By: Amb. Rajiv Sikri
It is an honour for me to have been invited by the University of Kashmir to give the Keynote Address for this important international conference on ‘Globalization and Eurasia.’ This is a well-chosen subject that merits widespread discussion and deep reflection. Srinagar is perhaps the most appropriate place in India for holding such a conference, because it is the state of Jammu and Kashmir that provides the geographical link between India and Eurasia. Indeed, this state itself has both a South Asian and a Eurasian character, reflected in the ethnicity, language, food and customs of the people. Through the centuries Jammu and Kashmir has had equally intensive trading and cultural contacts with the Indo-Gangetic plains and with Central Asia.
Globalization is the buzzword of the world of the 21st century – and rightly so, for it is continually redefining the contours of international politics. It is the result of two important developments that have taken place over the last two decades. The first is the power of technology that has shrunk and flattened the world. Distance and geographical barriers no longer keep the world divided into separate geopolitical and cultural spaces. The 21st century world is more open, more integrated, more interdependent – and therefore more vulnerable too – than ever before. Even in the remotest of villages, people are no longer ignorant about developments in the wider world. This physical and virtual connectivity has created an unprecedented awareness of rights and opportunities. It has empowered the common man. It has created widespread expectations. The second development is the end of the Cold War, as a result of which frozen relationships have thawed, watertight borders have become permeable, and new opportunities for economic cooperation have opened up. Policies and practices that restrict border trade and people-to-people contacts do not make for optimal integrated social and economic development. Artificial colonial borders that had disrupted centuries-old traditional economic, social, cultural and family linkages are creaking under the relentless tide of globalization.
It is on Eurasia that globalization has had the most noticeable impact. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, new sovereign countries have emerged in Eurasia. Earlier, Eurasia was remote and isolated, even though it is at the centre of the world’s largest landmass. Now Eurasia has diversified its connectivity and developed new transport and energy corridors to the rest of the world. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has strengthened Eurasia’s economic links with Turkey and the Mediterranean. Similarly, the Serakhs-Mashhad railway link and the Turkmenistan-Iran gas pipeline have opened new doors for Eurasia to the south. The most dramatic improvement in Eurasian connectivity has been with China. The settlement of the borders between China on the one hand and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the other paved the way for the restoration of traditional trading and people-to-people links between the divided regions of erstwhile Turkestan and Eastern Turkestan. New roads, railway lines and energy pipelines have mushroomed in the heart of Eurasia, which is steadily regaining its traditional role as a transport and trading crossroads. This has changed the balance of Eurasian geopolitics. Eurasian countries are getting increasingly sucked into China’s economic whirlpool while their bonds with Russia have become weaker.
Regrettably, Eurasia hasn’t reconnected with South Asia as meaningfully as it could and should have, despite the many factors that bring the two regions together. Historically Eurasia’s most extensive connections with the outside world have been with India – and vice versa. Unlike China and Russia, India does not pose any demographical or territorial threat to Central Asia. On the other hand, India has always had a romantic attraction and a certain mystique for the people of this region. India is also the nearest large and growing market and the open seas of the Indian Ocean are much closer than either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. India is a huge missing link in Eurasia’s attempts to benefit from globalization. It is not that India is wholly absent from Eurasia. It is just that it is not sufficiently plugged into it.
The most important reason is lack of connectivity. Traditionally, there have been two stepping-stones between Eurasia and undivided India. One is Afghanistan, the other Jammu and Kashmir. Both these stepping-stones are in a broken state. When undivided India was partitioned in 1947, so was the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Later, part of the state was occupied by China, and another part ceded by Pakistan to China. The dynamics of the relationships between India, Pakistan and China have of course deeply hurt the interests of the people of this state. They have also dried up the trade and social intercourse between India and Eurasia via this route. As for Afghanistan, the situation there is perhaps even more dire and tragic. A foreign-instigated war that has gone on for more than three decades has caused widespread upheavals, led to large-scale human tragedy and converted the country into the epicentre of global terrorism and drug trafficking.
Should we despair? I believe there is reason to be hopeful. Relationships between countries change with time. Seemingly sworn enemies can become cooperative partners. It has been rightly said that a country has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Hostility is never permanent. Geography is. We cannot escape it. Germany and France were at war for many generations, yet today they are at peace, with open borders and a common currency. It is doubtful if those who fought the Second World War could have ever envisaged such a situation, much less in their lifetime. Why should South Asia be immune from such desirable twists of history? In any case the ineluctable logic of globalization nudges countries in our region towards cooperation. Around the world there is today a new emphasis on regional and sub-regional cooperation. Perhaps it is only within such a wider framework that multi-cultural countries can have peace, stability and development.
Let me share some thoughts with you on how we can try to rebuild the stepping-stones between South Asia and Eurasia.
First, let’s look at Afghanistan. Geography has made Pakistan Afghanistan’s most important, indeed indispensable neighbour. Afghans recognize their dependence on Pakistan, but completely reject the notion that Afghanistan should be Pakistan’s backyard. As Pakistan grapples with increasingly difficult security problems on its Afghanistan frontier, it may be more amenable to acknowledging that its essential interests in Afghanistan coincide in many respects with India’s, and that India has many strengths and capabilities that could be very useful in stabilizing Afghanistan. There is no objective reason for India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan. Once US and other foreign troops leave Afghanistan, Pakistan and India will have to jointly deal with possible security threats to the subcontinent that could emanate from an Afghanistan in chaos or one controlled by an outside power, as well as the threats to social harmony and stability in both countries that Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban type poses. If they are sensible, India and Pakistan must jointly deal with the challenge of Afghanistan since Pakistan neither has the economic ballast nor the political trust of the Afghans to be able to manage Afghanistan on its own.
There are weighty economic reasons too for India-Pakistan cooperation on Afghanistan. Afghanistan cannot indefinitely count on massive injections of foreign aid. It must become an economically viable state if it is not to be a failed one. Traditionally, the Pashtun belt has been economically anchored to the Indian sub-continent. If Pakistan were to cooperate in restoring Afghanistan’s traditional economic and transport links to India, Afghanistan can once again become a bridge between South Asia and the rest of the world. This would bring Afghanistan huge benefits – from India’s large and growing market that can absorb any high-value agricultural products that Afghans should be cultivating instead of poppy; from investments to develop its mineral riches and hydropower resources; from transit fees for Central Asian gas feeding the growing South Asian market; and from trade between India and countries to Afghanistan’s west, including Russia and Europe. Needless to say, Pakistan too would immensely benefit.
Any viable solution to the Afghan imbroglio will be neither simple nor easy. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to change their respective approaches. To start with, Afghanistan must have recognized borders. If Afghanistan were to accept the Durand Line as the border with Pakistan, Pakistan’s insecurities vis-à-vis Afghanistan may be mitigated. At the same time, recognizing the Durand Line will be a difficult step for any Afghan leader unless there are credible and enforceable guarantees that Pakistan will not undermine Afghanistan’s sovereignty. The Pashtuns will also want a soft border between the divided Pashtun lands straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan. A de jure soft Afghanistan-Pakistan border may be possible only within a larger regional cooperative framework involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Undoubtedly, any move in this direction would also greatly help to reduce the trust deficit between India and Pakistan, and may well trigger a fundamental change in India-Pakistan relations. Working together, India and Pakistan can not only stabilize Afghanistan but also re-establish their links with Eurasia. The question is whether the respective leaders of these countries have the courage to think and act imaginatively.
What about Jammu and Kashmir? I believe Jammu and Kashmir can be reconnected to Eurasia via a transport and energy corridor between Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, with Eurasian gas flowing to India and Pakistan, and Persian Gulf oil in the opposite direction. Preliminary studies have shown that technically and logistically the best route may be along the existing Aksai Chin road alignment to Tashigang, with entry into the Indus valley at Demchok. From Upshi, one branch of the pipeline could take Eurasian gas to the Kashmir valley and on to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir across the Line of Control. Another could go south to Manali and the Punjab plains and across the international border to Pakistan.
If it turns out that gas pipelines are technically difficult and economically too expensive to construct across the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, Eurasian gas could be used to set up gas-fuelled power plants in Central Asia and Xinjiang, and the electricity generated sent across the Karakoram-Himalayas ranges through transmission lines and towers. This would provide value addition to the gas reserves, create local employment and promote regional economic development. Another complementary approach would be to set up hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which have enormous hydropower potential, for export of electricity to South Asia.
All sides will gain from such projects. They will help to create a more stable Pakistan-China-India strategic equilibrium. China could earn sizeable pipeline transit fees. Investments for pipeline projects would provide employment opportunities and stimulate Xinjiang and Western Tibet’s economic development and contribute to their stability. China gets an alternative oil route that bypasses the Malacca Straits. India gets energy to meet the needs of its growing economy. Availability of a cheap and plentiful clean energy source like gas would go a long way towards resolving growing problems of deforestation and environmental degradation in the Himalayas. This would stimulate the economic development of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Himachal Pradesh. There would be a better climate in India for eventually resolving India’s border problems with China and Pakistan.
In the new geo-political realities of the globalized 21st century world, bold, innovative and visionary approaches are needed in inter-state relations, including in the area of energy security. A grandiose Eurasian energy project as outlined above, or my blueprint for Afghanistan, requires a conceptual breakthrough in current geopolitical thinking among decision-makers. If this ever happens, there would be favourable long-term consequences not just for the region but also for the whole world. Eurasia could be transformed into a strategic space uniting major Asian energy producers, consumers and transit countries in a web of interdependence. Instead of being the battlefield of a new ‘Great Game’, Eurasia could become the crossroads of a 21st century version of the ‘Silk Route’, with gas and oil pipelines and power transmission lines replacing caravan convoys. A mega-project like this would also provide a huge much-needed stimulus for the faltering global economy. It would not only bring all-round economic advantage, prosperity, social and political stability, but also create a solid and enduring foundation for greater trust, confidence and understanding, extensive people-to-people ties and communication links that will hopefully lead to new, lasting and stable political and strategic relationships in this part of the world.