Connectivity: An opportunity and a challenge

“For India, this is a crucial time. In 1991, India opened its economy and achieved several economic milestones. In the global arena, India is termed as an elephant. Being a democratic country, India spends more time in dialogue and discussions, which at times leads to an inordinate delay in the decision-making process. However, the speed and magnitude of the Chinese dragon jolted the Indian decision makers. This prompted India to recalibrate her strategy and nudge the Indian elephant to dance. After resurgence of the Chinese dragon, Indians have realized the urgency to implement the previously planned connectivity projects. To consolidate its position in the region, India has to improve the delivery mechanism sooner than later.”

Foreign policy is considered as a key strategy of a country to achieve and safeguard intended national interests in an international milieu. In an increasingly globalised world, every state is dependent on each other to attain its national interests. Moreover, connectivity has acquired the centre stage in the interdependent world and it is also shaping the foreign policy of the country. In fact, India’s foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has also said that ‘growth and connectivity’ are part of India’s foreign policy thinking.

India has inherited the policy of British Raj and aspires to be a ‘leading power’ and, plays a decisive role at the global high table. To realise the aspiration, it needs a very stable neighbourhood where its pre-imminence is unchallenged. To ensure this, India has proposed several connectivity projects in the Indian sub-continent. Today, China’s the gigantic belt and road initiative (BRI) – earlier known as One Belt, One Road – has raised the eyebrows across the world capitals. The BRI envisages connecting Asia with Europe and Africa through land and maritime routes. This is considered as a reinvigoration of the ancient silk route in the modern times. Ancient Silk Route indicates critical importance of the connectivity in Asia’s growth story. Even today, connectivity is of great salience for Asia’s growth and development. Indeed, restoration and modernisation of connectivity is integral to the realisation of the Asian Century. The aspect of connectivity is not just limited to physical, rather it extends to social, political and cultural senses too. The theme of 2016’s Raisina Dialogue was ‘Asian Connectivity’, in her inaugural address, Union Minister Ms. Swaraj had noted that “Where India itself is concerned, whether it is domestic, external or regional, connectivity will determine how we meet our promise of growth, employment, and prosperity. Both literally and metaphorically, it is an enabler of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’”

“Chabahar” : A Carrot for Pakistan ?

Earlier, Afghanistan had to rely only on one transit road, which was through Karachi. That is not the case anymore. (Now) it’s (also) through Chabahar.” For Kabul, overcoming its dependence on Islamabad is a key foreign policy priority and for New Delhi, enhancing connectivity with Kabul is a key to sustain its multi-dimensional engagement in long-term capacity building in the war torn nation. Iran’s ties with Pakistan have been historically mired in suspicion though Tehran has assured Islamabad that it would not allow India or any other country to use Chabahar against Pakistan. Iran doesn’t want Pakistan to overtly shift to the Saudi Arabia-led regional bloc evolving in the Middle East and it has even dangled the possibility of Pakistan joining the project at some future date.

India understands that in the globalised world it would be difficult for her to contain the entry of China in the South Asian region. Rather, New Delhi is not willing to contain China, but it feels that Beijing should be more sensitive to Indian concerns. India thinks that the BRI poses adverse geopolitical implications in the way of its national interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. However, China is marching on an entirely different mission. The journey of economic reforms started during Deng Xiaoping’s period is paying rich dividends now. Today, the Chinese economy is the second largest economy in the world. The European economy is yet to recover from severe setbacks of 2008 Global Financial crisis and the United States (US) no longer holds the hegemonic status in the global affairs. Especially, Trump administrations’ ‘America First’ policy gives the impression that the US is shying away from its leadership role in the world affairs. The Chinese leadership feels this situation augurs well for the dragon and it can steer the direction of global developments. China is keen to institutionalise and spread its influence across the world. The BRI is an important aspect of this process. China has floated the idea of the establishment of Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) to finance projects under the BRI. The setting up of AIIB is seen as a challenge to Bretton Woods institutions of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Resolving the Malacca Dilemma is China’s one of the prime objectives behind the initiation of the BRI. Most of the China’s oil trade passes through Malacca Strait. Hence, they have envisaged the China –Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a critical link of the BRI. The corridor reduces the distance between China and oil-rich West Asian region. The proposed corridor passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir and India has therefore, strongly opposed to the idea of the corridor as it violates the sovereignty of the country. New Delhi feels that the corridor may adversely affect geo-politics of the region. India also took a strategic decision to boycott the BRI Summit held in China, in May 2017. India was the only major country to remain absent at the forum meeting. India’s staunch opposition to BRI was also noticed across the capitals in the world. India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated that the BRI is clearly in contravention of internationally recognised norms, openness, transparency, and rule of law. India feels the BRI is a unilateral or national initiative of China and provides limited scope to other participating countries in shaping the connectivity projects. India also feels that the current framework of the BRI has a potential to drive the participating country into a financial crisis and it may have geo-strategic implications for New Delhi at the times of conflict. However, China also foresees hurdles in the execution of the BRI. A total of 64 countries had participated in the summit concluded in May 2017, but actually, very few countries have decided to board the bus and to be part of the initiative. In the summit itself, the European Union had not endorsed the statement on trade prepared by Beijing. Rather they insisted on the inclusion of social and environmental sustainability and transparency.

“Getting goods to their destination in half the time

The transport corridor from Russia to Iran through Azerbaijan is an important part of a larger north-south project that was stalled in the mid-2000s due to the imposition of Western sanctions against Iran. With the lifting of the restrictions on Iran, this project has again become relevant.

Russia has agreed to begin substantive studies on the implementation of the North-South Transport Corridor, part of which will pass along the western coast of the Caspian Sea, from Russia to Iran through Azerbaijan.

This involves working with the participation of the (different participants) ministries of transport, which have to look at the technical and financial parameters of such a project. This also involves interaction between the customs and consular services”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had hit a diplomatic sixer by inviting leaders from all the South Asian countries for the swearing-in ceremony of his cabinet. This laid the foundations of his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. But, three and half years later, the initiative of ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy is facing several hurdles and there is a huge gap between aspirations of the government and the reality. Pakistan is proving to be one of the stumbling blocks in India’s aspiration for a peaceful neighborhood. Immediately after Modi’s Lahore visit in 2015, Pakistan showed its true colours and launched a terrorist attack on the Indian soil. This led to the cancellation of the summit of all South Asian leaders in Pakistan.

In 2014, at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) Kathmandu Summit, India proposed a Motor Vehicle Pact and Railway cooperation pact to enhance the people-to-people contacts within the South Asian region. However, Pakistan raised the objection to both the projects. Even the energy cooperation framework agreement is in limbo due to Pakistan’s negative attitude. To ignore Pakistan, Modi had mooted the idea of sub-regional connectivity. When Pakistan refused to be part of Motor Vehicle Pact, India shifted its gears and convinced three countries namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal to form a sub-regional group to pursue the agenda of development and connectivity.

In June 2015, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) had signed the agreement to allow seamless movement of passenger and cargo vehicles. However, the agreement faced a roadblock as Bhutan and Bangladesh have cited their inability to move ahead due to environmental concerns and lack of domestic consensus respectively. However, India is still hopeful for positive outcomes through sub-regional connectivity.
On May 5, 2017, India successfully launched the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F09), carrying the GSAT-9 or the first South Asia Satellite, built by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The launch of the satellite gave a major boost to India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and also carved a unique status for itself in the space diplomacy. India’s reluctance to give up on the project and its decision to go ahead with the willing countries at the sub-regional level, under a different name, indicates Modi’s government’s strategy in the neighbourhood.

In 2014, Modi had asked India’s scientific community “to take up the challenge of developing a SAARC satellite that we can dedicate to the neighbourhood as a gift from India”. The successful launch of the South Asia Satellite marks the fulfillment of that challenge.

“Indian and Afghan Economies Will Bloom

According to Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, the Chabahar expansion could hypothetically be a huge boon for the economies of India and Afghanistan.

“I say it’s a potential game changer because we’re a long way away from this project being truly operational. I don’t think we should overstate the progress that’s been made with this project just yet,” said Kugelman.

“There have been agreements and they’ve had a few initial shipments of wheat and things like that. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on this project before we could start talking about it being completely operational,” he added.”

Use of technological capabilities to serve both hard and soft power is not an entirely new development. The role of civilian technology in diplomacy got an impetus in the last decade or so. Many countries have successfully employed their civilian technical competence as a tool of foreign policy. With the successful launch of the South Asia Satellite, India has also indicated its prowess to leverage technological capabilities in fostering the regional integration and as an effective tool of diplomacy.

The history of South Asia serves to remind us that, natural disasters, mainly cyclones, earthquakes, and droughts have destroyed the livelihood in the region. It is the need of the hour to generate and compile real-time scientific data to avoid natural disasters. The South Asia satellite will prove helpful in addressing these imminent issues and reduce the risk and impact of natural disasters in future. Another use of a satellite is to resolve water woes in the region. By applying space technology, we can undertake resource mapping as a first step towards carrying out water management of the Himalayas, which is the water source for a large part of South Asia.

In addition, Bangladesh, Maldives, and India are facing a Herculean Challenge due to climate change. The South Asia Satellite will be able to study the exact nature of the threat and may offer solutions. Besides that, the South Asia Satellite will help partner countries to overcome the infrastructure bottlenecks and facilitate better governance, banking, and education in remote areas and will be more predictable in weather forecasting. The South Asia Satellite is a geosynchronous communications and meteorology satellite and it will offer a significant capability to each of the participating countries in terms of DTH (direct-to-home). Each South Asian country will get access to one transponder through which they will be able to beam their own programming, besides common “South Asian programming”.
The South Asian region is struggling with plenty of problems and this reminds us of the need to work beyond national territories. And with the launch of the satellite, Prime Minister Modi has actually tried to extend his policy of ‘Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas’ to India’s Neighbourhood, essentially to serve the needs of the poor in South Asia. The South Asia Satellite is not a panacea for all of these evils but provides an opportunity for the South Asian states to work closely for a common cause and eradicate many urgent predicaments.

To further consolidate the sub-regional connectivity, India has decided to extend its state of art National Knowledge Network – a scientific database and remote access to advanced research facilities – with all SAARC countries except Pakistan. Furthermore, in 2016, at the BRICS Summit held in Goa, India chose to invite BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) member states, indicating New Delhi’s vigour to pave the sub-regional consciousness and isolate Pakistan. Interestingly except Maldives, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, all other SAARC member states are part of BIMSTEC. In line with BBIN agreement, India has proposed the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA), to be ratified at the upcoming summit in Nepal. The two agreements, BBIN and BIMSTEC MVA indicate convergence of India’s Neighbourhood First and Act east policies.

In a bid to connect with a close friend like Afghanistan, India launched the second air-corridor connecting Kabul with Mumbai in the last week of December 2017, carrying pharmaceuticals, dray-fruits, and handicrafts worth USD 20 million. The first air corridor between Kabul and New Delhi was launched in June 2017.

India and Afghanistan are committed to strengthening bilateral partnership and despite the launch of the air – corridor, both countries continue to push for other alternatives of rail and road connectivity. In a major boost to India’s ambition to connect Afghanistan with Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, the first phase of a strategic Iranian Port, Chabahar, was inaugurated in December 2017. The port is also supposed to act as a counter to the Chinese built Gwadar port in Pakistan, barely 100 km away and a crucial link in the CPEC. The Chabahar port is expected to be operational by the end of 2018.

India has already constructed the Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan that connects the Iranian border with all four major Afghan cities. Along with these ongoing projects, proposals for various cross-border air, land connectivity projects and power and energy initiatives are being given a serious thought by the Indian government.

“Railways to Bridge St. Petersburg with Persian Gulf

Within the framework of the implementation of the railway route of the North – South Corridor, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran started constructing a railway route Uzen-Gorgan along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea that will replace the existing longer route to Iran.

“The construction of the given route will make it possible for the first time in history to create a railway bridge about 4,500 kilometres long from St. Petersburg to the port of Bandar Abbas (Iran) in the Persian Gulf and connect by a shorter way North-Western and Central Europe with countries of the Middle East and South Asia”, . This route will be used for organising international container freight transport, and, according to experts, the market is estimated at 16 – 17 million tonnes.

The advantages of developing the route along the Caspian Sea coast have been highlighted by the International Union of Railways (UIC) through a feasibility study carried out in 2008 showing that the route is the most viable in the long-run. The lesser countries are involved is the better as it involves easier agreements and border crossings. Distance along the western coast of the Caspian Sea is shorter. The proposed route shows particular attention to the development of railway transport. Construction of Qazvin – Astara – Rasht missing segment is an example. Also, there are alternative routes of back-up sections in case of failure of the main segment (maritime transport through the Caspian Sea or railway transport through Azerbaijan). The route is recommended by organisations such as UNO and railway organisations such as Russian Railways (RZD), Iranian Railways (RAI) or Indian Railways (IR).”

Apart from this, there are proposals of Dhaka-Chennai-Colombo air connectivity, Chittagong-Kolkata-Colombo shipping connectivity, Bangladesh-North Bengal rail link, Bangladesh-Bhutan internet cables through India and trade route connecting Nakugaon Land Port in Bangladesh to Gayleyphung in Bhutan via India.

Apart from these projects, India has envisaged various energy and power cooperation initiatives in the coming years. In fact, the BRI has turned as a blessing in disguise for China’s competitors and they are able to come together against a common threat of the Chinese dragon. To secure national interests, India has also joined hands with like-minded countries like Japan, the US and Australia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed to strengthen the bond of these four countries and visualised building a quadrilateral alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.

Earlier, India had visualised opening of a spice route, a cotton route and Project Mausam to counter China’s BRI. In fact, Project Mausam got the serious backing from the Modi government. Ministry of Culture has launched Project Mausam in a bid to connect countries around the Indian Ocean bound together by Monsoon winds.

However, all these projects remained non-starters. India seriously faces resource crunch and instead of spending its limited resources on these mega projects New Delhi should first strategically use its scanty resources on key routes and ports in the South Asian region to enhance stability in the neighbourhood. Thankfully, India has adopted a cautious approach and focused on strengthening the connectivity in the immediate neighbourhood and in the domestic sphere.

To harness India’s 7517 km long coastline, potential inland waterways and strategic location of the country on international maritime trade routes, the government of India has announced the ambitious Sagarmala project, which aims to build hinterland connectivity and push for port-led development. Currently, the central as well as state governments are pursuing port development in a fragmented way. However, the Sagarmala project envisages promoting a holistic development of ports in India.

A national perspective plan of the proposed project was released by PM Modi in 2016 at a maritime conference organised in Mumbai. The project has the personal stamp of Modi and included port-led developmental model, which was successfully implemented during his tenure as the Chief Minister in Gujarat. The scale of this initiative is gigantic and proposes to execute around 400 different projects, which aim to enhance hinterland connectivity, build coastal economic zones, modernise ports and broaden the pool of skill oriented youths. Indian ports are facing dire shortage of infrastructure for evacuation of cargo leading to delays in industrial activity. Besides that, limited hinterland connectivity, lack of development in the coastal areas for initiating manufacturing or economic activity and less focus on inland shipping led to the skewed economic growth of India.

The cost associated with the initiative is whooping $130 billion and concerns are raised about the negative impact on the fishing community. The ministry plans to implement the initiative in phases and aims to finish it by 2035. So, it is too early to comment on the future prospects of the project.

Connectivity is a core theme of India’s diplomacy in the 21st century. This is manifested not just in Neighbourhood First and Act East policies but also in her Diaspora policy. As mentioned by Ms. Swaraj, India’s Diaspora policy is based on 3 Cs – connect with India, celebrate with the Indian culture and contribute to India’s growth. We must understand that building and strengthening of the connectivity is a long term activity in the Indian foreign policy. It may take another decade for India to materialise many of the proposed projects.

As discussed earlier, China is reaping benefits of economic reforms started in 1978. However, interestingly, many countries are now echoing the Indian stand and the US secretary of State Rex Tillerson has criticised the Chinese programme as an example of predatory economics. Tillerson has also repeated the Indian concerns and slammed China for subverting the global order, undermining the sovereignty of other states and behaving in an irrational manner.

In a nutshell, countries are slowly able to identify the hidden intentions of China and airing their dissenting voices against the initiative. Even many commentators in Pakistan have warned about loss of Pakistan’s economic sovereignty and culture.

In November 2017, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar had cancelled three hydroelectricity projects namely Diamer-Bhasha Dam project, Budhi Gandaki hydropower project and Myitsone Dam project, worth $20 billion. These projects were planned by the Chinese companies and cancellation of these projects comes as a serious setback to China’s prestigious BRI plan. Moreover, the challenge of extremism is another daunting task ahead of the Chinese decision makers. China had to renegotiate, cancel and defer various projects due to unforeseen inadequacies in its projects. Besides that, Chinese projects are costlier than they appear.

Initially, China offers a very lucrative proposal to the country, but later on renegotiates the proposal and imposes higher interest rates. Failing to repay the debt, China asks the country to handover a port or some part of its territory on a lease of 99 years. Use of this pattern was recently seen in Sri Lanka. Many countries have understood the Chinese strategy and feel insecure due to noticeable traits of neo-colonialism.

India’s developmental model is exactly opposite to the Chinese model. While China believes in ‘Cheque book diplomacy’ and extends loans to poor countries, the Indian assistance programme focuses on training and capability building of the host country. In comparison with China, India is very lazy in executing various projects. However, with the impending Herculean challenge of China, India needs to shed its inhibitive approach and become more proactive. India should work on parallel tracks to overcome this lacuna.

On one side, with the help of more sophisticated technology, India should continue to strengthen domestic connectivity and on the other side, consolidate the bonds with the like-minded countries like Vietnam, Japan, the US and Australia. India and its friends should together raise their voice about the Chinese policy of predatory economics and play a role of spoiler. For India, time is very valuable and it can’t afford to wait for decades to complete its projects. Technological innovations may work as a catalyst in prompting Indian elephant to dance. India’s growing friendship with technological giants in Europe augurs well for the delivery of various stalled projects.

At a time, when limitations of the existing world order are quite visible and the outline of the emerging world order is still blurring, India has to play its cards very cautiously. Connectivity has emerged as one of the disruptive ideas to shape the world order. It will be interesting to watch the strategy of both India and China in this disruptive world.

– Mr. Aniket Bhavthankar
( Aniket Bhavthankar is an assistant Professor with Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune. He can be contacted at: email-, Twitter : @aniketbhav)

[1] The Economic Times, India lines up projects to strengthen links with South, Southeast Asia, October 24, 2017. Read more at :

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