As the Southern Corridor springs once more to life, we may even see fresh fruit
from the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan once more in the market at Agra. Babur
would be smacking his lips!