A cargo train from Nantong, China reached Hairatan a town on Afghanistan’s border with Uzbekistan on 9 September 2015. Earlier, in February a similar ‘Silk Road’ trainreached Tehran from Xinjiang covering a distance of 9500 kms in fourteen days. Closer home India signed an agreement for the construction of 69 bridges in Myanmar (during the Myanmar President’s first visit) along the Trilateral Highway that will provide better connectivity between India and South East Asia, along the traditional ‘southern Silk Road’.
These recent examples show that connectivity has replaced division as the new paradigm of Asian organization and Asia has re-emerged as a useful case study for exploring economic development through infrastructural advancement. Over a century ago global navigation and trade was reshaped by the construction of the Suez and Panama Canals. Subsequently, efforts to shape infrastructure across Asia have been underway for more than a century in initiatives like the Russian railway systems,the Asian Highway and Trans Asia Railways. The popularly named “New Silk Road” initiatives refer to a variety of visions for formalising transit flows across Asia.
Various Silk Road imaginations are on their way to becoming reality. Among them is the Chinese led One Belt One Road (OBOR) the American ‘New Silk Roads’ and the Russian led efforts to reconnect through the Eurasian Economic Community. These logistic developments are now supported by financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that was set up with 57 Asian, European, South American and African states including China and India.AIIB supports China’s logistic vision of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) with the aim to bring South Asian economies closer to China, Central Asia and West Asia.
While global logistic visions that span entire continents and beyond is one part of the contemporary logistic story, the other part of logistics are the significant geo-political and geo-economic challenges to connectivity in areas that are the operating environments for these infrastructural projects and the Indian neighbourhood is no exception.
So the new cargo train, with which this article began, is now returning empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its way back to China. Uzbek authorities have forbidden cargo to arrive into their country from Afghanistan via the railway, citing security concerns. Uzbekistan wants goods to leave the Afghan border city of Hairatan on ships instead of rail, and cross the Uzbek border via the Amu River, where it can be screened by Uzbek security forces. Only then would the cargo be reloaded onto the Sino-Afghan train thereby negating all advantages of time that the overland route has in comparison with the longer maritime one.
It is within this context that one needs to examine India’s ability to connect with broader and sometimes competing logistic visions (the China Pakistan Economic Corridor for instance, that provides an alternative north south connect to International North South Transport Corridor that India supports and in which the Russians have recently shown some interest). Given the global reality of a China centered trade network overlapping with a Russian led economic community engulfing both Asian overland and maritime routes on the one hand and the emerging rules and regulations that would govern global trade on the other, either the development of an logistic alternative or connecting with the existing frameworks would be an essential enabler for India’s agenda of economic development and urbanization.
India’s Act East policy in a newly created Indo Pacific space is a work in progress that awaits conceptual clarity but also policy consensus among a large number of stake holders including sub regions, cities, ports and civil society actors. A meticulous balancing act between these realities call for recognition of India’s pivotal geographic position enabling developments both on the South East and East but also towards the West and Northwest and would require an integrated and coordinated approach which would make use of past linkages, present assets and also the possibilities of future development. While the translation of logistic visions into strategic spaces cannot be taken for granted, taking note of changing global networks, linking with other Asian logistic frameworks, keeping in mind the ‘slip roads’ that local mobilities traverse are just some of the imperatives that India would have to keep in mind as it negotiates its own development in a future that belongs to fluidity.
Anita Sengupta is Senior Researcher, Calcutta Research Group and Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation