The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the foremost artery of the Belt and Road initiative. The route itself travels from China’s Xianjing province through Pakistan’s northern border with China before heading south across the length of Pakistan to the Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. At the same time, India has been working on a route that it considers to be a CPEC “rival”. The North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) would see goods travelling from India’s western port cities to the Indian refurbished Iranian port of Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman. From there, goods would travel north towards Russia via Azerbaijan.
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 Belt and 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.
Yet earlier this year, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Azerbijan suggested a win-win model of linking CPEC with arteries of the NSTC in order to create a more united transport network linking central and south Asia. In March of this year, Ambassador Saeed Khan Mohmand stated,
“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”.
Thus, while Pakistan’s Ambassador in Baku appeared to endorse the idea of Gwadar linking with Chabahar in order to route CPEC originated goods into Russia, now it is ironically India that is discussing using land routes to Kazakhstan via Iran and Turkmenistan as a means of linking existing India to Chabahar shipping lanes to a penultimate Russian destination.
According to Russian media outlet Sputnik, India and Kazakhstan “recently organised two meets in Delhi to discuss starting work on the proposed a Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran-India connectivity route, which they aim to establish as the eastern route of the North-South Transport Corridor which could be further linked to the eastern part of Russia”.
This effectively means that in order to “avoid” CPEC, India seeks to create a new route on the eastern side of Iran’s Caspian coastline which will take goods coming into Chabahar north to the Iranian border with Turkmenistan before progressing further north into Kazakhstan and finally into Russia via Moscow’s Kazakh partner. And yet this route that India sees as an alternative to a possible northern extension of CPEC into Russia via Kazakhstan as proposed by Andrew Kroybko, clearly has its flaws. In the context of an article on Russo-Iranian trade, one that would rely on connectivity between Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan (just as India’s NSTC extension would do), Kroybko wrote the following:
“Iran is in a somewhat interesting place by theoretically having three potential avenues for conducting trade with China. All of the country’s ports except for Chabahar are in the Persian Gulf and thus dependent on the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint. As for the far eastern port in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, it’s relatively underdeveloped despite India’s commitment to modernize it as part of its ambitious efforts to streamline the so-called North-South Corridor. Chabahar also remains largely disconnected from the rest of Iran’s road and rail networks, making it very difficult for the country to rely on it in times of dire need. Similarly, because of Chabahar’s distance relative to the rest of the country and its economic heartland, it’s unlikely that Iran will properly utilize the commercial possibilities of the neighboring CPEC port of Gwadar anytime soon, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that Tehran’s participation in the project should be ruled out. Iran recently expressed interest in CPEC, and it’s possible that if India follows through on its promises and helps to develop this corner of the country, that it could inadvertently allow Iran to strengthen its connectivity with CPEC.
This is very important because Iran can’t rely on the Rimland Railroad which has yet to even materialize into a concrete proposal, and even if it ever does, Central Asia will always remain a Hybrid War hotspot. Furthermore, although there’s already a roundabout rail route connecting Iran with China via the peripheries of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, it’s not economically dependable at this time and is also much longer than simply shipping goods from the country’s western economic heartland across the Persian Gulf to Gwadar and then northwards to China. It’ll take a lot of time before the Rimland Railway becomes a practical option for Chinese-Iranian bilateral trade, so in the meantime, Iran might just have to depend on either entirely maritime routes to China or the shortcut through CPEC. At this point, it’s pertinent to talk about the CPEC-Iran channel and how it could reasonably develop in the future”.
When taken in totality and given the vital rapprochement currently transpiring between Iran and Pakistan, it might ultimately make more sense for Iran to use a northern extension of CPEC into Kazakhstan as the most effective route for Iranian goods to enter central Asia and the Russian Federation, while it goes without saying that this is the easiest route for Iranian goods to take on their way to a final Chinese destination. Such an arrangement would further assure China that its partnership with Iran is two sided, something which will be of increased importance as China has vowed to continue purchasing Iranian energy in spite of not being granted a sanctions waiver over the matter from the United States. Even more importantly, the Chinese company CNPC is set to work on the multi-billion Dollar South Pars gas project in Iran after the French company Total pulled out due to the threat of American sanctions. Thus, it will be crucial for the growing Sino-Iranian partnership to expand across many sectors now that China has shown a far more sincere commitment to Iran’s development than its wayward European partners who were ultimately successfully bullied into detaching themselves from the Islamic Republic by Donald Trump.
Thus, there exists a triple incentive for Iran to consider working with neighbouring Pakistan to become integrated into both existing and likely future CPEC related routes, not least because Iran is already firmly integrated into the NSTC via the country’s western cost of the Caspian and its border in that region with Azerbaijan.
Ironically, if India embraced a realistic attitude towards the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi could work with rather than against Pakistan and China in order to develop a CPEC related route north from the subcontinent into central Asia and ultimately into Russia. As Moscow is on good terms with Beijing, New Delhi and increasingly with Islamabad, Russia would clearly support such a time saving trading route.
Of course, India’s current policies prohibit such a thing from happening any time in the foreseeable future, although nevertheless, the overall regional desire for more north-south routes to compliment the existing CPEC route which will ultimately link China’s Pacific coast with Turkey’s Mediterranean cost as well as the central-Mediterranean Afro-European region, ought to create the impetus for Pakistan to develop its own model of north-south connectivity that would involve Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Such a move on the part of Pakistan and its partners would allow Iran easy access to central Asia via Pakistan while simultaneously allowing CPEC originated goods easy access to the south Caucasus via Iran, while both routes would be of use to those trading with Russia.
Such a win-win arrangement is vastly more pragmatic than the zero-sum proposals India has thus far offered to its regional partners. Indeed, Pakistan via its ambassador in Baku already proposed half of such an arrangement earlier this year and clearly India was listening which is why India now seeks to “beat” CPEC into central Asia, albeit through a far more convoluted route than a direct CPEC artery from Pakistan into Kazakhstan.