The alternative Asian vision | Shahzad Chaudhry

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Time and tide keep their own pace. It may seem altruistic, but those who have lagged behind them have normally been rendered to waste at their ruthless hands. History is replete with empires, ideas and men of substance that have all bowed before the ferocity of time.

Even geopolitically, as times and tide have changed, there has been a need for nations and great powers to adjust either their objectives or the means to achieve those objectives. Anyone living by the old ways was simply swept over, reeling into oblivion as the more relevant and attuned assumed eminence and the world. South Asia – and its widely more recognised mnemonic Saarc – as an assembly of eight countries typifies what keeps an entire region of a billion-and-a-half people stuck in a groove of its own making.

Unable to break out of the shackles of ordinariness as the least developed and poorest region of the world – possibly after various parts of Africa– the world around Saarc has moved on. It first began with some alternative geographical groupings. China and Russia got together in the era of a sole superpower when for a decade and a little over, the US had lorded over the world after the Soviet Union was dismantled under its own weight. But time has thrust newer dynamics. Multi-polarity may yet not be a reality but neither is uni-polarity.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) began as a China-Russia compact to establish a preferred economic relationship that would, in essence, develop into better political and security understanding. When the US applied sanctions on Russia by inhibiting their energy exports to Europe, it was akin to striking Russia at its roots to stop an assertive Putin in his tracks.

Three of Russia’s gas pipelines to Europe ran through Ukraine. Turmoil through continuing strife has only meant that Russian gas will be the first victim. It was a different matter that neither was the US able to ship shale oil as a replacement nor was there an economically viable alternative elsewhere. Europe – Germany leading the way – soon had to fall back on Russia. Economic reality imposed a different political dynamic whereby it had to seek accommodation with Russia. It was then that Russia and China began developing two direct lines to pump gas into China.

Even as all this was in flux, China and Russia under the SCO had co-opted the other producers in the region to their platform. The five Central Asian States – which are the producers of excess gas and oil – have developed their own connectivity with the oil guzzling markets of China and the West through Russia and Turkey. The pipelines also bind regional states into a vibrant grouping of producers and users market. India, another guzzler, is also an extended member of the SCO but remains physically separated from these regions. This is because of China and Pakistan – with whom India maintains only a nominal relationship that is inadequate to bring forth the benefits of association.

China, on the other hand, has its own alternative strategy in place. As the US has attempted to checkmate China by intervening in the South China Sea to disrupt the latter’s control and freedom to move goods to its eastern and southern shores, China has responded by reviving the old Silk Route associations. This provides something to tie nations together, trade with the world’s burgeoning producer of goods and establish alternative routes that will not be at the mercy of fickle international alliances. If it has also meant some political clout along the way, China is not about to shed that away. Economic domination is, after all, the surest means to perpetuate influence – political and cultural.

The OBOR thus ties China’s west to the regions beyond it while internally securing Tibet with it through a rail-road connection from Sinkiang into the heart of Lhasa. This connection is routed through Aksai Chin – which to India may be disputed, but is now well woven in the OBOR. Another Maritime Silk Road weaves a string of pearls, tying Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh with China.

The Bay of Bengal has ceased to be an exclusive Indian precinct. Similarly, the northern extremity of the Indian landmass – such as Nepal – ties into China’s region of influence through trade and other links. These extend along with the maritime connectivity into viable road links that complete the encirclement of the Indian landmass.

Now with CPEC extending from the Sinkiang to Gwadar through the spine of Pakistan, China has a string hung all around India. As the US works on China from the outside, the latter has responded with its own counter-initiative on the inner front of connectivity. China is also well-woven on its own with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, its neighbouring Central Asian States.

The third trigger of connectivity in the region comes from the ECO, a successful meeting of which was recently held in Islamabad. Based on a regional cooperation initiative between Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, the organisation ties the three most vibrant Muslim nations in the world into an economic fraternity that can also be the source of political understanding during difficult times that the region – especially the Muslim world – faces. Quite aptly, the ‘-stan’ states have also been co-opted into it along with Azerbaijan and Afghanistan which creates a critical mass of some half a billion people.

In the most testing security environment in Pakistan, the mere conduct and attendance of the leadership of these nations was no small achievement. A more explicit vision and a determined push to achieve milestones along a timeline will mean that this grouping can also begin delivering its potential while making itself relevant in a world that is in search for newer alignments.

Here’s the deal. The larger south, south-west, west and the near-east regions of Asia are tying themselves into multilayered relationships connected through expansive means of the movement of goods and commodities. Two islands emerge in this developing maze – India and Afghanistan. How long can they afford to be off this economic grid, especially when strings of pearls began to be woven around them and prosperity moves along various channels all around these two islands of relative isolation? A lot can and must come through Afghanistan. But this depends on factors beyond Afghan control for the moment. Pakistan will be able to access these sources of riches going around Afghanistan along horizontal linkages at the two ends of CPEC. India will have its own choices to make in due course.

With the ECO coming to life with a little more zest, it is just a matter of time when nations from the Aegean to the Himalayas will plug into the spine that has become CPEC. Then you just might find that both time and tide have simply gone by for Afghanistan. India may have its own steam to fall on. But not the unfortunate, less-endowed nations like Afghanistan which may simply perish under the weight of time.