A Pakistan-Turkmenistan Transport Corridor Could Severely Undercut India’s Zero Sum NSTC Dreams

While the world has been distracted by the allegedly fatal flaws in Boeing’s 737 Max-8 and the latest Brexit developments, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov called on Imran Khan to sign a wide reaching agreement to create a transport corridor, fibre-optic corridor and gas corridor which would travel from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan and ostensibly on to India from there. This comprehensive physical, digital and gas corridor is vastly more far reaching than the planned Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline project which looks to be incorporated into Pakistan’s new versatile corridor initiative with Turkmenistan.

The surprisingly wide ranging Host Government Agreement (HGA) further suggests that this network could be linked to China. If and when completed, this could mean that China and Pakistan would be able to work with Turkmenistan on a would-be northern CPEC that would allow for the flow of goods from China into central Asia via Afghanistan and ultimately into Russia via Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Of course, the biggest challenge facing the new initiative is Afghanistan, which thus far has not been a reliable country through which to transport goods. But if the China, Pakistan, Russia and even Iranian endorsed peace process for Afghanistan is truly embraced by the US, this problem could be solved sooner rather than later. Very recent statements by America’s Special Representative for Afghan affairs, Zalmay Khalilzad indicate that an all-parties peace process for Afghanistan is progressing at a more rapid pace  than many had anticipated. As such, building a Turkmenistan-Pakistan transport corridor via Afghanistan may well be more viable than could have been rationally expected as recently as two years ago.

And thus, one comes to India whose North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) effectively mirrors the route of transport corridor planned between Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The NSTC will see the flow of goods from Indian ports to Iran’s Indian financed Chabahar port. Goods will then travel by land to Russia and the wider northern and central Eurasian space via Azerbaijan.

Seeing as last year, Pakistani officials remarked on the possibility of participation in the Azerbaijan to Russia segment of the NSTC and given that Turkmenistan’s Caspian ports are a short maritime journey away from cost of Azerbaijan – suddenly Pakistan’s participation in a trading network that will see goods travel from south Asia to central Asia and Russia, looks less like a rival to the NSTC but something that is in fact far bigger in terms of scope and likely impact.

If Pakistan’s transport corridor to Turkmenistan is completed, it would mean that goods entering Pakistan from the Chinese border as well as those entering the CPEC port at Gwadar, could then travel in either a broader east-west direction as per the existing CPEC routes or alternatively, travel in a north-south direction. Seeing as China and Russia have good relations with the majority of central Asian republics and seeing as Russia ultimately intends to expand relations with Pakistan, a multi-directional CPEC could end up combining the best of the existing CPEC project, with the goals of the Indian driven NSTC.

So long as Afghanistan becomes a more reliable transit state, the transport corridors converging in Pakistan could ultimately become faster and therefore more internationally desirable than NSTC routes that rely on India to Chabahar maritime routes in order to circumvent both Pakistan and Afghanistan (from India’s perspective). If Iran finds that participation in NSTC is restricted due to the pressure of US sanctions on would-be partners, this makes the Turkmenistan-Pakistan route all the more attractive.

Because the current project also intends to deliver central Asian gas to India via Pakistan, if the broader trading routes associated with a Turkmenistan-Pakistan transport corridor become a success, India may have little choice other than to accept the integration of its NSTC with a wider ‘north-south CPEC’ route which does the job of the NSTC in an ostensibly more efficient manner.

What this proves is that by refusing to close any doors to new trading and transport initiatives and by instead maintaining a win-win mentality, Pakistan may be on the verge of outdoing India, a country whose approach to trade and transport has thus far been one that is predicated on a zero-sum mentality that seeks to complete with others rather than complete a more holistic series of Asian transport corridors that logic dictates ought to compliment one another.

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